New Jersey pro

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Confidence has never been a problem for Michael Iaconelli. And on Sunday, in the giant marshland known as the Louisiana Delta, he lived up to the old Dizzy Dean adage that, "It ain't bragging if you can back it up."

With three grizzled veterans hot on his heels, the 31-year-old New Jersey pro held up to the pressure of being the leader entering the final round of professional fishing's marquee event to score a narrow victory in the 33rd annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer.

In the battle of the Big Easy, Iaconelli's triumph was anything but easy.

Iaconelli brought a five-bass limit weighing 10 pounds, 14 ounces to the scales Sunday, for a three-day total of 37-14, to electrify the New Orleans Arena crowd of about 11,000 and score a 1-pound, 12-ounce victory over perennial Classic contender Gary Klein of Texas (36-2). Another Texan, Harold Allen, finished third with 34-3, followed by legendary Florida angler pro Roland Martin (31-9) and Virginia's Curt Lytle (31-3).

To the winner of fishing's Big Show go the spoils to the tune of $200,000 and a piece of fishing immortality.

"As confident as I am and as sure as I was that I would do this eventually, I'm in shock," said Iaconelli, who was competing in just his fourth Classic. "When I realized that I had won, I looked down at my mom, and I'll never forget the look on her face. What a feeling."

Iaconelli entered this Classic with extraordinary confidence in one particular area in the Venice region of the Delta that he had located during an official six-day scouting period a month ago. When he visited the shallow, grassy lagoon during the lone practice day on Wednesday and shook off a dozen strikes in about an hour, Iaconelli grew even more assured about his chances.

"I can sum my feelings up in two words," he said, "Yeah, baby!

It's a dream come true. Since I was 12 or 13 years old and started reading Bassmaster Magazine and had heroes like Gary, it's something I've dreamed of all these years."

Iaconelli fished his first Classic in New Orleans in 1999, when he finished sixth as a representative from the amateur BASS Federation system. That performance gave him the confidence to launch his career as a full-time touring pro.

His Classic success came on a trio of Mann's lures — a Stone jig, Super Finesse Worm and prototype Swim Worm.

The two soft-plastic baits combined to help Iaconelli catch the most pivotal bass of the week, with about five minutes remaining in his fishing day, when a 3¾-pound fish swirled at (and missed) the Swim Worm before then inhaling the Super Finesse Worm.

"What a perfect punctuation to the day," he said.

For Klein, 45, the 2003 Classic will be remembered as another one that got away. He has come close in three of his 21 Classic appearances.

"Second place sucks," he said candidly. "I'm just being honest. But all this is going to do is make me more determined when we start next season."

Allen, 58, will remember his 14th Classic for an unusual, frustrating occurrence that might have played a role in his third-place finish. He was run out of his best spots on consecutive days by an angry airboater, who claimed that Allen was trespassing on private — but unposted — property. Following the order of tournament officials, he simply abandoned his most productive areas.

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