At one time, I despised Mike Iaconelli.
And, with the New Jersey screamer delivering the latest crushing blow in my quest for a recent Great Lakes title, you’d think I’d hate the guy by now. But nothing could be further from the truth. I love the fact that he won.
Let me back up a bit for those who aren’t up to speed with every bass fishing tournament across the nation.
Last week, I competed in the Bassmaster Northern Open in Sandusky, Ohio. The venue was one I knew well. At one time, I had competed in as many as 20 events annually out of Sandusky. I had won there before. The timing was perfect to put the big smallmouths on deep summer structure – my specialty. The summer weaned into fall, almost guaranteeing turbulent weather and rough seas, brining yet another advantage to Great Lakes regulars like myself.
In addition, many of my close friends and cohorts were competing in another Great Lakes event on Erie’s opposite shore – making conditions ideal for easy picking.
Day 1 got off to a great start, with Erie cranking out legendary bags of fish that even I had never seen the likes of before. More than 20 bags weighing 20 pounds or more crossed the scales. The money cut was something like 18 pounds. It was unreal. I crossed with a respectable 21 and change, landing in 8th place. Iaconelli blew things open with nearly 24. I had some work to do.
Day 2 was cancelled due to weather and, despite all of my close friends ensuring me a great chance at victory had we fished, I think it was the right call. It reminded me of Rick Clunn sitting on the dock at Falcon earlier this year, where he estimated he had a “90 percent chance of winning” had the competitors been allowed to fish. I had a back-up plan and vast experience in such conditions. But I, just like everyone else, welcomed the extra sleep and avoiding exposure to Erie’s autumn madness.
So day 3 brought the final shootout. I did everything I could, starting with a mediocre limit. A big run took me to a place I was sure no other competitor had found, but resulted in no improvements. More moves finally landed me on the mother lode at a location I hadn’t tournament-fished in over a decade. I had the place to myself and brought in a monster bag after catching my two largest fish off an isolated rock never found by another man.
Mike Iaconelli earned the respect of the author several years ago with his work ethic and devotion to his fans.
One competitor brought in an even bigger bag.
When the scales settled and the numbers were tallied, Iaconelli blew it away. In true superstar form, he brought in the largest stringer of the event in the final hour to win the Open and secure his place in the 2014 Classic. B.A.S.S. couldn’t have written a better script.
And, yes, I would have liked to have won. But, if anyone were to beat me, I’m glad it was him.
The more I delve into this aspect of pro fishing, the more I’m blown away by the astounding athletes in our sport. Here’s a guy who is one of the best, but slips a bit this season and finds himself out of the Classic, something more important to his career than any of us probably realize.
In order to redeem himself, he needs to travel to the fourth-largest lake in North America and compete against guys like me, with more than 20 years of experience on the big water. To cap it all off, he needs to win the tournament. Not a check, not a good showing, not a Top-5 in points – a win. And that’s exactly what he did.
When B.A.S.S. first announced its “win-and-you're-in” program for the Classic several years ago, I thought nothing could be more absurd. Who could really expect to win an event, I thought. Place well? Sure. Get a check? Most likely. But win?
Perhaps B.A.S.S. knew more than I did. Perhaps they saw the greatness that filled their ranks.
In my mind, Iaconelli put on a demonstration that measures up with just about anything I’ve ever seen accomplished in competitive bass fishing. It ranks up there with Larry Nixon’s FLW win last year on St. Clair at 60-plus years old. Sure, it’s not Clunn in the 1990 Classic, but it’s not far off, considering the circumstance and the venue.
I remember when my verdict was still out on Iaconelli. Enough with the antics already, I thought. Then something changed my mind.
While practicing for an Open several years ago, I decided to get a jump on the rest of the field by launching at the first hint of daylight. To my surprise, one other vehicle was already in the parking lot when I pulled into the ramp. Iaconelli was up and at it.
Following a grueling day in the summer heat of Virginia, and a lack of quality bites, it was all I could do to get back to the ramp and load my boat at dark. I love practicing late in the day, as most other competitors are long off the water, opening up the lake. I’ve never been one for “going out to dinner,” anyway.
At 9 p.m. that day, I finally made it back to the dock. There was Iaconelli, just pulling in as well.
Thank goodness the day was over, I thought. I could just collapse into my truck and blast the A/C. My bed at the hotel was sure sounding good.
Ike was probably thinking the same thing when he approached the ramp. The crowd gathered in the dark around his gaudy pick-up truck thought otherwise.
After loading my boat, securing the tie-downs, switching trolling motors and covering my rig, a good hour had passed. Iaconelli’s boat still floated at the dock, as he posed for yet another photo with the fans, and signed yet another autograph. My distaste for him vanished that day.
Before you sign up to be a big-league bass pro, think about what these guys go through, and what they accomplish.
The next time you hit the dock, imagine being delayed for hours by fans. Imagine the late-night calls home, and not seeing your driveway for months at a time. Imagine coming to Lake Erie, staring down 6-footers and the likes of the local heroes, and then defeating them all.
Then, like me, you’ll take your hat off to the men who keep us dreaming.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)