By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
It's been more than a decade since Mike Iaconelli found himself in the situation he's in right now – needing a strong finish in the final event of the year in order to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic. Sitting at No. 31 in the points race, he needs at least a mediocre showing next month at Oneida to avoid missing the sport's premier event for the first time since 2001.
That term – mediocre – keeps cropping up when he talks about his 2012 campaign. He's fared no better than 19th in any of the seven events and has missed two 50-cuts in his past four outings.
He's never gone an entire season without at least one single-digit finish since the inception of the Elite Series in 2006, but Oneida – a venue where he's had a lot of success – now represents his final opportunity to keep that streak alive.
"It's been a weird year and I'm not happy with how it's gone," the 2003 Classic champion and '06 Angler of the Year said. "When you look back at the history of my fishing, I've never been an angler who was just steady solid – I've always had those peaks and valleys.
"It might sound strange to say this, but it's almost harder to stomach a mediocre year like this one than a bad year."
No Rhyme or Reason
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the season for Iaconelli is that he can't figure out why it hasn't been considerably better.
"A lot of times you can point to a lost fish here, a bad decision there, or maybe you swung for the fences and that caused you to have a terrible event," he said. "I can't point to any situation like that. I've had great practices, I've executed well and I've made good decisions, but I've ended up in the middle of the pack.
"It's been one of those years where the fish haven't turned up big. If you're having mediocre finishes, that means you're catching mediocre fish."
His average placement this year has been 43rd. If he hits that mark at Oneida, it'll likely garner him his 14th Classic appearance, but that'd be cutting it pretty close (the Top 28 in the AOY race are guaranteed berths, but the actual number will approach the mid-30s due to double-qualifiers).
His Oneida record is superb – he has three Top-10s in four Elite outings and logged a 6th in a Northern Open last year. His lone stinker there occurred in an Elite event in 2009, when he finished 54th.
"I think what hurt me in that one was fishing a little too much history. My history there goes all the way back to the Red Man days and I fished memories rather than the current conditions. I'm real big into the theory of 'fishing in the moment' – I preach it all the time and I give seminars on it – but I'm still guilty sometimes of not doing it myself. It's human nature to go back to the places where you've had success and try to rekindle those positive experiences, and that's what I did in that tournament.
"If I could pinpoint anything about (what's gone wrong) this year, maybe it ties into that. Maybe because I've had such good practices, I was drawn back to those exact places to try to catch fish rather than fishing free and more wide-open. That can definitely hurt you."
Not a Believer in Breaks
Iaconelli is not among those who believe that an extended hiatus from fishing is the cure for a slump. He figures that the only way to get out of a rut is to fish his way out.
He's currently spending some time at home in New Jersey, but he's still getting on the water frequently. He'll compete in the Cayuga Northern Open the week prior to the Oneida derby and hopes that event will provide him with some momentum.
If Iaconelli never makes another Classic, he'll still have accomplished many of his career goals.
"Those lakes aren't exactly similar, but they're close – they're both finger-type lakes," he said. "The ideal scenario would be to fish well at Cayuga and then carry that over to Oneida and make it to the last day (the Top 12) there. I'd be killing two birds with one stone – I'd put myself in contention to win, and the Classic would be a done deal."
If none of that plays out and he ends up missing the 2013 Classic, he'll be disappointed, but not devastated. He insists that it won't be nearly the psychological blow that he incurred in 2001, when he was in contention for a Classic spot going into the last event at Douglas Lake and finished 129th.
"I'm going to do everything I can to make it, but things are a little different now. I was a young kid back then and still green and still trying to get a footprint in the sport, and financially I wasn't secure. I had a lot of things riding on that tournament and when I didn't make it, I was crushed. It did make me understand the difficulty of making the Classic, though. Things had been coming a little too easy for me and I needed a reality check, and that was a big one. It put me in my place a little bit.
"If I never make another Classic, I'll still have accomplished a lot of my goals. I've won one and I've won the AOY and I've done some other things in the sport.
"Maybe I'm a little more mature now that I've gotten older (he's 40 now), but I'm able to digest a bad tournament a lot easier than I could back then."