Bass champ tests Western Pennsylvania waters.
Written by Deborah Weisberg - Post Gazette   
Thursday, 18 November 2004 18:31

As a coal barge glides by under overcast skies, Mike Iaconelli, one of the world's best fishermen, casts a chartreuse spinner bait into the steamy outflow at the Clairton Works on the Monongahela River and reels in a smallmouth bass.

His famous "Yeaahhhh!" roars across the water and echoes through the tunnel at the mouth of Peter's Creek while an audience of hard hats watches from above.

Iaconelli, of Vorhees, N.J., spent most of Wednesday with a GPS in one hand and a hydrographic map in the other, beginning to make a game plan for next year's CITGO Bassmaster Classic on western Pennsylvania rivers. Denny Tubbs took a day off from his job as aquatics resources specialist from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to motor him around.

Iaconelli and all but two of the 55 anglers who hope to fish the Classic have yet to qualify. The process begins next month, with a series of high-pressure tournaments throughout the country.

Though Iaconelli had no intention of wetting a line on his scouting mission this week -- which coincided with contract talks at Dick's Sporting Goods, one of his oldest sponsors -- the sight of schooling shad has him reaching for a rod.

"This is so cool!" he says, as he cranks a Lucky Craft through the balmy waters of the discharge, catching a hybrid striper and then another chubby bass.

"With every pass, I'll do something different," explains Iaconelli, a power angler who stays in constant motion. "I'll burn it or I'll twitch it or I'll change the angle of the bait until I find just the right movement." He switches lures with each lull in the action. When he misses a fish, he clenches his fist and bellows "Aaaggghhhh!" as if wounded.

"Every fish that gets away haunts me," he says. "I sincerely hate to miss fish."

Few big ones have escaped Iaconelli, 32, in his young but impressive career. Aside from other major wins, he clinched the 2003 Classic -- the Super Bowl of professional angling -- by catching a 3 1/2-pound smallmouth on a white plastic worm with just five minutes remaining in the tournament. Years of hard work and hustle came together when he hoisted the 52-pound Classic trophy over his head in the New Orleans Superdome to the frenzied applause of 20,000 fans and millions of TV viewers.

"As a kid, I'd be out in my little john boat on the Delaware River, and every time I'd catch a fish, I'd throw my hands over my head and pretend I was winning the Classic. I still wake up in the morning in shock that I'm a pro, that I'm living the dream I had since I was 12."

Iaconelli grew up in south Philadelphia and New Jersey, cutting his teeth on the Delaware and on lakes and streams in the Pocono Mountains where his uncle and grandfather took him to fish.

"I still remember the first bass I ever caught in my life," he says. "It was a 2 1/2-pound largemouth I got on Fairview Lake in Tafton, Pa. I caught it on a Rapala floating minnow. It was the visual strike that did it, that started me on this passion."

Still awed by angling icons, such as Denny Brauer, the biggest moneymaker of all time, and Rick Clunn, "the first guy to take mental preparedness to a new level," Iaconelli says that, growing up, he studied their every move, how they fished and how they handled themselves on camera. He says he knew he had what it takes to turn pro by the time he was a sophomore in college, after years of fishing every club and buddy tournament he could enter and spending up to 300 days a year on the water.

"Twenty-thousand dollars for three days of fishing was a fortune to me back then," says Iaconelli, of his first big pro-am win. His professional earnings in his six-year career total $700,000, including $200,000 plus incentives in the Classic. Before that, he capped two national Bassmaster titles, including one on Lake Seminole on the Florida-Georgia border in 2002. It went a long way toward his acceptance, he says, to beat the Southern boys on their own water.

Iaconelli won the Classic just as ESPN, which owns BASS, was bringing fishing to a global market and watching the number of bass anglers rise in the Northeast and other non-traditional regions as well as foreign countries, such as Japan. Pennsylvania is fifth in the number of BASS members, which is one reason Pittsburgh was selected to be the host of the tournament in July 2005.

Iaconelli says his hip, high-energy style has helped expand fishing into untapped markets, something he can work to his own, as well as ESPN's, advantage.

"I've spent years building my brand, which is excitement, youth, and acting a little crazy," says Iaconelli, who has an agent and a degree in advertising and marketing from Glassboro (now Rowan) University. It seems to be working. Though he no longer breaks rods when he gets frustrated -- "I've matured," he says -- his exuberance has become a familiar trademark. Wednesday, the only other anglers at the Southside launch were two men, old enough to be his father, who did a double take from the cab of their truck. "Isn't that Mike Iaconelli?" one said to the other, who replied, "Yeah, the guy who yells."

Iaconelli is hoping to parlay such recognition into mainstream sponsorships and other lucrative options.

"The opportunities are here now. They might not be in 10 years, so I'm taking advantage," he says. "Football and basketball players have always done it."

He earns enough to pay a driver to haul his 21-foot boat around the country, since he'll be fishing both the Bassmaster and the FLW tours. In between, he does research.

"Big time," he says. "I write down everything. When I lose a fish, I write down what I did wrong. I have dozens of notebooks. Dozens.

"I'm very aware of my environment when I'm out there," says Iaconelli, who has marked spots on his maps, including the mouths of major creeks and the Youghiogheny River, which he called "the best looking creek I've seen." He liked its rocky banks, its water color and its flow, which in late summer becomes critical, he says. "Flow and movement are the bottom line."

No detail, however small, goes unrecorded -- from which areas are grassy to which have rocky bottoms, and where the dropoffs and ledges are. Interesting locations get programed on his hand-held GPS.

"Some guys will come here and fish the style they're used to, which is cool," he says. "Some will look for deep-water structure, others will do shallow, cover-oriented stuff. A handful will flip wood for largemouth. That won't be out of my equation, but only as a supplement to smallmouth."

For the Classic, Iaconelli will have scripted three fishing strategies, with an hour-by-hour plan of exactly where and how he will fish. "There's Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, which is panic mode," he says.

He will have traveled every inch of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers within the tournament parameters so that when he returns a month before the Classic to "pre-fish," he can test the theories he calculates between now and then.

"I'll see if I catch fish where I think I will," he says. "I will be sharpening my hooks six months in advance."

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