KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Mike Iaconelli hesitated, gathered his thoughts, and made sure what he was about to say came out exactly right. And it was a big statement coming from the 46-year-old pro angler who has won a Bassmaster Classic (2003), finished second in another (2009) and qualified to compete in 20 straight Classics.
“This is the most confident I’ve ever felt in a Bassmaster Classic on the patterns that I’m running,” said Iaconelli, after Wednesday’s official practice day for the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.
“Patterns” is the key word. Three-day Classics are often won on particular spots, not patterns that can be replicated in various parts of a lake or river. Iaconelli noted that when he won the 2003 Classic on the Louisiana Delta in New Orleans, most of his fish were caught in one spot. The same was true in 2009 when he finished second to Skeet Reese on the Red River in Shreveport, La.
“I knew that I had a spot that was special,” Iaconelli said. “I don’t have THAT kind of confidence. But I do have confidence in four different patterns that I’m running, which are all viable.
“I don’t care if it’s cloudy, sunny, windy, calm, dirty water, clear water or cold – none of that matters. The only thing that could be a deal-killer for me is current. If the current stops, I’ll be in trouble. That doesn’t mean I’m fishing the current. I need moving water because it’s putting the fish in places where I can catch them.”
By the looks of Iaconelli’s boat after practice Wednesday, he’s catching some bass shallow. There was a splattering of mud on the bow, probably deposited by his trolling motor. And he had a mess – a tangled mess – of shallow-running crankbaits gathered in pile on the boat deck. Iaconelli didn’t mind allowing a photo of the lures. It’s no secret that crankbaits in depths of 5- to 7-feet or less have been the dominant pattern for almost everyone in practice. And it didn’t mean that Iaconelli doesn’t have some not-so-obvious techniques in mind come tournament time Friday.
“From afar, this looks like it would be a really tough nail-biter,” he said. “But because of the water movement, I think it’s going to be a lot better than what people are predicting. I think a 16- to 17-pounds-a-day average is what you’ll have to have to be there at the end.”
Actually, that’s exactly what most of the 52 competitors were predicting after practice Wednesday and during media day Thursday. Most of the guesses were for a three-day total winning weight between 48 and 52 pounds, in other words, a 16- to 17-pound average.
“You’ll see some 20-pound bags,” Iaconelli predicted, adding, “I think you’ll need two smallmouth a day.”
Iaconelli isn’t the only angler predicting that smallmouth bass will play a significant role in the Classic. Part of that is due to the minimum length limit, which is 18 inches for smallmouths, 14 inches for largemouths and 12 inches for spotted bass. That 18-inch minimum has seemingly helped grow some big smallmouth bass in the tournament waters of the Tennessee River and Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes.
“You’ll catch some 1½, 2 and 2½-pound largemouth, then catch a good one,” Iaconelli said. “When you catch a smallmouth, it’s the right one, every time. They will play here. I don’t see a guy catching 15 giant smallmouths and winning. I see a guy having one to three in his bag each day, and they’re difference-makers.”
Iaconelli is almost always enthusiastic about his chances prior to a tournament. Having not just a couple but four different patterns he could catch bass on during practice left him a bit more excited than usual.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy,” he said, tempering the optimism a bit. “But I’ve caught enough of those 4- and 5-pounders to think I can get a few of those bites each day. You couple that with those high 2-pounder and low 3-pounders, and you’ve got a good bag.”