By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan

(Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a 2-part series on how pro bass anglers manage the mental aspects of the sport.)

“Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it ‘character in action.’”

– Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi

Some anglers measure their success by the weight that registers on the scales or the trophy that gets hoisted over their head. They race against the clock from the moment they blast off until they check in, making countless game-changing decisions during the day that can ensure their success or punctuate their shortcomings.  

Those words ring true for the top pros who compete on the Elite Series or FLW Tour, some of whom opened up about the mental side of their approach to the sport. Some fell so far financially, they could touch bottom. Others have had to harness inner demons or stay the course to bounce back from a rare failure.

Many anglers like to say, “it’s between me and the fish.” That’s a fair assessment if they’ve got everything right in their head with their game plan, their thoughts and their attitude. 

Sometimes, though, it takes a lesson or two to get things straight. What follows is how several of the top pro bass fishermen manage the mental side of the sport as it relates to how they go about their business on the water.

Christie: Confidence is Key

Early on, Jason Christie determined he would go all out at the Oklahoma-based tournaments that paid $25,000 to the winner.

“We had the mindset that we’re going for the boat, whether it was a good or bad practice,” Christie said.

Playing basketball throughout high school and at Northeastern Oklahoma State University inspired his hard-nosed, full-court press approach to fishing. His will to win was instilled at a very young age, a credit to his parents.

For top-tier anglers, Christie says there’s one common denominator among them all – confidence.

“That top 10 percent might not have a fish at 2 o’clock, but they still believe that they are going to catch a good limit,” he said. “The older I get, the more patient I’ve become.”

For example, when he won the 2012 Detroit River Bassmaster Northern Open fishing an area the size of a football field, it was common for him to go 90 minutes between bites. At the Lake Dardanelle Elite Series in 2014, Christie boated his two biggest fish during the final 45 minutes to seal the win.

“At the end of the day, if I catch them, I want it to be because of me, and just the same if I don’t,” he said. “When you are in the boat at 11 a.m. and you are not having a great day, you start thinking about what you heard. I want to do it my way. I have confidence in the way I’ve always done it.”

Understanding that practice is a tool to identify areas to settle into on tournament day is key. He’s fallen prey to getting locked in on water that was productive prior to competition.

“Some of the best practices I’ve ever had have been some of my worst tournaments,” he said. “At Cayuga in August 2014, I had an outstanding practice, but a terrible tournament. Had I not been so dialed in during practice, I would’ve been able to adjust.”

At his first Bassmaster Classic in 2013 at Grand Lake, he swallowed a bitter pill. Being the hometown favorite wasn’t the issue. Adjusting too much, retracing old hot spots and aborting a solid game plan after day 1 was.

“Cliff Pace won that event in an area that I love to fish,” he said. “Cliff settled down in that area and he fished it. I had too many places to go, too many things to do, and I ran around too much. He won it out of that core area where I’ve won so many tournaments on Grand Lake – that’s what hurt the most.”

Christie made amends by winning the FLW Tour event at Grand Lake later that summer by hammering one stretch of bushes while the water was high.

When the Classic returned to Grand in 2016, Christie left nothing to chance. He stayed in a garage apartment of a friend, without even a television. He was all consumed by the Classic and was the leader heading out on the final day, only to see fellow Oklahoman and traveling partner Edwin Evers slam 29-03 to seize the win.

“I didn’t lose that Classic, Edwin won that Classic,” Christie said. “People might not believe this, but I don’t have any bitter feelings. I had the right game plan. I just got beat. If I had to do it over again, I would have done the same thing.”

Turning Negatives into Positives

A Bassmaster Classic victory. A Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. Numerous Elite Series and Open wins. Mike Iaconelli has captured them all.

Yet, he’s experienced the darkest of times and reached a point where he almost called it a career. The product of a very passionate family, Iaconelli latched onto fishing as a vehicle to chase (and ultimately achieve) his dreams when he was a kid.

Photo: BassFan

Mike Iaconelli sought the help of a sports psychologist a few years ago and it has helped him channel his emotions in a positive manner.

“If nothing is going right – your equipment is breaking and you’re down to your last rod and it’s broken – file the tip of your rod off to the last eye and keep fishing,” he said. “You don’t just quit until it’s over.”

Anglers dream of being in the proverbial "zone" that other athletes claim to inhabit from time to time. Some believe it’s a product of superior performance, confidence and intuition rewarded by success. The term barely does justice for what Iaconelli experienced when he won the Delaware River Elite Series in 2014, a short drive from his New Jersey home.

“The similarity between Erie and Delaware, during portions of the day, it was almost like I was outside of my body watching it happen, like everything was unfolding in front of me,” Iaconelli said, referencing his 2013 Northern Open win at Lake Erie.

“The casts were perfect and every fish was coming to the boat, it was so surreal,” he added. “It’s like you couldn’t stop it.”

The Erie win was a virtual Hail Mary pass that punched his ticket to the ’14 Classic. He’d finished out of Classic contention in the Elite Series points so there he was, in the middle of a Great Lake, his BassCat being tossed around in 7-foot waves, a dropshot rod in his hand and a drift sock deployed to blunt the effects of the waves.

Yet, the Delaware River likely marked the start of the next chapter in Iaconelli’s career.

As the Elites descended upon Philadelphia, Iaconelli’s old stomping grounds – he was born in Philly and raised in the suburbs of New Jersey – many figured he would shine like a star, or suffer an epic meltdown.

