PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — John Crews was the only member of Mike Iaconelli’s three-man camping crew who qualified to join him in the final 12 Sunday at the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the Delaware River. As Crews finished a pre-weigh-in conversation, a writer said, “It’s been a wild week, hasn’t it?”
Crews smiled and said, “It’s not done yet.”
He was referring to the victory party Iaconelli promised to host Sunday night at his home, located less than an hour’s drive away, in Pittsgrove, N.J.
“I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be glad I’m staying in the camper,” Crews laughed. “I’m locking the door after I get in there.”
If ever a party deserved to be thrown, it was Sunday night in the Iaconelli home. This was a storybook event that couldn’t have been scripted any better: The hometown kid – Iaconelli was born in Philadelphia – wins on a challenging bass fishery – the Delaware River – in front of a rowdy, passionate packed house that joined in chants of “Ike, Ike, Ike, Ike…” all week long, but especially on Sunday.
As of yet, there are no reports of the police being called or glass shattering at the Iaconelli home Sunday night/Monday morning. Apparently there’s a new twist on an old phrase: What happens in Vegas Iaconelli’s house stays in Vegas Iaconelli’s house. (Vegas is Mike and Becky’s three-year-old son.)
Becky came to Sunday’s weigh-in at Penn’s Landing with cans of champagne iced down for the winner. If ever champagne cans, instead of bottles, are appropriate, this was it: Working class kid from Philly grows up to win $2.2 million on the B.A.S.S. tour and shines the pro bass fishing spotlight on an area of the country that seldom sees a glimmer.
Becky, as is her style, was a saint throughout the wild week. In addition to Crews, Ish Monroe and Fletcher Shryock staying in their camper parked outside, in Mike and Becky’s home were Vegas and Stella, Mike’s and Becky’s two children; Drew, 15, and Rylie, 14, Mike’s daughters from his first marriage; Becky’s parents; and fishing industry friends Alan McGuckin of Dynamic Sponsorships and Dan Quinn of Rapala.
Becky and her mom made sure everyone had “good home-cooked meals” each evening. It sounds hectic; it wasn’t.
“There has been a lot of stress on Mike this week,” Becky said. “I’ve felt it.
“But it has been a wonderful distraction to have everyone there. I would do it all over again the same way.”
A home-cooked meal with friends and family every evening served as an ice pack on a bruised body and soul for Iaconelli. Sunday he mentioned that he’d never forget this week. No one else will either. That bright light shining on East Coast bass fishing covered everything that is good about the sport.
Almost as happy Sunday as Iaconelli was Todd Pride, the director of the Mid-Atlantic Youth Anglers & Outdoors Program. If pro bass fishing represents anything, it’s about showing young people a positive path to a fulfilling life in the outdoors. Pride spent long hours helping secure Philadelphia as an Elite Series host city. He thought it could make a difference, maybe even be a life-changing event, for some young people. But Pride had no idea the city would embrace this tournament like it did.
Wherever Iaconelli went in racing up and down the Delaware River, people of all ages shouted encouragement. Little old ladies walked out on a park fishing pier to take his photo and cheer him on. Young guys floating down a creek, catfishing from inflatable rafts, shouted encouragement. Refinery workers strolled down the riverbank to give him two thumbs-up. Iaconelli masked his intensity and chatted briefly with all of them, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
But getting past the spectators and the hoopla, this tournament displayed a pro angler functioning at the highest possible level. Tournament winners often talk about “making good decisions” and “following your instincts.” But you never really know what that means. If you’d followed Iaconelli on the water this week, you’d have seen exactly what it means.
The best example came late Sunday. Iaconelli had said he had “60 or 70 (fishing) spots in a 10-mile area” of the Delaware River. By 1:50 p.m., with check-in time looming at 3:00, it seemed like he’d hit all of them while running-and-gunning since the 6:15 a.m. launch time. And he still had only four bass in the boat, one shy of a limit.
Iaconelli made a few flips in one spot, pulled up his trolling motor, strapped the rods to the deck and was beginning to throttle up the outboard motor when he suddenly made a 90-degree right turn and shut it down. Iaconelli trolled over to an old piece of steel, shaped like a box, over what appeared to be a tidal pond drain pipe.
Let him tell you the rest:
“I have no idea why I did that,” Iaconelli said. “I have never fished that before in my 20 years of fishing here, because on a mid to low tide, there’s zero water there. There’s just sand and gravel underneath it.
“But as I was driving past it (at high tide), it reminded me of a drain because I could cast in under it. Instincts made me just turn that (steering) wheel and pull up to it. That’s the kind of stuff that’s happened this week.”
It may have been on his first flip, his second at most, when Iaconelli set the hook and boated bass No. 5. It weighed about 2 pounds.
“It might have been an old, old (tidal pond) drain from years ago. It’s not an active drain right now,” he said.
Iaconelli’s fourth keeper Sunday came in similar fashion: What he did seemed to make no sense. Even Ike’s long-time friend and fellow bass pro Pete Gluszek was questioning his tactics. Woodbury Creek had been a good spot for Iaconelli all week, but only when the tide was in its final stages of reaching the low point. Iaconelli had caught his first fish of the day there, but now he was running up the creek at high tide. Gluszek wondered why Ike was throwing a vibration jig (similar to a ChatterBait), but he especially questioned why Iaconelli had come back to the creek at high tide.
“That was an unbelievable decision,” Iaconelli said. “I wanted so bad to get back and fish a couple of bridges, but the tide got so low I couldn’t get to them the last two days. I knew the water would be terrible. It was coming up and bringing in mud. But I thought that vibration jig, if I could get it around those bridges, might catch one or two.”
It produced one — keeper No. 4, a solid 2-pounder — at 10 a.m.
Why did he make those seemingly strange decisions, which produced two of his five keepers?
“When I’ve had success other times in my career, that’s happened,” Iaconelli said. “I wish I could figure it out. It happened to me at Lake Erie last year when I won the (Bassmaster Northern) Open.
“It comes from a feeling inside. Normally, it’s just human nature, you don’t listen to those things. You shove them back. When you catch (bass) and you’re in the zone, you let them out.
“That happened to me so many times over the last four days.”
Four days of Mike Iaconelli embracing his bass fishing instincts left Philadelphia feeling like its nickname, “The City of Brotherly Love.” And the brother these people most loved was “Ike, Ike, Ike, Ike…” — one of their own.