The Rock to decide top angler

CELEBRATION, Fla. — While several qualifying spots and contingency awards are on the line at this week's The Rock presented by TheraSeed at Table Rock Lake in Kimberling City, Mo., nothing can top the prestige and importance of the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year race.

With 10 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series events already over, New Jersey's Mike Iaconelli and Alabama's Steve Kennedy have distanced themselves from the others in the 102-angler field. Approaching the final tournament, Iaconelli holds a steady yet approachable 45-point lead over Kennedy, a freshman who's leading the Toyota Rookie of the Year race.

With a third-place showing in the 2004 Angler of the Year standings and an eighth-place finish last year, Iaconelli has put together solid seasons. But the 34-year-old BASS millionaire has yet to win the prestigious award.

"This is the one that's missing," said Iaconelli. "I want to win this one really bad and I am in a good position to do so."

Much like 2005, when Alabama's Aaron Martens scored a second-place finish in the final event of the season to beat out Marty Stone for the title, both Iaconelli and Kennedy are searching for solid finishes to secure the Angler of the Year award.

"I will be looking to catch limits out there," Iaconelli said. "I am looking forward to pulling out the finesse rod and concentrating on landing a limit."

Meanwhile, Kennedy has strung together an ultra-impressive rookie season. Even without a win, he has amassed more than $150,000 in earnings.

"That guy is good," said Kennedy, referring to Iaconelli. "It has been nearly impossible to gain any ground on him but I have a shot to win this thing and that is all I can ask for."

Although it's considered a long shot, if Iaconelli and Kennedy both falter at the deep, clear Missouri fishery, another accomplished angler could take home the crown.

In third place in the standings is BASS single-day, heaviest-catch record holder Dean Rojas (111 points out of first), three-time Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam (124 points out of first) and 2005 winner Martens (131 points behind).

The Bassmaster Angler of the Year will be awarded following the conclusion of The Rock on Sunday, Sept. 17.

Anglers consider the annual award the truest measure of season-long performance. With an expanded, 11-event season, an angler must fish consistently on a number of different fisheries at different times of the year to finish high in the standings.

Plus, there is more cash than ever at stake. BASS increased the Angler of the Year payout by 100 percent — to $601,000 — and also doubled the number of anglers awarded money. The top prize is an unprecedented $125,000.

Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Toyota, Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, Advance Auto Parts and TheraSeed®.