CECIL COUNTY, Md. – Aaron Martens, champion of the Huk Performance Fishing Bassmaster Elite at Chesapeake Bay, ran away from the field this week. Not only did he beat his closest contender by a margin of 7 pounds, 15 ounces, but he did it in a faraway creek that was widely considered to be a dead option.
Martens did his damage in the Middle River, and specifically in the Frog Mortar Creek portion of the river, a 40-minute run from the ramp in the North East River under optimal conditions. One angler who elected not to make that run – in practice or in competition – was pre-tournament favorite Mike Iaconelli. Making it even more painful for Iaconelli was the fact that the Middle River, and the tributaries around it, were his personal playground during the earliest portions of his career as a tournament angler.
“Back in the day, before the Bay got good again, you would have to run far south to do well,” Iaconelli said. “Back in the 90s and up until about 2000, I fished a lot of Federation and Red Man tournaments in the Middle River, the Gunpowder and the Seneca. I had a Red Man win down there and a few other top fives. I even fished some below Baltimore.
“But about 2000 there was a shift in the fishing, and it was directly related to the grass in the Upper Bay. After that, you could never go south and win. It was the total opposite of before. You could catch a few down there but you’d never win, especially in multi-day tournaments.”
As a result of that perceived shift, this week Iaconelli confined his efforts to areas closer to the launch. He blanked on the first day of competition and sacked two fish for 4-3 to finish 95th in a field of 107 pros.
“Before practice I drew a straight line from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to the southern point of the Sassafras River,” he said. “I figured hell would freeze over before it’d be won down there. Obviously, I’m a genius.”
There are various theories as to why that section of the Bay became less productive over the years. Of course, as Iaconelli said, once the grass invaded the Susquehanna Flats and nearby areas, the baitfish concentrated there and brought the rest of the food chain with them.
It is unclear why the Middle River in particular suffered so significantly. Some speculate that it was a saltwater intrusion that damaged the bass fishery. Others point to more nefarious reasons, such as an alleged unreported chemical spill. While the root cause or causes cannot be pinpointed, some of the reason for its bounce back can be attributed to an ambitious and costly stocking program undertaken jointly by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Maryland Bass Nation, and a cadre of private citizens.
Iaconelli had a productive practice in areas where he expected the tournament to be won, cadging 15, 13 and nine bass bites on the three practice days while most of the rest of the field struggled.
“I thought I would be in contention fishing grass, but the conditions changed,” he said. “It went from a flood tide, dirty water and wind to a blowout tide, clear and calm water. The fish disappeared.”
He admitted that he failed to adhere to his own well-proven advice to “fish the moment.”
“My mind was so messed up by what happened in practice that I couldn’t force myself to just go fishing. I snapped out of it on the second day, but it was too late. The lesson I learned from this is never write anything off. You can’t let history hurt you. The second rule I broke, and it’s a tough mistake not to make, is that what happens in practice and what happens in the tournament are two different things.”
While Iaconelli was done in by his historical baggage, other members of the field managed to harness history to do well, even if that history was not Chesapeake-specific. Russ Lane (7th, 51-05), who had not previously fished the Chesapeake, harnessed his experience on the non-tidal Coosa River system to find a backwater creek not far from where Martens won.
“One of the deals that I’ve figured out over the years in the summertime is that you find a defined edge on a flat creek, there’s usually cooler water when it’s really hot out,” Lane said.
Just as important as the particular creek that he chose was where it lined up on the tide chart.
“I was looking for a creek where the turn in the tide started earlier, so that I would experience a low tide all four days,” he said.
Mark Menendez (9th, 48-4), fished south near Lane most of the tournament. While he’d only fished here once before – in a media event 15 years ago – he used his personal history to his benefit, catching a key 3 ½-pound bass off of a log he’d found during that long-ago trip. More importantly, he used his status as a historian of the sport to focus on his primary southern stomping grounds.
“I figured if the group down at Aberdeen Proving Grounds didn’t shoot too many firecrackers at me, the threat of that might keep some others out,” Menendez said. “And I know that (in 1991) Denny Brauer had the Classic won in there until he got chased out.”
Just like the once-disappeared fish of the Middle River, Iaconelli has vowed to come back stronger, and like Menendez, he reveled in the fact that this sport consistently teaches even the best practitioners of the sport new lessons – whether it’s on water that is old, new or a combination of the two.
“It’s neat to watch how guys uncover stuff that hasn’t been in play for 20 years,” the 2003 Bassmaster Classic champ said. “Shame on me for writing that stuff off.”
This week, on the ever-changing Chesapeake Bay, “Never write anything off” became the 2015 corollary to Ike’s trademark “Never give up.”