MANY, La. — As Dean Rojas triumphantly hoisted the trophy over his head, Gerald Swindle walked slowly off the stage, the realization beginning to dawn on his face.
Swindle had just finished second by an ounce to Rojas in the Trokar Battle on the Bayou, barely missing out on the first tour-level victory of his career.
Swindle slowly came to terms with the near miss, mostly because everything worked against him all week. In fact, considering how many missed fish and the extreme weather Swindle had to fight through on Toledo Bend, it was a miracle he finished as high as he did.
"It was meant for Dean Rojas to win," Swindle said. "When they keep jumping off you just have to laugh and keep throwing. This was his tournament man, it was just his time. I jumped off a 5-pounder and lost another one today that would have been the difference."
Losing fish was part of the game for Swindle, who spent every day fighting the heavy winds and tossing a jerkbait around shallow points.
Wind was both a boon and disaster, concentrating the fish, but giving them ample opportunities to get free once hooked.
"When you are fishing that style, it is definitely a technique where you are going to lose a lot of fish, and I lost them this week," Swindle said. "You've got waves coming over the front and back deck and the fish is jumping. When it jumps the first time, it has the hook in the mouth and back, when it jumps the second time, it's just in the eyeball and the third time it comes off."
What hurt Swindle just as much as lost fish was an 8-ounce dead-fish penalty he suffered on Day One. Little did he know the deduction would come back to cost him the tournament.
The penalty won't haunt Swindle, though, because there was absolutely nothing he could have done to avoid it.
"I hooked him deep and he was bleeding when he hit the floor," he said.
Even with events like that seemingly out of his control, Swindle he still thought he might have a shot at victory when he saw Rojas pull his bag out of the livewell on Sunday.
Swindle's 18-pound, 14-ounce bag was the largest of the day, forcing Rojas to have 13 pounds, 8 ounces for the victory. The fish Rojas showed to the crowd was a 5-pounder, but the rest of his limit wasn't much.
"I actually thought he had a little more weight from the way people were talking before the weigh-in, so I wasn't even thinking I had a shot to win at first," Swindle said. "When he pulled out his big fish I thought, 'That's a 5-pounder,' but when he pulled out the rest of the bag, I thought he might not have enough. I was so tired I didn't even have the energy to do the math."
The math worked out in Rojas' favor by a one-ounce margin, the closest Swindle has ever been to an Elite Series victory, and when it finally shook out against him, he could only walk off the stage completely and utterly exhausted.
For at least two days of competition, the wind gusted over 30 mph and the other days were not exactly a cakewalk as far as driving the boat and fishing were concerned. Many competitors looked for protected areas, but not Swindle.
"It was hard to hold the boat in the wind — physical," Swindle said. "The wind beat everyone down mentally but I knew what it was going to take to win, so I kept at it. My wife made a comment that she didn't remember a time when I was more tired than I have been this week.
"You just go and go and go and never let up. All those days of running and all those days in the gym start to pay off."
They didn't quite pay off for Swindle, who badly wants to win his first Elite event. After tasting victory this spring in the Opens, Swindle has been on a quest to win again. The fact that he already is qualified for the 2012 Bassmaster Classic in Shreveport is a big weight off his shoulders, freeing him up to not worry so much about fishing for points.
This tournament was a perfect example of how his decision-making changed. On Day Two, Swindle had 10 ½ pounds in the livewell by midday and he was looking at a 2 1/2-pound bass on a bed.
"I said to myself, 'What in the hell are you doing? Even if you catch it, what have you done?' That was 1:30 and we had to check in at 4. At 2:45, I hit a school and caught everything I had that day," Swindle said. "In order to win, you have to fish to win. Otherwise, you let yourself get backed in a corner and you stay defensive."
Could he have made that decision a year ago?
"No, I wouldn't have made that decision in the past," Swindle said. "This was a shocker. Maybe next time it will fall in my court. I really feel like it's going to happen this year. I've never been to West Point, but I feel like I'm capable of winning."
Swindle proved he could win at the Open level and after his performance in Louisiana, it appears to be only a matter of time before he breaks through at the top level.
For the former Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, there was no questioning what happened this past week, only a desire to move forward and give himself another chance.
"You really have to fish reckless," he said. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be standing here right now."