GREENVILLE, S.C. — Dean Rojas has his name listed in several places in the Bassmaster Series records.
Like the time he won a tournament in south Texas with a record of a rare 100-pound-plus total stringer weights on a four-day, 20-bass catch.
But you won’t find his name anywhere in the Bassmaster Classic record book. Maybe this is the year, and it comes in the harshest conditions of any of the previous 44 Classic.
Friday, the 56-angler field, that included Angler of the Year, Gonzales’ touring pro Greg Hackney, launched after a planned 1½-hour delay in 10-degree temperatures, not the kind of conditions any of them would ever pick for a prime fishing day.
Launch was delayed even more when the boats wouldn’t come off their trailers. Temperatures around Lake Hartwell didn’t get above freezing since Wednesday, when the anglers put their boats on the trailers after the final practice day. And more than half of them were frozen to the trailer runners. Cold engines that balked at the shock of cranking in such conditions further slowed the launch.
And Rojas was serving a near half-hour penalty for being late for check-in after Wednesday’s practice day.
Not to worry: Rojas put all in the wake of his Evinrude outboard when he left the Green Pond Landing on Hartwell near 9 a.m. Wednesday.
And he made darned sure he wasn’t late, because that would have cost him when he approached the scales Thursday afternoon at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Despite the conditions and his penalty-shortened day, Rojas came in with a five-bass limit weighing a hefty 21 pounds, 2 ounces.
Not bad for a guy who’s much more comfortable in the heat of his hometown of Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
He holds a one-pound lead over former Classic champion Skeet Reese, who claimed his title on the Red River out of Shreveport in 2009.
Keith Combs is next at 18-8.
Hackney, one of three Louisiana anglers in the 56-man field, is in eighth place. Despite being one bass shy of the five-per-day limit, Hackney heads out for Saturday’s second round with a 14-15 total.
The other two Louisiana anglers didn’t fare nearly as well as did Hackney. Pierre Part’s Cliff Crochet came in with one bass weighing 2-12 and UL-Monroe Collegiate champion Brett Preuett’s one bass weighed 3 pounds for respective 49th and 47th places.
Only the top 25 after Saturday’s second round will compete on the Classic final day Sunday. The winner will take home $300,000 from a purse of slightly more than $1 million.
It’s natural, with that much on the line, that anglers divulge little of the wheres, whats and hows to explain their success.
Reigning Classic champion Randy Howell is in fifth with 15-5, and South Carolina pro and local fan favorite Casey Ashley is sixth with 15-3, just ahead of Texas pro Takahiro Omori with 15-0.
“This is our biggest stage that we perform on, and to be able to catch a big bag like that on the first day is amazing,” Rojas said. “How could you script it any better than that? Obviously, I’d rather finish it that way. But hey, I’ll take it.”
Though Rojas hasn’t won in 12 prevous Classic appearances (his last Bassmaster win came in 2011 on Toledo Bend), he said he’ll be more excited than nervous to lead the field into Saturday’s second round.
Rojas wouldn’t say much about how he was fishing.
“I was just using two or three baits,” he said. “Fishing shallow and deep — a little of both.”
Reese also tamed the cold for his bag of 20-2, and was equally secretive about his techniques.
He allowed a B.A.S.S. media boat close enough to photograph him fishing docks at one point during the day, but asked that they not photograph the lure he was using.
“There’s definitely one good pattern I’m running, but it only produced three fish,” Reese said. “The fish were stubborn today. A lot of the schools of fish I located in practice pulled out or went deeper or did something. They just hid from me today, but I got some good ones anyway.”
The conditions for Saturday are expected to improve slightly with a high of 48 degrees in the forecast.
But it’s not something Reese is expecting to really help the fishing.
“If you want to call that an improvement,” Reese said, laughing. “It’s still freezing cold outside right now, and it’s not going to get any warmer overnight.
“Maybe we won’t have to wash ice out of our guides until no later than 11 o’clock tomorrow. But I don’t know that anyone will be able to go out and duplicate a 20-pound catch day after day.”
Friday’s take-off was delayed until 8:30 a.m. due to concerns over ice on the new concrete ramp at Green Pond and then even later when anglers had trouble launching. The fiberglass boats were actually frozen to the trailers, and it took a little extra effort from the boat drivers to get them into the water.
Once anglers ventured onto the lake, many experienced trouble throughout the day with ice forming in the spools of their reels and in the guides of their rods. Some rubbed Vaseline on their guides to help with icing, while others dipped their rods in the lake frequently or even used saliva to prevent ice from forming.
The tournament is scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. Saturday, barring further weather delays.
Competitors like Combs, who are only expecting five to seven bites a day for the remainder of the event, said the extra two hours could make a huge difference.
“It was one of those days where I would catch one and feel really good about it, and then it would be two hours before I would catch another one,” said Combs, who was well pleased with his catch of 18-8. “So during that two hours, you’re starting to ask yourself if you’re ever going to get another bite.”
Combs said the day was no different than any of his practice days – and while it leaves him little margin for error, if he stays on the quality of fish he caught Friday, he’ll be in contention.
“I said before the tournament I thought it would take 52 pounds to win it,” Combs said. “I still think that.”