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Monday, January 22, 2007
Updated: January 24, 3:17 PM ET
How Arizona's Elite angler Rojas handled
Minnesota's chill, warmed up to new tactics

By Sam Eifling Features Editor — January 23, 2007

Dean Rojas and friends show off their catches from a day of ice fishing, where the Elite Series angler learned a few new tricks.
The silence of sitting on a frozen Minnesota lake for the first time didn't unsettle Dean Rojas. Rather, it was the noise coming from beneath.

"We kept hearing deep drone noises, like there's bombs going off under the ice," Rojas says. "The whole time it sounded like some monster, some volcano down below."

An angler who grew up in San Diego and now lives in Arizona may be forgiven for not recognizing the sounds of Lake Winnibigoshish freezing all the harder as he fished on its 2-foot-thick frozen surface this month.

The 35-year-old Elite Series angler with more than $1.1 million in career winnings had wanted to ice fish since boyhood 3 and, when he finally did, honed skills that may even help him catch bass.

To do so, he had to adjust to an alien environment in a matter of hours. Ice fishing is nothing new to the denizens of Minnesota, which has, depending on how you count, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 lakes. Winters there get cold enough to freeze even the bigger puddles, like the 67,000-acre Winnibigoshish.

Some people use it as an unlikely antidote to cabin fever, putting up a shack, drinking some sludgy coffee, dealing some cards, jiggling a line.

Others, including Rojas' crew, employed GPS and sonar devices to pursue fish in a setting that demands stamina and unflagging concentration.

"We take it for granted, because it's a part of our culture," says Scott Glorvigen, a pro walleye angler, native Minnesotan and with his twin brother, Marty, a co-owner of Gemini Sports Marketing, which was hosting Rojas' visit. "In the winter, you get thousands of fish houses on the lake. [Driving] looks like you're leaving a major sporting event."

Rojas' introduction to the joys of solid water came first in a Suburban that he asked a dinner companion to drive onto the ice with him. The SUV owner obliged. And did donuts.

Todd Hammill, of Gemini, says he normally instructs first-timers riding on the ice to "roll down the windows, unbuckle your seat belt and get ready to jump." You know, just in case.

The sound of the ice straining made Rojas apprehensive.

"But I never wavered," he says, "because I knew I could run away and dive on the ice, slide away from the vehicle, if anything happened."

When the group did take to the ice to fish, they loaded up collapsible nylon shelters behind 4-wheelers and set out with a GPS device to chart the underwater contours.

Glorvigen uses a Lowrance mapping device that reveals sunken regions of the lake's bottom, where the water stays a few degrees above freezing. Throughout the winter, fish congregate in those troughs to feed on zooplankton that rises from the silt.

"It's not two grumpy old men sitting on buckets," he says. "We've very high-tech with what we do with mapping."

Satisfied with the spots, they broke out the auger, an outsized motorized corkscrew that gouged a hole to the frigid water below. Up went the shelters and on went the propane. With a temperature hovering around zero outside, the men enjoyed a balmy 40 degrees inside.

They lowered a Lowrance device into the water alongside the tackle: a tiny jig with a spring at the end of the bomber, on two-pound test line hanging from a 16-inch rod.

Crappie like to inspect the bait, gently roll it around their mouths to taste and spit it out. That gives an ice angler maybe one second to set a hook, given only the faintest of tactile clues and the sonar image.

Ice fishing provides an undisturbed sonar environment, allowing a discerning angler to identify a fish by its shape and color on the monitor.

"Those guys are masters at watching the colors," Rojas says. "I got to learn more about the Lowrance than I already knew. It's going to help me out even more on the tour."

The bass pro proved a quick learner. His haul in three hours of fishing — a half-dozen crappie, pike and bluegill — didn't surprise Glorvigen.

"When we handed him a two-foot rod with a spinning reel on it, he looked like he was already skipping a rock underneath a dock," he says.

By the late afternoon, much of the feeling had left Rojas' feet. The wind stirred and began to drive a sudden chill of minus-20 degrees. It was time to decamp.

When his guides complimented Rojas on the sheer fact that he was not whining about the cold, Rojas wanted none of it. "Dude," he told them, "I'm a professional fisherman. I deal with stuff like this all the time."