KIMBERLING CITY, Mo. — How intense is the pressure on the five Bassmaster Elite Series pros who have one final shot at the Angler of the Year title?
So intense that Mike Iaconelli was willing to dive into Table Rock Lake to catch a spotted bass he hooked early Thursday morning in the first day of the Bassmaster The Rock tournament presented by Theraseed.
Iaconelli, who has led in the AoY standings for over 20 weeks now, was feeling so much heat that he couldn't complain even when the bass he dove after measured a quarter-inch short of the minimum length limit.
"My line snapped," explained Iaconelli. "It goes through the (rod) guides, but I see it floating in the water, so instinctively I just went in after the line."
Iaconelli was able to make it a legal catch by keeping one hand on his boat, grabbing the line, then hand-over-hand pulling in line and landing the fish. As it turned out, the spotted bass measured only 14 3/4 inches long, just under the 15-inch minimum length limit, and Iaconelli released the fish.
"Looking back on it, I'm glad I landed it," he said. "If that fish had got off, my mind would have been even more scrambled. I would have thought that was a keeper."
The Angler of the Year title, based on points earned over the entire season, carries a $125,000 check, but immeasurable prestige.
Coming into this tournament, four anglers had a realistic shot of catching Iaconelli in the standings — rookie Steve Kennedy trailed by 45 points, Dean Rojas by 111, Kevin VanDam by 124 and Aaron Martens by 131.
Based on Thursday's Day One standings, only VanDam made a move on Iaconelli, cutting the margin by 39 points to 85.
But there is no doubt that all five feel like the weight of the world is upon them.
"It's pretty stressful," said Kennedy, who is from Auburn, Ala. "Especially because everybody's pulling for you."
Kennedy laughed and added, "Or pulling against Ike, I'm not sure which."
Iaconelli left the door open by catching only three keepers weighing 7 pounds. But Kennedy weighed in only two bass totaling 4-14 to drop, theoretically, 67 points behind Iaconelli, if Thursday's standings held through Sunday.
"This is definitely the most pressure I've felt in a long time," said Kennedy. "You hear it nonstop since we've been here. Cameras are following us everywhere. There are a lot of expectations."
VanDam, the four-time BASS Angler of the Year from Kalamazoo, Mich., would definitely be Iaconelli's biggest concern if VanDam didn't have so much ground to make up. But with a five-bass limit weighing 11-4 Thursday, VanDam showed he's still in the AoY picture.
"I came to swing for the fence," VanDam said. "I know I'll have to almost win to do that. In my mind, I'm fishing the way I need to in order to catch a real good stringer.
"I think you're going to need 13 or 14 pounds a day here over the whole tournament to win it. I kind of left a little on the table with only 11 pounds."
VanDam, who prefers a rapid, power-fishing style, has had to adapt to the extremely tough fishing conditions this week at Table Rock Lake.
"It took me all day to catch five," VanDam said. "I was really, really scrambling. I don't like fishing finesse baits so much, but you just know what you've got to do."
An hour-and-a-half delay of the takeoff Thursday morning due to fog further amped up the pressure on the AoY contenders, cutting into their time on the water and eliminating the opportunity for an early topwater bite.
"There had been a good early bite, but everybody had the same scenario," VanDam said. "I'd love to have that time back, but maybe it was a bonus for me because it hindered everybody."
Iaconelli may well have been the most confident angler weighing in only three keepers you've ever heard. In the last two tournaments, Iaconelli has had to recover from opening day bombs on his part in order to get back in contention.
Thursday he showed he'd learned that lesson without needing the overnight change in thinking.
"Until about one o'clock, I had one keeper fish," Iaconelli said. "With less than an hour left, I made a big run to a different end of the lake — a real gutsy move. And I caught two good spots.
"I've got to stay focused and keep letting the fish tell me what they want and not get stubborn. That's going to be the key for me.
"Today I adjusted. I remembered my past mistakes, and I feel good about (Friday)."