PITTSBURGH, Pa. — When the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic qualifiers arrive in Pittsburgh in June for an official seven-day scouting period, almost all of them will launch their boats on waters that are totally unfamiliar to them.
Even the two Pennsylvania qualifiers — Dave Wolak and Ed Cowan — have never fished the Allegheny, Monongahela and (specific pools on the) Ohio rivers. That adds to the intrigue of Classic XXXV.
The exception is 2003 Classic champion Michael Iaconelli, who was savvy enough to spend seven days learning the Classic waters back in October. "I had never fished in those particular pools until last October," the New Jersey pro said. "They had already announced the Classic waters and they didn't go off-limits until March 1, so I just took a gamble that I'd make the Classic and went there.
"I spent a day in each pool trying to just look at it. Again, it was October, so the fishing really wasn't as important to me as scouting, and I spent very little time actually fishing. I spent most of the time using my electronics and going up creeks and looking at the banks and stuff like that. That was my main motivation — just trying to learn how to navigate through the pools."
Iaconelli, who grew up fishing the lakes and rivers in the Northeast, was asked to describe the Classic waters.
"It's very much what I call an industrial river," he said. "If you remember what the Calumet River was like when we went to Chicago [site of the 2000 Classic] it's going to be a lot like that minus the clear water.
"It's an industrial setting with lots of manmade bank, meaning riprap, steel bulkhead — old industry that has been worn down over the years. They're pretty much straight banks, meaning there are very limited backwater areas.
"It's setting up to be a tough tournament. Obviously, I don't think it's going to be a big weight event. It's going to be a close one."
From his experience and research, Iaconelli believes the bass population in the rivers breaks down to 70 percent smallmouth and 30 percent a combination of largemouth and spotted bass. That could set the stage for a rarity in Classic history — when smallmouths dominate the catch.
"This tournament, in my mind, is going to be dominated by smallmouth," he said. "If you're going to catch a big bag one day, it'll probably be largemouth, but I don't think the largemouth will last for three days in a row."
Given the size of the waterways and the anticipated challenging fishing conditions, Iaconelli expects Classic anglers to be scattered throughout the system.
"No one pool will dominate," he noted. "One thing I learned through my research is that the Ohio pools are the most stable. The Allegheny side is the most clear, and the Monongahela side is the most off-colored. That's really the only difference between the three pools that I see.
"I think there's potential to win in each of the pools.
"The longest run is the second pool — the Monongahela side — which is the right side as you go up. If you go through one lock there and then up to the next one — you're allowed two pools in the Monongahela — that pool is pretty big, so that's your biggest run.
"You can go a long ways, but the one thing you have to remember as a competitor is these lock masters aren't used to a lot of recreational traffic. They're used to handling a lot of commercial stuff, so the locking procedure takes a long time. Even though you're only going up 10 to 12 feet, it's a 40-minute locking process on average, so you're going to lose a lot of time locking."
Iaconelli was asked to dust off his crystal ball and predict the kind of fishing that will await the Classic competitors in late July.
"I think it's going to be typical summertime fishing on what I call a 'natural' river," he said. "There are no tides there, and I think the big missing element that we won't know about until the week before the tournament is rainfall. That's going to be a key element.
"Obviously, if we get a whole lot of rain, it could be really bad. Flood conditions could be really bad. If we get some rain — normal rainfall — it could be good because it's going to raise the water level a little bit and create more current. It's going to stain the water a little. Then the total opposite is no rainfall the month before the tournament — drought conditions. That could be really bad because the rivers will get low and clear. Those are really tough conditions on natural rivers, especially a natural industrial river."
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