TULSA, Okla. — At just 40 years old, it seems odd to call Mike Iaconelli a grizzled veteran. Nevertheless, his 4th place finish in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake placed him behind three up-and-comers who’d like nothing more than to equal his long-term feats, if not surpass them.
The three anglers ahead of him included winner Cliff Pace, who’d been a perpetual bridesmaid up until this week. Behind Pace was twenty-something phenom Brandon Palaniuk. Directly behind Palaniuk was Hank Cherry, a Classic rookie. Ike, with 14 Classic appearances — half of them Top 10 finishes — and a total of six B.A.S.S. victories, might have similar taste in music and clothing to many of his younger peers, but placed in perspective he’s an elder statesman.
“There are lots of older anglers who fear change,” he said. “I’m not one of them. I love this changing of the guard. I’m so happy to see the young talent coming up now. Brandon is a great example of it. I love it. I applaud it. I accept it.”
While Iaconelli may not have come out on top this week, he feels like his solid performance bodes well for the 2013 season.
“Any time you finish in the top five — I don’t care if it’s the Classic, an Elite Series tournament or a club tournament — you did a good job,” he said. “I’m proud of how I fished. I’m coming off of a disastrous year. I was flat. I was mediocre. I made poor decisions and fished for the wrong fish. In this tournament I fished for the right quality fish and I feel like I’m starting the year with a great finish.”
In order to cobble together his solid three days, Iaconelli relied on four separate lures: A Rapala Husky Jerk, a Rapala Scatter Rap, a finesse jig and a Berkley Beat Shad. To use his own signature phrase, he “fished the moment,” particularly on the first day, when he brought 21 pounds 8 ounces to the scales. He followed that up with twin 13 pound limits that left him a little over 6 1/2 pounds short of the win.
Surprisingly, for an angler who seemed to be on a mercurial path to super-stardom, It’s been a decade since the 31-year-old bespectacled New Jersey pro won his one and only Classic title to tie Kevin VanDam in that category. Since that time, KVD has added three such titles to his resume, while Ike stays stuck on one.
“To be honest, I didn’t think it would take this long,” he said. “I’ve had five or six shots to win, including this one, but in order to win everything has to go perfectly.
“I don’t know that I ever found the winning fish here,” he continued. “It just didn’t happen this week. The solace for me is that I won a Classic. That was my goal coming in, I wanted to win a title. Don’t get me wrong, I really want to win another one, but if I don’t that’s ok.”
While the aging process has seemingly been kind to Iaconelli’s physical plant, he’s also embraced the increased wisdom that comes with age. On Day Two, recurring mechanical problems threatened to destroy his day, but he contained his anger and persevered.
“I’m getting better at that,” he said. “Maturity helps, but my wife is also a big part of it. She’s really helped me with my anger management. Yes, I got pissed off at the time but I was able to shut it off real quick and I managed to catch a 4 1/2-pounder late that kept me in the hunt.”
That burgeoning maturity has also helped him to realize that in addition to being among the most popular pros on tour he’s also become an indelible part of the sport’s history.
“Eventually I’m going to retire. I’m not going to do this forever. And when that happens the sport will continue growing without me,” he concluded. “Just as it will continue to grow without Denny, without Tommy Martin and eventually without Rick Clunn. But it’s nice to realize that as the sport grows I’ll be part of the footprint.”
The footprint can’t be erased, but Iaconelli clearly continues to have his feet planted firmly in the center of the bass fishing landscape. A fourth place finish this week is a testament to that fact, and marks the next step forward.