COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Mike Iaconelli kicked Mark Zona out of his boat. Then Iaconelli got kicked off the weigh-in stage. (A little prematurely, as it turned out). In the meantime he put together a solid baitfish pattern in classic Iaconelli fashion.
Iaconelli finished third on Lake Murray, and a tiebreaking sudden-death fish-off was averted when Casey Ashley brought 15 pounds, 5 ounces, to the scale, putting Iaconelli in third place by virtue of the Elite Series rule for breaking ties. Davy Hite took second because he had 16-14 on Sunday, heavier than Iaconelli’s single-day best of 16-6 on Saturday.
“I’ve never felt better about not winning a tournament,” Iaconelli said. “It’s not that I like to lose, but I’ve lost so many tournaments by ounces. I’m so sick of losing by two or three ounces. It feels a lot better knowing Casey just whipped us by three pounds.”
Iaconelli started the final day in second place, trailing Ashley by just over 2 ½ pounds. The early bite treated him well, and Iaconelli had several solid keepers in the boat in the first half hour of fishing. Zona, co-host of “The Bassmasters” on ESPN2, was following Iaconelli in a camera boat but jumped into Iaconelli’s boat to get closer to the action and record BassCam videos for Bassmaster.com.
According to ESPN2 cameraman Wes Mueller, who videotaped Iaconelli’s entire day on the water, it was like someone flipped off the switch. That’s when Iaconelli insisted Zona return to the camera boat. Iaconelli said he was joking, but only a little.
“I thought he was bad luck,” Iaconelli later explained.
Iaconelli entertained a fleet of spectator boats throughout the day, showing off his skills as much as his charismatic way of approaching tournaments and fans.
He played to the crowd of boats, which fluctuated from half a dozen to more than 20 throughout the day, with every catch. But he also showed the assembly a thing or two about patterning largemouth bass that were actively feeding on spawning baitfish.
Iaconelli’s principal approach consisted of jumping around to various points in the middle part of Lake Murray. He rarely strayed more than two miles from the take-off and weigh-in site at Dreher Island State Park.
“I really refined the pattern on the last day of practice,” Iaconelli said. “A lot of times you find out what you’re doing and then just sort of look for something else on the last day of practice, but I worked on this until the last day.”
Iaconelli threw several baits during the tournament, but the most important weapon was a soft-plastic jerkbait that mimicked the baitfish around the main-lake and secondary points. Most of the points featured long, underwater ridges that protruded into the lake, creating shallow barriers to the baitfish being pushed around by hungry bass. Wind blowing on the points was a bonus.
The strategy wasn’t much different from what many anglers did in the tournament. But while most anglers keyed in on bass chasing the lake’s abundant blue-back herring, Iaconelli’s approach was slightly different.
“The key was running as many points as you could hit,” Iaconelli said. “But I was looking for points with both shad and herring. They’re both here in this area in the middle part of the lake. You find more shad as you go up the river, and you find more herring down toward the dam. This area around the state park has both.”
Water clarity in the area was also a component to his success.
“While the whole lake is pretty clear, this area has a little more color to it,” Iaconelli said.
Iaconelli threw the soft-plastic jerkbait on a seven-foot spinning rod spooled with 10-pound-test Berkley Spiderwire Fluorobraid. He used a 14-inch leader of 10-pound regular fluorocarbon line, connecting the lines with a barrel swivel.
“That set-up was key,” Iaconelli said. “It allowed me to throw the bait a long way at breaking fish that were really far away. And the fluorobraid sinks, unlike regular braided line, so I could get my bait down and control the depth a little better.”
The strategy worked well for Iaconelli, but as was the case each day of the tournament, the bass-chasing-baitfish bite died about noon.
“It just died every day about that time,” Iaconelli said. “So I had to go fishing after that.”
On Sunday, Iaconelli stopped on a bridge and started throwing a small plastic worm on a jighead. He caught a fish off a piling that enabled him to cull one of his smaller keepers, and he also boated a hefty catfish, running around the boat like a madman, much to the delight of the numerous spectator boats.
After that, Iaconelli ran up the lake and hit several boat docks with a jig, looking for a kicker bite that never came. He would’ve needed a big one to make up the Ashley’s margin.
But Iaconelli’s roller coaster ride was far from over. He checked in at the docks with two seconds remaining before he would incur a late penalty. He was the next last angler to weigh his fish Sunday, and when he took the stage, emcee Dave Mercer announced that Iaconelli would need 14 pounds, 13 ounces, to best Hite, who was leading the tournament with just Iaconelli and Ashley left to weigh their fish.
When the fish hit the scale, Mercer called out the weight: “14 pounds, 12 ounces.”
Iaconelli went flat and quickly exited the stage. But tournament director Trip Weldon realized Iaconelli had tied Hite, ran backstage and pulled Iaconelli back in front of the crowd. The Elite Series computer system automatically put Iaconelli in second place by virtue of Hite having the better single-day bag. If Ashley hadn’t topped Hite and Iaconelli, the Elite Series would’ve had its first sudden-death fish-off.
“I thought I’d lost by an ounce,” Iaconelli said. “It was almost a relief when Casey brought in that big bag.”