Mike Iaconelli kills the engine, sheds his life jacket, jumps up on the bow, and begins unfolding the trolling motor before his bass boat even comes off plane. We’ve just made a short run out to the vast flats of subaquatic vegetation on the Susquehanna River north of Baltimore. As the boat settles into the water, the air suddenly falls silent. The winner of the 2003 Bassmaster Classic smiles. “Look at all that milfoil,” he says. “That’s just sick.” He selects one of the 10 rods at his feet and starts pitching a red 3/8-ounce jig. The lure flies from his palm like a trained bird of prey, never more than 2 inches off the surface. It slithers into the water 35 feet away, no louder than a frog fart.
In fishing, as in everything else, Iaconelli–who, depending on whom you talk to is either the best thing to happen to professional bass fishing in 30 years or the End of the Sport As We Know It–is a man in a hurry. “If a bass doesn’t hit it on the fall or the first hop, I figure he’s not going to hit it,” he says. “Move on.” I clock him with the jig: seven seconds, on average, to cast, retrieve, and get ready to cast again. That works out to just over eight casts a minute, nearly 500 an hour. He will do that nonstop until some limiting factor–the clock if it’s a tournament, the sun, if it does not force him to quit, after which he can hardly wait for the next morning so he can get up and do it again. Say what you like about his cockiness, the way he goes ape for the cameras every time he lands a fish, and the collection of tattoos, there is no denying that the guy flat-out loves to fish.
During a nine-hour day on the water, Iaconelli, 32, never stops moving, never takes his foot off the trolling motor, never ceases to look for targets. Every professional angler has his strengths, and Ike, as he is known to foes and friends alike, is particularly good at covering water quickly but efficiently. Power fishing works for him. He won the Classic in New Orleans with it, pocketing $200,000 for the win and maybe a million from happy sponsors like Yamaha, Ranger, Stren, Owner, Daiwa, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and others.
He is, quite simply, mesmerizing with the jig. The lure becomes an extension of his will. He seems to visualize where he wants it to go, opens his palm, and dips the rod. Then the jig obeys. At one point working the milfoil, he shakes his head and mutters, “Missed.” I ask what exactly it was that he missed. “That dragonfly,” he says, indicating an insect hovering around a stalk breaking the surface 15 yards away. “I was trying to hit him in the ass.”
There it is, ladies and gentleman, that famous cockiness that a lot of us don’t like to see in our bass champions. Ever since 1967, when Ray Scott hosted the first money-paying bass fishing tournament on Beaver Lake in Arkansas (won by Stan Sloan, who got $2,000 and a trip to Acapulco), there’s been a kind of gentleman’s code observed among anglers. You thank Jesus, Momma, and the Mann’s Bait Co. when you win. You say that any one of the anglers out there today could be standing where you’re standing but you just happened to get lucky today. If you’re not truly embarrassed by all the attention, you should at least pretend you are.
You also should be from the South, preferably the rural South. It doesn’t hurt if you like country music and chewing tobacco. If you’re a little overweight, well, that’s okay, too. But the humility, that’s the key thing.
Ike, who doesn’t really seem to mind upsetting the apple cart, insists people mistake his confidence for cockiness. “I get that confidence in myself from my mom,” he says. “If you’re down to the last five minutes of a tournament, you’ve got to fish like you’re going to catch a 6-pounder on your next cast. I mean it. What’s the alternative? Give up?” He shakes his head, amused at the thought. Giving up is not part of his game plan.
ODD MAN IN Log into any chat room like www.bassfan. com where the faithful gather and you’ll get a digital earful of what they think of the Yankee city boy with the ‘tools and the ‘tube:
*”No more than a brash ghetto dancing punk that can fish,” says trl21 from Alabama.
*”All that screaming and finger pointing and fist pumping is just stupid,” says Ike’s #1 hater from New Jersey.
*”The kid is a punk. I gotta give him credit for his fishing abilities but that will never change my opinion of him,” says Bassaholic from Oklahoma.
When Iaconelli was disqualified on the second day of the 2004 Classic for unwittingly fishing in an out-of-bounds area, one of his fellow anglers tattled on him to the Rules Committee for using–gasp!–profanity when he got the news. So much for brotherly love among pros. When, during the same tournament, Iaconelli bumped into a wasp nest while fishing a shoreline and got stung eight times, some reacted with glee. “Wow what poor luck for good ole Mike,” wrote Redshad from Louisiana. “The only thing I have to say is hopefully he is allergic [sic] to them.”
What is it that triggers such vicious strikes from fans and other pro anglers? Scenes like this: On the very first day of the 2003 Bassmaster Classic, after adding a 7-pound 4-ounce behemoth to an already impressive bag, Ike showed up at the weigh-in and celebrated by break-dancing in front of the assembled faithful like some deranged Gumby. Then, on the last day, after edging out beloved veteran Gary Klein–who was appearing in his 21st Classic–by boating a nice bass with just five minutes of fishing time left, Ike dumped that kicker fish into the live well, fell on his back, and shamelessly played to the video camera on board, hollering, “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!” At the victory ceremony, where custom dictates that the winner maintain a certain aw-shucks-folks demeanor, Ike motioned to the crowd to give him an even louder ovation.
