The evolution of Ike

I first met Michael Iaconelli during the late 1990s when he was on the pro staff of Mann’s Bait Co. in Eufaula, Ala. I was the outdoors writer for The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, and when I arrived at Mann’s, there was a big sign out front that said, “Welcome, Bryan Brasher.”

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that of the two visitors to the company that day that I was the more celebrated one. But that was long before any Angler of the Year or Bassmaster Classic titles. It was before he was “Ike.” I’m not even sure “Mike” would have fit him then because, frankly, he was the perfect “Michael.”

He was short and rail thin — and while I won’t say he was geeky, he seemed … yeah, a little geeky. He caught a bass from the pond in front of the Mann’s building and giggled from the time it bit until he was done with an overplayed fight.

Years later, I couldn’t believe it when I saw this same guy screaming, “Never give up!” as he won the 2003 Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans or when I saw the spread in GQ magazine that named him one of “The 10 Most Hated Athletes.”

I didn’t know what to make of him — and because of that, I followed the lead of my old-school mentors in the writing profession and hated him.

Fishermen weren’t supposed to scream and yell and draw attention to themselves. They were supposed to be quiet, Southern gentlemen who let their flipping sticks do the talking.

Anglers didn’t appear shirtless in magazines wth tattoos all over their torsos. They won tournaments, thanked the “good Lord” for the opportunity to compete and humbly deposited their checks.

Then a funny thing happened.

I actually reached a point in my life where I was old enough and wise enough to do a little thinking for myself. And while you won’t ever see me screaming on the water or sitting for a tattoo, I’ve come to realize the value of people who do things that might seem a little too far outside the box for other folks.

I think Michael Iaconelli became “Mike” and then “Ike” because the same thing happened to him that happened to me.

At some point, he stopped worrying about what other people were thinking and decided to let his own thoughts determine his path.

I’m making some assumptions there. Maybe Ike was always a little crazy and just needed a bigger stage to prove it to us.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad he evolved into the Ike we all know now.

No one works harder in the pro fishing industry, and it’s not all for his own benefit. His Ike Foundation has raised countless dollars to help get kids into fishing — and if you want to see someone stop an interview midsentence to sign an autograph for a child, hang around behind the Bassmaster media trailer when a reporter is talking to Ike.

Besides all that, one of Ike’s greatest contributions to the sport was proving that anglers don’t all have to look, act and sound alike. He proved that it’s OK to look like, you know, you’re actually having some fun now and then.

Ike was recently inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.

On that day in the late 1990s, I wouldn’t have believed it. Today, if it hadn’t eventually happened, I wouldn’t have stood for it.