PHILADELPHIA — Mike Iaconelli needed to rescue what has been an uncharacteristically bad season. He was in jeopardy of failing to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic, mired in 60th place in the Angler of the Year standings, before this Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the Delaware River this week.
Witnessing Iaconelli's plan come together Saturday was like watching a man walking a tightrope. He had to correct his balance a time or two to keep from falling. But ultimately it was a flawless performance, and it was breath-taking.
Iaconelli is fishing on his early training grounds for what would become a big-time professional bass fishing career. The 42-year-old Philadelphia native now lives less than an hour from here, in Pittsgrove, N.J. He is the local favorite, undoubtedly. He had fans rooting for him all day – on the water, walking bridges and perched on boat docks. He enters the fourth and final day of this event with a 6-pound, 7-ounce lead.
Iaconelli couldn't have scripted this tournament any better than the reality of Saturday. A packed house at Penn's Landing left no doubt why they were in attendance. Chants of "Ike, Ike, Ike, Ike…" erupted from his followers throughout the weigh-in ceremony. It was the most interesting day this writer has ever spent in a bass boat.
"When it's your time, it's so surreal," said Iaconelli, as he finally let himself soak in the moment upon arrival at the check-in dock. "It's like you can step out of your body and this stuff happens all by itself."
If you follow pro bass fishing, you've heard some version of "making good decisions" from every angler who has ever won a tournament. Watching Iaconelli's day unfold brought new meaning to that phrase.
The first decision he had to made Saturday was jaw-dropping in its boldness. Iaconelli started in a creek where he'd been successful Friday. It was nearing low tide. Structure, like rock piles and sunken wood, was revealing itself like never before. Due to Sunday's "super moon" low tide had fallen to a new low. Sunday the full moon will be closer to Earth than it has been in 20 years. And it was adding a multiplier to the tidal effect that makes this fishery so tough.
"Look at that rockpile," said Pete Guszek, a local pro and long-time friend of Iaconelli's, as he toted B.A.S.S. photographer James Overstreet and me in Ike's path. "I've never seen that before. I'll come back and catch a fish off that sometime."
Iaconelli had fished his way deep into this creek at his first stop Saturday. He'd just caught his first two keepers of the day – a 3-pounder and a 1 1/2-pounder. But Iaconelli didn't like what he was seeing.
"There was a little bridge up ahead," he said. "(Friday) I'd gone under that bridge and caught two keepers on the other side. But I couldn't even get to the bridge (Saturday)."
He was seeing what he calls "a blow-out tide," and it had his brain churning.
"That's when I do better on main river flats," he said. "That was my 'ah-hah' moment."
It seemed irrational from afar. Fish catches had come in short flurries all week. When the tide was right, the bites would come in bunches, but only for 30 to 45 minutes, so you had to make the most of that time. It seemed totally irrational when a man who'd just caught two fish cranked up the outboard and hauled ass out of the creek.
First he ran across the Delaware River to the west (Pennsylvania) bank, and made two or three flips. The he sped back over to the east bank and made two or three flips. Then he ran back to the west bank.
If you watch pro anglers very long, you'll see someone crack under pressure. Iaconelli has a ton of it on his shoulders this week. It appeared he was cracking.
Consider this: Staying at he and wife Becky's home this week are teenage daughters from his first marriage, Drew, 15, and Rylie, 14; he and Becky's two youngsters, Vegas, 3, and Stella, 1; Becky's mother and father; fishing industry friends Alan McGuckin and Dan Quinn; and his regular Elite Series travel buddies Ish Monroe, John Crews and Fletcher Shryock. (The three anglers are sleeping in the Iaconelli's motor home parked in the yard, but they are eating home cooking in the Iaconellis' kitchen every night.)
"We've got a full house," Ike understated.
And there was the pressure of being the local hero in an area of the country that doesn't birth a lot of bass pros.
But most of all there was the pressure of rescuing a bad year for a guy who hasn't had many of them in his B.A.S.S. career that began in 1992. Since then, he's accumulated over $2 million in tournament winnings, including a Bassmaster Classic title in 2003 and an Angler of the Year crown in 2006. Iaconelli has made himself an icon in the sport, dragging it into a new era and breaking all the unwritten rules for pro bass fishing behavior along the way. Iaconelli was the first "excitable boy," as Warren Zevon's song declared. Before Ike, you held your emotions inside. Then came Iaconelli, a first-shaking, ear drum shattering, break dancing, emotions-on-his-sleeve wearing wild man. Iaconelli was a made-for-TV star who shined brightest in the spotlight.
Many of his fellow pros thought it was an act. But over the years, if Iaconelli has proven anything, he's demonstrated that he was just being himself. And the one thing he's always done and never been criticized for is staying long after every weigh-in to sign every autograph request and pose for every photo with a fan. Iaconelli expanded the fan base of bass fishing like no one before or since.
But he hasn't done much on the Elite Series tour since contending for the 2013 Classic title in Feb. 2013 at Oklahoma's Grand Lake before finishing fourth. Two lackluster, for him, seasons have followed.
Iaconelli hasn't won anything yet this week on the Delaware River in front of his hometown fans. He has been the drawing card for big crowds at the weigh-ins the first three days. He's trying hard not to think about what a victory would mean for him Sunday.
That concentration on the task at hand was best demonstrated by Iaconelli's last big decision Saturday. He was trying to catch one more two-pounds-plus bass, so he could cull a smaller keeper from his livewell. The tide was starting to fall, creating current from the pipes where retention ponds along the river rise and fall with the water level. He was flipping soft plastic baits into some of the gnarliest cover you've ever seen, where wood and debris had piled thick when the tide was rising and these large culverts had been sucking in water.
"How are you going to land a fish out of there?" I asked after Ike flipped into a mess of dead wood and drain grates.
"You've got to get a bite first," Iaconelli said.
A three-feet-in-diameter log rested on top of the next grate he flipped.
"Got one!" Iaconelli said.
Over the next five minutes he turned into a master contortionist, keeping both feet on the boat deck at he stretched over the top of the log, then passed his rod from one hand to the other under the log. A man not known for patience never panicked as he worked and worked to free the fish from the underwater obstructions it was lodged amongst.
"There he is," Iaconelli said, as he lifted the bass and a handful of aquatic weeds into the boat.
Even Ike had a look of disbelief on his face. But the decision was yet to come. As Iaconelli watched his balance beam tilt heavily in favor of the freshly caught bass rather than the smallest one lifted from his livewell, blood started pouring down one side of the fish. It hadn't been hooked deeply, but this didn't look good. I've never seen a fish losing that much dark red blood unless it was being filleted.
A dead fish penalty is four ounces. Iaconelli wasn't sure how much bigger the bleeding bass was than the bass he was considering culling. He put it in the livewell, sat in the driver's seat and thought about it – for awhile. Then he called tournament director Trip Weldon to make certain four ounces was the dead fish penalty.
Then he made his final big decision of the day. He kept the bleeder.
Iaconelli didn't check his livewell again over the final hour. He'd made his decision. There was nothing he could do to change it now.
As he motored into the Penn's Landing check-in area, he finally took a look, then turned with a big smile on his face and held his hand in the air for a skin-slap.
"When it's your day, it's your day," he said.
Iaconelli needs one more day of good decisions. Then he can exhale.