Few knew that his wife, Becky, suggested 4 years prior that he start working with a sports psychologist to better harness his passion – and frustration. Becky also suggested a technique or two of her own.

“She’s a very passionate, emotional person, but she does it in such a different way, a calmer, more analytical way,” he said. “They helped not to make me a different person, but to better handle situations, to keep me a competitor and stay focused.”

Iaconelli knew he had to better deal with negative occurrences like a lost fish or a bad decision.

“Early in my career, I couldn’t get over it and it would destroy me for the rest of the event,” he said. “The sports psychologist helped me with the techniques to deal with that loss, failure, and that negative – and keep me going.”

Iaconelli pointed to a pair of pivotal moments during the Delaware River event where he deployed his newfound mental prowess.

On day 1, a 3 1/2-pound fish jumped and broke off on a sharp piece of metal. With only three fish in the box during what he called the “event of my life,” it had the makings of triggering a meltdown.

“Years ago, that would have been it for me,” he said. “I would have finished down in the pack and I could have pinpointed my failure in the event on that one lost fish that I could never get over mentally. Yes, it was still hard and I might have cussed, but I used some of the techniques I learned from the psychologist and was able to get it behind me real quick. I went on to win the event.”

The following day, with only a couple of keepers, he followed a gut instinct to run to a spot where the tide was in the middle of its cycle. The perfect pitch was rewarded by a 4-pounder that got stuck inside a small opening in a barge he was fishing. He calmly calculated its exit, keeping even pressure for several minutes before it swam out to him. No tantrum, no frustration – he just never gave up.

How Hackney Stays Hungry

Watching Rick Clunn win $40,000 at the 1984 Bassmaster Classic at the Arkansas River in Pine Bluff, Ark., forever changed Greg Hackney.

That summer, a 10-year-old Hackney fished competitively with his father and joined an adult bass club. Success came quickly.

“I always had that will to survive and put it on their throats,” Hackney said.

Some anglers prefer a contrived game plan heading into a tournament. Hackney uses the Navionics app on his iPhone to get the lay of the land, but never picks a spot to fish.

Photo: BassFan

Greg Hackney tries to maintain a calm focus during tournaments.

“If I looked at a ton of places at Cayuga in 2014, I never would’ve won,” Hackney said of the Elite Series event that catapulted him to an AOY title.

Once he figured out the deep grass bite on day 2, Hackney used his map to refine his winning pattern. Even when he’s catching them, efficiency is key. He’s always trying to anticipate the bass’ next move and what presentation could best get the job done. When he won at Cayuga and the Pickwick Lake FLW Tour, he caught one or two fish on the bait he used to find them.

When the pressure is ratcheted up, Hackney says he performs his best. In 2014, a lost fish that forced him to settle for a 3rd-place finish at the Lake Dardanelle Elite Series marked an average start to the season. He was still 2nd in the AOY points, but it gave him a chance to refocus.

“I’ve never been as motivated as I’ve been since Dardanelle,” he said. “It was like I got a taste of blood after that.”

He moved into the points lead after a Top-50 showing at the Delaware River before the schedule shifted to Cayuga.

“I was so laid back, but in my mind, I was on a mission,” he recalled. “I would never have thought of winning that tournament. All I focused on was having the best tournament possible.”

Before Cayuga, Hackney had longed for home as a storm was brewing in his nerves. The long hours on the road pushed him toward burnout.

After the Delaware River, he had learned that one of the stops on the 2015 Elite Series schedule would be the Chesapeake Bay, which wasn’t too far away, so he thought he’d get a sneak peak. His ambition was short-lived. He woke up to pre-fish and realized that his heart longed for home.

“It was the best thing I could have ever done,” he said. “I wasn’t homesick after the trip. Had I stayed in Maryland that whole week, I can’t tell you that I would have won at Cayuga. I hit the reset button. When I got to Cayuga, I was pumped.”

Hackney can vouch for the trickery the mind is capable of. On the eve of his trip to Escanaba, Mich., for the 2014 AOY championship, he recalled having a dream about bad weather hampering the event.

“We were at Escanaba and the weather never let us get out; it was so bad,” he said. “Finally, we were going to fish for 3 hours. The deal was between Aaron Martens and me. All I had to do was catch one fish to win AOY. I never got a bite. Your mind plays tricks on you because it is human nature to be negative. It seems like you are always fighting that.”

The dream stung him a bit after he woke up, but he shook it off and even found some humor in it a few days later – as he held the AOY trophy aloft.

Hackney has found that winning the 2014 AOY has brought a new sense of calm and an instilled confidence to trust in his instincts and abilities. Where in the past, he’d convince himself that since his practice wasn’t stellar, or didn't hold the potential to produce the necessary weight to win, he’d scrap what he’d learned in practice and start fresh on day 1.

“After the event, even though my practice might not have won it, I still might have had a good tournament if I’d followed through with it,” he said. “I’ve realized you can’t win every tournament. If you fish clean, and don’t make any mistakes, and move good, I’ve learned to be satisfied with that.”

Don’t mistake his calm for complacency.

“I’ll always fish scared because I need to catch them to keep the lights on,” he added. “I do know that nothing is for sure. I appreciate everything. I want to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. If you get too comfortable, maybe you lose that eye of the tiger. You've got to always be hungry. If I got to the point that I wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it anymore.”

End Part 1 (of 2)