New Jersey native Mike Iaconelli may wear his emotions on his sleeve more than any angler in the history of the sport of bass fishing, but the look of defeat on his face — as he exited the hotel elevator, luggage in hand, a day earlier than planned — had never been so apparent.
Was the current longest running Classic-appearance streak coming to an end?
Emotion. Devastation. Realization. Mike Iaconelli was leaving Grand Rapids, Minn., in late September — after the 2017 Bassmaster Classic Bracket competition — without a ticket to the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods, March 16-18 at Lake Hartwell.
"There was a lot of real tension there, you could feel it," Iaconelli said. “Every guy there was fighting for [the last Elite Series bid to the Classic].”
Not only was Ike competing for the final Classic berth, he was also fighting to keep his active record of consecutive Classic appearances alive.
"Every streak is destined to go away, that’s the reality of it.”
Mathematically, the road to number 17 was not impossible, but improbable. Iaconelli, was the second man out of the Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race, behind Steve Kennedy. He accepted that.
"I left Pokegama preparing myself that the chances of me making it were slim to none," Iaconelli said.
Two years removed from missing the Classic in 2001, Ike won the coveted title on the Louisiana Delta. In the waning hour of the third and final day of the 2003 competition, Iaconelli sat with a total 14 fish, one shy of a tournament limit. In that hour, a career was made and a phrase coined that would soon be an expression of Ike’s professional bass fishing career; “Never give up!” Iaconelli yelled. The winning fish was in his hands.
Since, the now-famous celebration, Iaconelli understands — when there’s a chance, there’s a way.
“There’s always that hope there, that things work out right, and I'll get in."
This time the qualification was out of his hands.
“It’s a bad kind of feeling — the worst — when your fate is up to someone else."
When chance is behind Elite Series Pro Jesse Wiggins on Smith Lake, that is a pretty solid bet, but Wiggin’s win only gave Kennedy the nod to the Hartwell Classic. Something else would have to happen. The final Bass Pro Shop’s Bassmaster Open stop on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, Grove, Okla., was Ike’s last remaining chance, though his name was not on the roster, fellow Elite Series pro James Elam’s was.
The Tulsa native, Elam, won and double qualified for the 2018 Classic, after a 27th-place finish in the Bassmaster AOY race. Elam’s win was a victory for Iaconelli. Ike would be rewarded with the final qualifying spot from the 2017 Elite Series field.
“That feeling is one I will remember, and I don't want to ever do that again," Iaconelli said.
Iaconelli looks for that feeling to create a catalyst for the 2018 season.
"Hopefully, last season will be a springboard to have a much better year, and not to be in that same predicament again."
His relationship with Lake Hartwell, heading into the 2018 Classic, is a prosperous one. A connection that has produced two Classic top 10s, in the previous world championships held on the impoundment. A 10th-place the first time around in 2008, and a sixth-place in 2015.
"I can't explain it, there are places you get along with and there are places that fight against how you fish,” he said. “Hartwell has always worked with me very well. I've always had a nice relationship with the lake."
"You just want to put yourself in the position to win the Classic and in order to do that you have to be in that tournament.
"There may have been a time when I was young in my career that I took [qualifying for the Classic] for granted.”
The longest streak of active Classic appearances is still alive, and Ike has no plans of letting up.
"I hope the next Classic I miss is because I retired. That is my goal.”