Angler of the Year race heats up

CELEBRATION, Fla. — Pro angler Michael Iaconelli has built a career worthy of envy at BASS. But there's one accomplishment that always has eluded the 34-year-old self-proclaimed bad boy from New Jersey.

Now, he's trying everything he can to conquer it.

The 2003 CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion — who also is a BASS millionaire — currently leads the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, a lucrative, season-long points race that awards the most consistent Elite Series angler with a sought-after title and $125,000 cash.

With only three events left in the 11-tournament season, Iaconelli outpaces Arizona's Dean Rojas by more than 100 points in the chase for the prestigious award. Looking to capitalize on his consistency, Iaconelli regards his quest for the title as his "next big goal."

"The AOY has eluded me since I turned pro," said Iaconelli, who won the Southern Challenge presented by Berkley on Lake Guntersville in April. "I've been in the top five before and always managed to fumble at the end. To me, winning the Angler of the Year race is like winning the Classic."

In addition to his fifth BASS win, Iaconelli — who finished third in the 2004 points race — has made the top 50 cut in every Elite Series tournament this year. He's finished in the top 20 in seven out of eight Elite Series events and placed second in the Bassmaster Memorial in May.

Both Iaconelli and second-place Rojas have set such a standard of consistency that either will be tough to beat heading into the homestretch. Still, there is a host of hard-charging anglers who will make a run for the title.

Anglers within striking distance heading into this week's Champion's Choice on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y., include Kentucky's Kevin Wirth in third, Toyota Rookie of the Year points leader Steve Kennedy in fourth, three-time Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam in fifth and 2005 Angler of the Year Aaron Martens in sixth.

Amazingly, VanDam is in the top five despite earning no points at the Santee Cooper Showdown presented by MotorGuide earlier this season. VanDam was disqualified from that event but his other performances have given him a chance to capture his fourth Angler of the Year title, which would trail Roland Martin's top record of nine.

Adding to the allure of the title, BASS increased the total prize purse by 100 percent to $601,000. The Angler of the Year award boasts a top prize of $125,000 and will pay 50 anglers — nearly half of the Elite field.

With the Elite Series enhancements in 2006, Rojas said the Angler of the Year provides a truer measure of anglers' ability than ever before. The season — which now runs from March to September — gives anglers a chance to fish through several climate changes, seasons and spawn cycles.

"It's hard to stay consistent through such a long season," said Rojas, a two-time BASS winner. "Each body of water is different but this has been a goal of mine for the longest time and you just have to concentrate on catching the next fish. Anything can happen."

The Angler of the Year title will be awarded Sept. 17 in Kimberling City, Mo., at the conclusion of The Rock presented by TheraSeed on Table Rock Lake, the last Elite Series event of the season.