“Ignorant little Yankee bastard,” you could almost hear the other pros muttering, “this is the Bassmaster Classic, not a 50 Cent concert.”
At 11:30 A.M. on the flats, Iaconelli hooks a 4 1/2-pound bass on the jig. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he shouts. “That’s what I’m talking about! I don’t know what you’re talking about, but that’s what I’m talking about!” He flails his arms. He pumps his fist. He war whoops. This is standard Iaconelli. It’s what he does every time he catches a fish, big or little. It has even entered the bass lexicon. It’s called “going Ike.”
But Iaconelli is not like the kid in your seventh-grade class who just didn’t get it that he had B.O. and kept pestering the girls anyway. Rest assured, he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Even his most unforgiving critics concede that Iaconelli is not dumb. He went to college, majored in advertising and public relations, and graduated summa cum laude. He has also studied the history of modern professional sport in America, and he knows that what tends to happen in a given sport– boxing, tennis, whatever–is that it cruises along at a certain level of popularity until a unique personality, a new kind of champion, comes along and shakes things up. Fans and commentators alike are offended by the new guy’s style and say he’s ruining the game. But then a funny thing happens. The sport explodes, and the guy becomes a hero.
We forget how many people thought a young unknown by the name of Cassius Clay was genuinely crazy when he taunted his more established opponents before fights, picked the round he would win it, and proclaimed himself the Greatest of All Time at the tender age of 22. We forget how incensed fans and sportswriters alike were when John McEnroe threw his tennis racket and screamed insults at the line judges at Wimbledon, or the reaction that a supremely cocky Joe Namath provoked when he had the gall to “guarantee” a victory the Thursday before the Super Bowl in 1969. Most of the public hated these guys at the time. But each changed the landscape of his sport.
BASS MARKETING Iaconelli makes no bones about wanting to be the guy to blow the roof off the slow, sedate, gentlemanly sport of bass fishing. He’d like to be the crossover star, the one to break through the barrier and get what he (with his fancy college degree) calls “non-endemic advertisers” on board the bass boat: heavy hitters like McDonald’s, Verizon, and Pfizer. He has already had several disputes with boat companies because he won’t take the same deal everybody else does; he thinks all the anglers are being underpaid and that they should organize to have more clout. He wants to win the BASS Angler of the Year Award. He wants to be the first guy to pocket $1 million in endorsements a year. He wants to see bass fishing on TV at a level similar to golf or baseball, with a draft system to encourage the best young talent to get into the game. He wants, well, pretty much everything.
It’s not by chance that Ike has Eminem as the background music on his promotional video. It’s a signal to potential advertisers that he is accepted by the demographic they most want to reach, those free-spending 18-to 34-year-olds. These are the very kids you see slouching at the mall with key rings through their eyebrows and iPods in their ears listening to music by guys who sound like they got kicked out of school at the age of 14 for assaulting their teachers and have been outselling drugs ever since. That’s what suburban white kids listen to today. That’s where the money is. And how else are you going to get kids pumped up about guys roaring around in $50,000 speedboats catching a fish that averages about 2 pounds?
There are plenty of people who get it. To his fans, Ike is the face of the next generation of anglers that the sport desperately needs. “The cookie-cutter fisherman is not bringing money or new blood into fishing,” says Draper from Alabama in that same chat room on bassfan.com. “Get over it,” agrees Jim from California. “The face of bass fishing is going to change no matter how much y’all yowl like a stuck pig.” Writes Gstream15 from Florida: “I think Mike Ike is one of the best things to happen to the sport in a long time.”
FISHING IN OVERDRIVE Iaconelli knew early on that he hadn’t been gifted with that country-boy sixth sense of knowing where the fish are just by looking at the water and smelling the air. So he decided to even the odds by concentrating on the skills he did have: determination, discipline, and a hellacious work ethic. When he worked for a couple of years managing the fishing section of a Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and business was slow, he’d set up makeshift targets in the aisle and practice flipping to them. That effortless dexterity with the jig comes from tens of thousands of practice casts.
Nor was he born with a silver treble hook in his mouth. He grew up in South Philadelphia, a gritty working-class area. His father was killed in a car accident when he was 2, and his mother, fearing the myriad traps the city sets for a fatherless boy, relocated the family to the New Jersey suburbs three years later. He was raised by his mother, his grandparents, and an uncle, Don Fort, whom he looked up to as the father he didn’t have.
“I was basically a suburbs kid,” he remembers. But every summer the family would rent a cabin in the Poconos on a 100-acre lake with a johnboat. “We’d all go out and fish. If we caught it, we ate it: trout, bass, perch. I was a hardcore live-bait man, and I was relentless. They had to pry me out of that boat to get me to come eat.”
