It was a good week for Dean Rojas.
The professional bass fisherman claimed the title at the final competition of the Bassmaster Elite series, The Champion’s Choice, held at Oneida Shores Aug. 7 to 10, as well as the nearly $30,000 in prizes that went with it.
“This is so awesome,” said Rojas, 37, of Lake Havasu, AZ. “I’ve had my fair share of crash-and-burns over the years but it just makes this so much sweeter.”
Rojas’ four-day total of 65 pounds and two ounces in fish caught put him at the top, outranking Kevin Langell of Terrell, NC and Mike Iaconelli of Runnemede, NJ. The victory brought him over the $1 million mark in career earnings in Bassmaster tournaments.
The Bassmasters Elite series is an 11-event tournament that takes place all over the country throughout the summer. The high-stakes national competition, which attracts the best anglers in the world, completed its season at Oneida Shores for the first time this year. Hosted by BASS, a division of ESPN, the tournament is one of the biggest in the country and the last in the Bassmaster Elite series, what Jon Cooley of Onondaga County Parks called “the major leagues of bass fishing.”
“These are the best fishermen in the world,” Cooley said. “Typically, you go fishing, you catch none or three or five — 10 on a good day. These guys, on average, catch 50 to 100. The volume is spectacular.”
Cooley said Oneida Shores made the tour by making a name for itself as a great fishery.
“Oneida Shores hosts about 50 fishing derbies throughout the summer,” he said. “You call any hotel on Route 11, they’re booked every weekend with people here to fish.”
The park and Oneida Lake first caught the attention of BASS in 2003 when it hosted an element of the Elite Series tournament. The park hosted another tournament in 2006, held at the mid-point of the season.
In 2007, another event was held in Onondaga County; 50 top anglers fished for two days on Oneida Lake. The field was culled to the final six, with the championship taking place on Onondaga Lake.
“It opened a lot of eyes,” Cooley said. “People saw what we had to offer. It put both Oneida and Onondaga lakes on the map.”
This year, the parks department and Syracuse Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (SCVB) knew Oneida Shores could take top billing.
“The SCVB went to the BASS representatives and let them know what we have to offer here,” Cooley said. “They bid for a spot and were able to get the 11th and final event of the tournament here this year.”
Doug Grassian of BASS/ESPN said Oneida Lake is an ideal place to hold the Champion’s Choice.
“Syracuse and Oneida are fantastic destinations for our tournament,” Grassian said. “The community and fans certainly embrace our event, and we look forward to visiting the area every year they are on the schedule.”
Cooley said the fishermen seem to enjoy it as much as the locals.
“They like it,” he said. “Many of them are from the south, and the temperatures here are much more pleasant in the middle of August than at home — in the 70s and 80s instead of the 90s and over 100. It’s a vacation for them and their families.”
The economic impact of the tournament is huge.
“Data from last year’s event shows about a $1.6 million economic impact,” Cooley said. “And this is an event with a $500,000 promotional value. It’s incredible.”
BASS has already announced that the final event of the 2009 season will again take place at Oneida Shores; the Champion’s Choice will kick off Aug. 13, 2009.
“It really is a great place to fish — the fish are big, the stock is great,” Grassian said. “We’re looking forward to coming back.”
To see televised coverage of the event, watch ESPN2 (Channel 25) at 9 a.m. Saturday Aug. 16.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.