GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Mr. Excitement turned out to be Mr. Versatility.
Michael Iaconelli, one of bass fishing's most flamboyant competitors, tried his hand at sight fishing Sunday afternoon during the final round of the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series Southern Challenge presented by Berkley. A noted power fisherman, Iaconelli admitted sight fishing is not his favorite technique.
"I'm terrible at it," he said.
But he wasn't Sunday.
Needing 15 pounds, 2 ounces to bump Alton Jones from atop the leaderboard, Iaconelli presented a five-fish limit that weighed 15 pounds, three ounces. Iaconelli finished the four-day tournament with 71 pounds, 13 ounces — giving him a narrow two-ounce victory over Jones and a thrilling end to the final weigh-in.
Then Iaconelli showed why so many fans flock to the New Jersey pro. He shouted at the top of his lungs, pumped his fists and leaped into the air several times before leaving the stage to show off two big bass to the admiring crowd.
Iaconelli said his ability to adapt to a myriad of fishing conditions on Lake Guntersville propeled him to victory. There were periods of intense rain followed by intense sunshine and fluctuating temperatures.
When the sun shined brightly Sunday afternoon, and Iaconelli only had two fish in his live well, he made the move to the shoreline where he began sight fishing. Leaving his spot farther offshore was difficult, he said, because he had already bagged 22-pound and 18-pound limits there earlier in the tournament.
"It's the hardest thing in the world (to leave a good spot)," he said. "In the past, I've had several good tournaments here where I committed to an area and I died on it. So at 11:30 today, I decided to go back up and go shallow to sight fish. It paid off. I've got to tell you, that decision is what won it for me. That and not giving up."
Iaconelli boated his final three keepers in small pockets across Lake Guntersville from Brown's Creek. He caught the fish using a Berkley Power Noodle that he fished weightless, but altered by sticking a finishing nail on the lure's tail.
"It gave it a reverse fall," he said. "I threw it on 8-pound flourocarbon. It was just pure finesse."
Iaconelli said the bass that earned him the tournament title and the $100,000 first prize came in the final minutes.
"With three minutes to go, I spotted a fish that was guarding fry," he said. "I spun the boat around. I set the hook, landed it and measured it. By the time I was done, I looked at my watch and I had one minute to go before I had to run back. That was the winning fish."
Iaconelli credited two fellow Elite anglers — Fred Roumbanis and Ish Monroe — with teaching him the finer points of sight fishing.
"I'm a power fisherman," Iaconelli said. "You give me a crankbait and grass, that's where I excel...(But) I'm really starting to learn a lot.... They're teaching me a lot about sight fishing. And I'm learning. I'm proud of myself this week for doing that."
Was it destiny?
Sunday morning before weigh-in, Iaconelli alluded to the fact he believed he might be destined to win the Southern Challenge.
"A little bit of that was Guntersville," he said. "It's a grass lake. I grew up fishing lakes in north Jersey with grass edges that are 10 to 12 foot. That's what they have here, so I was comfortable. But more than that, even though I haven't made a cut (to the final 12 this year), I've been one fish away from making the cut this year. That builds up inside. I don't want to say you get frustrated, but you get motivated by coming so close and missing."
Iaconelli's expressive personality endears him to many fans, but has also gotten him in trouble in the past. At this year's CITGO Bassmaster Classic, he was disqualified after becoming upset and breaking some safety equipment on his boat. He said he's refocused his passion since that occurance.
"Things happen and you learn from your mistakes," he said. "You move on. And I think one thing with all that is my family and friends. Ish and those guys have really made me refocus. I've gotten back to what this is all about. It's about competition. It's about figuring out patterns."
Jones, who led the first two days of the tournament before giving way to Iaconelli on Saturday, said losing by two ounces was especially difficult to swallow. He caught a 17-1 bag Sunday and finished with 71-11.
"It's about getting that trophy," Jones said.
Rounding out the top 12 anglers competing Sunday were Stephen Kennedy (69-8), Kevin VanDam (66-13), Gerald Swindle (66-5), Takahiro Omori (65-10), Edwin Evers (62-1), Mark Tucker (60-0), Jeff Reynolds (57-2), Timmy Horton (56-13), Dean Rojas (55-8) and Yusume Miyazaki (52-5).