The tipping point, the moment when all the fishing lights flashed on at once in his mind, came late by pro angler standards. He was 12. It was one afternoon when he opened his grandfather’s tackle box and found himself mesmerized by a single lure. “I can remember it perfectly: a No. 9 S floating Rapala, black, and silver, 3 1/2 inches long, 3/16 ounce. There was a kind of…magnificence to that thing.” He tied it on, stood on the end of the dock by the cabin, and cast. It was June and–although he didn’t know it then–postspawn, an ideal time for topwaters. “I remember pulling it and watching the ripples come off it. And then a bass came up and whacked it. It was probably 2 1/2 pounds, but I thought he was Godzilla. That was it for me. We ate him that night and I guess he’s been having his revenge ever since.”
He fished the pocket water around his home in New Jersey, often limiting himself to a particular lure for months at a time–a worm, a jig, a crankbait–until he felt he had it mastered. “It wasn’t too cool to be into bass fishing where I went to school,” he has said. “Nobody knew I was Weirdo Bass Fisherman.” He would sneak his rods into the trunk of his mother’s car when bumming rides to the local lakes so girls wouldn’t see them. He was an athletic kid, not big but fast, and very competitive. He played ice hockey and soccer, liked to skateboard and break-dance.
His high school graduation present was a Coleman Crawdad bass boat, all 11 1/2 feet of it, just the thing for the electric-motor-only lakes near home. He modified it to look like the bass boats in the magazines he pored over: 1/2-inch-plywood casting platforms fore and aft, pedestal seats, and a Rubbermaid storage box with a portable aerator for a live well.
He joined his first bass club, the Top Rod Bassmasters in Runnemede, in 1991. “I loved it,” he recalls. “I got to combine my two greatest loves: fishing and competition.” The two fed each other–teaching him to think about time management, how to best fish each part of the day, how to prepare for tournaments. Most anglers think they ‘re doing their homework if they have one map of a given lake. Ike wanted every map he could get his hands on, searching each for a detail the others didn’t have. He did historical research on the Web, anything to find an edge on the competition. He would think about A, B, and C patterns for a lake so he wouldn’t waste time if what he was doing wasn ‘t working. He barely had enough money for college, let alone a real bass boat. But he won angler of the year in his club in 1992 and began entering Bassmaster tournaments.
By the age of 21, he’d won his first pro-am event, winning a $23,000 Ranger boat with a Johnson 150 outboard. “I was so excited I slept in that boat for the first two or three days I had it. I’m serious.” He turned pro in 1999 and finished fourth overall his first year. Since then, he has been to the Classic four times. Say what you like, the guy can put fish in a boat.
Only not today. At 3:30 he catches his only other fish of the day, a 2-pounder. He whoops it up again, though not quite so loudly. The fact is, the fish simply aren’t biting. I haven ‘t even had a strike, and it’s somehow reassuring that one of the top bass anglers on the planet is not doing that much better. Which is what makes bass fishing both awful and wonderful and, incidentally, desperately in need of someone who can make it interesting enough for TV.
We fish the sundown, coming in at dusk. Ike can’t resist working the docks of the marina for another 45 minutes. The dock’s sodium lights come on, and he keeps placing the jig precisely between yachts. There is a kid in a camo hat and purple sneakers sitting on a bench with his father, watching us. “I usually do best with a 4-inch pumpkin stick bait just off that ledge,” the boy tells Ike, who nods and keeps fishing. “Boy wants to be a pro,” the father says proudly. “Studying to be a marine biologist and everything.”
Ike is focused on his fishing, but he has been listening. “Well,” he says at last. “No reason you can’t do it if you want it bad enough.”
WEIGHING IN ON IKE: WHAT OTHER PROS SAY
“Look, there’s always jealousy in this sport,” says veteran Denny Brauer. “You’ve got a lot more friends when you’re doing lousy than when you ‘re doing good. Mike’s very intelligent. He analyzes what he needs to do and fishes high percentages. He fishes to win and puts on a good seminar. But he and I get along great. I pick on him. I tell him his screaming doesn’t bother me so much now that I’ve found the mute button on my remote.”
Roland Martin, who has been a pro for more than 30 years, concurs. “Yeah, he’s brash and makes big predictions about what he’s going to do. People forget there is nothing new about that. But he did come in with the colored hair, tattoos, earrings, funky clothes–all that stuff. He was one of the first guys to come into the tournament circuit like that. But there’s a whole age group of guys like him. And let ‘s face it, we need diversity. You look at the stereotype –me, Jimmy Houston, Bill Dance. We’re pretty dull guys.”
Gerald Swindle, a contemporary and BASS Angler of the Year for 2004, says, “He’s quite the little marketer, I’ll say that. But I’ve never had a problem with him. Well, actually I did think he was cocky at first. But then he went out and whupped me. So what was I going to say? I think he’s a cool dude. We roll on the same size wheels. I had 20-inch wheels on my trailer. But then he bought 22s, just to out pimp me. We like the same music, rap. And all of us younger guys work out a lot. Everybody in this sport is looking for an edge. I mean, let’s face it, we’re all about the same as casting. We’ve all got the same hand-eye coordination. And guys used to look for secret lures. Well, now we know there really are ‘t any secret lures. So we’re looking for a physical edge.” –B.H.