LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — It's one of the oldest and most important lessons in fishing, but even the best pro bass anglers in the world have to remind themselves of it.
The lesson: Don't expect to catch fish one day the same way you caught them the day before.
Mike Iaconelli's two-day performance in the Bassmaster Legends presented by Goodyear serves as a stark reminder of that.
Iaconelli, the 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion, hasn't become an elite bass angler by going into brain-lock on the water. But it can happen to the best. Iaconelli weighed in zero fish Thursday when the Legends event opened on the Arkansas River. He came back Friday with one of the best performances of the tournament — a five-bass limit weighing 10 pounds, 15 ounces. That was good enough to move him from a tie for last place into a 16th-place finish and a check for $11,400.
"What I've really learned this year is that I've got to use practice more as a template," said the Voorhees, N.J., resident. "Don't use it as something set in stone as to what I should be doing in the tournament."
Iaconelli and BASS rookie Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., are at the top of the Citgo Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. Iaconelli has led for 20 weeks now. No Angler of the Year points are awarded in the three Majors, of which the Legends tournament is one. But there could be a carryover effect in terms of being on top of your game when the AOY title is decided in two weeks on Missouri's Table Rock Lake.
Iaconelli has accumulated 2455 points this year in the Citgo Bassmaster Elite Series events. Kennedy trails by only 45 points.
Interestingly, Kennedy's guiding principle this year has been the one Iaconelli was reminded of this week in Little Rock.
"This is the first year I've fished BASS, but I've been fishing professionally for five years," said Kennedy, who has the Toyota Rookie of the Year title wrapped up going into Table Rock. "One thing I've learned is to fish to the conditions that you're given. Practice is for finding areas to fish."
Iaconelli didn't follow that rule after he found some big bass on the Arkansas River in practice this week.
"In practice I caught some giants on a medium-diving crankbait," Iaconelli said. "I was fishing sandbar drops. I really felt like that was something that could separate me from the crowd.
"(Thursday) I did it and I did it. It wasn't working. I should have left it. After an hour or two when you're not getting a bite, leave it. I never did that. I was hardheaded."
After catching a couple of catfish and a drum but no 15-inch bass Thursday, Iaconelli went back to his hotel room and regrouped.
"You can use the mistakes of one day as a stepping stone to the next day," Iaconelli said. (Friday) I had that same crankbait tied on, but I also had eight or nine other baits tied on as well. All of the sudden, about an hour in, I started getting bites on a small Berkley Beast soft plastic. That really helped me key in on what I should do."
Iaconelli noticed that he could catch fish on the Beast if he flipped and pitched it to isolated pieces of wood structure.
"It didn't have to be a big huge log," Iaconelli said. "It had to be something thin. Just a stick hanging over the water. Fish were suspended underneath those things. They weren't on the bottom. They weren't on the top. I used a 3/16ths-ounce Tru Tungsten weight and that little Beast and just let it glide down. As the lure was gliding down, they were hitting it on the fall.
"These fish were definitely suspended. I feel like they were kind of in the same part of the water column as the bait. Every time I went past one of those sticks, if I was in six to eight feet of water, I'd look at my graph and I saw the bait was halfway down.
"To me, that Beast was a good mimic of the size of the shad there."
Iaconelli didn't recover from his first day disaster well enough to make the cut to the top 12 anglers advancing to fish Saturday in the Legends event. But these past two days might provide the push he needs to hang on to that Angler of the Year title and the $125,000 check that goes with it.
He is going to need to be at the top of his game because Kennedy certainly seems to be. Kennedy gained five points on Iaconelli two weeks ago on the Potomac River by finishing one place in front of him. And even though no points are involved, Kennedy finished 10th after two days on the Arkansas River to advance to the semifinal round Saturday.
"Still, it was a good performance," said Iaconelli. "It got me out of the gutter. It gives me momentum going into Table Rock.
"I'm fishing better now off the cuff than I've ever fished in my life. You've got to trust those instincts. I've got to remember that going into Table Rock. It may have been a wake up call for me here — to know that when I go to Table Rock, I've just got to fish by instinct."