MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It seemed like the Alabama River was air-conditioned Tuesday morning on the first day of practice for the Evan Williams Bourbon All-Star Championship during Toyota Trucks All-Star Week.
With showers and a few thunderstorms in the area, the eight anglers remaining in this event were able to ease into what is expected to be a hot week.
And it will be hot in more ways than one. The match fishing format promises to heat up the competition in this three-day event as well.
“I’m excited,” Mike Iaconelli said. “I’ve never fished a format like this. It puts a different spin on it. It puts you in a scenario where there’s no saving something for tomorrow. You’ve got to fish like it’s your last day, even if it means burning up your fish.”
Iaconelli is seeded seventh for the championship round, which begins on Friday. Seeding is based on the leaderboard from the two-day Ramada All-Star Semi-Final, which concluded Sunday at nearby Lake Jordan. The 39-year-old Pittsgrove, N.J., resident will face second-seeded Ott Defoe, who impressed everyone with his shallow-water expertise in winning the Elite Series Rookie of the Year title this season.
“He’s on a streak,” Iaconelli said of Defoe. “He’s confident. He’s a river guy. On face value, you say, ‘Wow, this the worst guy I could have drawn out of the bunch.’”
But Iaconelli has never lacked for confidence, and he was feeling good after a half-day of practice Tuesday.
“I’m happy,” Iaconelli said around Noon. “I’ve caught three 3-pounders and several around 2 pounds. No giants though.”
Giants – meaning a bass weighing 4 pounds or better – will be rare here, just as they were on Lake Jordan last weekend, where any bass weighing 3 pounds or better was highly prized.
When Iaconelli landed a 3-pounder early in Sunday’s competition he yelled, “Man, I needed that fish.” And he did. Iaconelli edged Skeet Reese’s eighth-place total by only 9 ounces and finished with a 1-pound, 1-ounce lead over ninth-place Kevin VanDam.
The All-Star finalists will have almost 80 miles of the Alabama River to fish this week. Just like at Lake Jordan, catching a five-bass limit isn’t much of a problem; catching a limit with a couple of those 3-pounders in it is a much bigger chore.
Last year when the All-Stars finished on the Alabama River, it was under the more typical tournament scenario, where the heaviest two-day bag took the top prize. VanDam won it with 26-0, which included 15-7 on Day One. It was the heaviest bag of the event.
“That was outstanding,” Iaconelli said. “That’s like a 20-pound bag anywhere else. I think a good mark here this week is if you get in that 13-pound range. Then you’ll think you’ve had a terrific day. If you can figure out a way to catch some of those 3-pounders, that’s the grade you’re looking for out here.”
On Day One last year, behind VanDam’s 15-7 were, in order, Skeet Reese with 12-4, Aaron Martens with 12-2 and Edwin Evers with 11-6. All three of them have made it to the Elite Eight in this year’s event. However, Reese doesn’t think that experience, even under similar summertime heat, will be much of an advantage this year.
Reese, who edged VanDam for the final qualifying spot Sunday, will be paired against No. 1-seeded Casey Ashley on Friday.
“Casey had never seen (Lake) Jordan before, and he came out on top,” Reese said. “Just because you’ve never been to a fishery doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at a disadvantage.”
Reese, like Iaconelli and most of the other anglers in the final, hasn’t previously competed in this head-to-head format that will determine the $100,000 check that goes to the champion Sunday.
“You’re only worried about one guy,” said the Auburn, Calif., resident. “I don’t know if it’s easier or harder. I really don’t know.
“But I do know that you can’t save anything. You’ve got to jack everything you can catch that day. If I caught 14 or 15 pounds, I would feel pretty confident. But if you don’t have that 14 or 15 pounds, you better keep trying to catch everything you can.”
The other matchups Friday are No. 3 seed Aaron Martens vs. No. 6 seed Edwin Evers and No. 4 seed Terry Scroggins vs. No. 5 seed Gerald Swindle. Saturday the 1-8 winner will face the 3-6 winner and the 2-7 winner will face the 4-5 winner. The two anglers who advance will face each other Sunday to determine a champion.
“The long-term prediction shows they are not going to be running much water through here this week,” said Iaconelli, about the possibilities of getting some current flowing through the Alabama River. “It’s going to be tough fishing. I don’t expect this to be a blowout by any means.”