RICHMOND, Va. – Nearly half of the 12 anglers who launched on this final day of the first Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open of 2013 were Virginians, but among the dozen competitors who survived to Day Three two New Jersey residents stood tall: Mike Iaconelli (4th place, 29 pounds 1 ounce) and Pete Gluszek (12th, 26-03) hope to steal a trophy from the South and take it back up Route 95.
Today they will venture out not into Springsteen’s fabled swamps of Jersey, but rather into the tidal portion of the James River. Although both are multiple-time Bassmaster Classic qualifiers, neither had started his B.A.S.S. career in time to fish any of the three Classics held here from 1988 through 1990. Nevertheless, they both feel extremely comfortable on the James. Iaconelli finished 4th here in 2011 and both veterans have extensive experience on tidal waters.
“This is my bread and butter,” Gluszek said. “I live right next to the Delaware River, and I guide there. I guide on the Upper Chesapeake, too, and the James is a tributary of the Chesapeake. The ebb and flow of the tide is a rhythm, and the more you fish it the better you understand it. You won’t be as surprised by blowout tides or flood tides. You’ll understand what’s happening.”
The ebb and flow of the two anglers’ relationship dates back more than 20 years, to a time when both fished local New Jersey events as well as other northeastern trails.
“When I started off, fishing as a co-angler, Pete was one of the guys in the state who was always a contender,” Iaconelli recalled. “A lot of my early success came from being around him, learning not just on the water, but also about the business side of the sport.”
Gluszek recalled an early 1990s B.A.S.S. Invitational (the forerunners of the current Open series) in Alabama in which he and Iaconelli shared a house with several other top New Jersey sticks, including former Classic qualifiers Bob and Ted Soley. That’s when he first spent meaningful time around Iaconelli, who had not yet allowed his true personality to shine through in public.
“He was always a radical personality,” Gluszek recalled. “But it wasn’t until later when he really started to express himself that his career really took off.”
Any gap that existed between their skill levels and accomplishments gradually deteriorated as Ike fished more and more tournaments. ”He’s a quick study, as you know,” Gluszek deadpanned.
While Iaconelli’s personality is certainly one of a kind, not attributable to the influence of any one state, both anglers credited their New Jersey roots with enabling them to do well on the James this week. Not only do they have thousands of hours of experience fishing tidal rivers, but they each probably have just as much time under their belts fishing in crowds. Earlier this week Ike recalled fishing 200 boat tournaments on 1,500 acre lakes. Recent rains have muddied substantial portions of the James River, so both anglers, like a substantial percentage of the field, have been fishing the comparatively small Chickahominy River tributary. It has been crowded, and while today’s reduced field may relieve some of that fishing pressure, Gluszek claimed that the packed waters didn’t bother him.
“We’ve both fished lots of tournaments with heavy pressure before,” he said. “I knew before the tournament that I was going to run into the Chick. Tidal waters are good for pressured tournaments. The fish are constantly moving and repositioning themselves. You can fish behind someone and he won’t catch anything, but when he leaves a fish can pull up instantly, so it’s possible to go right behind him and get bit.”
So far this week, Gluszek and Iaconelli have not run into each other during the fishing day, despite the fact that they are both in the same general area of the river system.
This is not the first time they’ve made a Top 12 together. At the third Northern Open of 2012, Gluszek won, thereby punching his ticket to the 2013 Classic at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake. Iaconelli finished 5th in that event, and likewise qualified to fish this past February’s Classic, albeit through the Elite Series points race. While both are competitors who want to win every time out, each supports the other’s efforts.
“When he won last year, I was stoked,” Iaconelli said. “I had a shot to win, but I was still elated. And he was there when I won the  Classic cheering me on.”
Likewise, Gluszek cheers for Iaconelli’s success. The rationale for that support is not only their longtime friendship, but also the fact that they’re business partners. They teamed up to create the popular Bass University seminar series. “Now that we’re in business together, his success is B.U.’s success,” Gluszek said. “But he’s such a tremendous competitor that I feel good every time I’m ahead of him in the standings.”
Both anglers credited the Bass University program with improving their own on-the-water performance.
“Teaching someone how to do what you do causes you to self-reflect,” Gluszek said. “When you try to explain something it solidifies that thing in your own mind. The constant reinforcement keeps you at the top of your game.”
Despite the many similarities between the two pros – they even run the same brand of boat – there are of course some differences. “He’s a lot more patient than I am,” Ike explained matter-of-factly. The deficits they’ll have to make up to win differ, too. Iaconelli, just over 3 pounds behind tournament leader Randy Howell, is realistically just one good bite away from victory, while Gluszek, over 6 pounds back, would have to leapfrog 11 other competitors.
“I’ve got to maximize every bite,” Iaconelli said. “The last two days I’ve been at 90 percent, missing one or two bites each day. Today I would like to be at 100 percent. I’ve been getting one or two big bites each day. If I can make it two or three and catch 15 or 16 pounds and the guys ahead of me catch 11 or 12, I’ll win.”
Gluszek, despite the bigger mountain he’ll have to climb, was no less positive in his thought process. “Yesterday I caught two big fish,” he said. “Today I’ll need five.”