NEW ORLEANS, La. Thirty-three -year-old New Jersey pro Michael Iaconelli on Saturday morning recovered from early mechanical problems that left him temporarily adrift in the Gulf of Mexico to take the lead in the $700,000 CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer entering Sunday's final round.
After his rocky start, Iaconelli rebounded to catch 10 legal-size bass, the five heaviest weighing in at 11 pounds, 10 ounces (for a two-day total of 27 pounds even).
Hot on his heels are three veteran anglers: South Carolina's Davy Hite, who won the 1999 Classic on these Louisiana Delta waters, with 24-5; 21-time Classic contender Gary Klein of Texas (24-4); and Texan Harold Allen, a 14-time Classic competitor (22-5).
Starting the day in second place, Iaconelli was in his bass boat en route to the Venice area where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico when his vessel suddenly lost power.
"For about 15 to 20 minutes, as I was floating in that big pond, the whole Classic kind of flashed before my eyes," he said. "The service crew got me running again pretty quick, but I lost about 40 minutes of fishing time, which I really believe hurt my fishing today because I had been on a good early bite in my area.
"Because of the time I lost I felt like I had to go fish for numbers instead of the quality bass I caught there (Friday). I didn't throw the jig today, but I can't wait to throw it tomorrow for those quality fish."
Iaconelli's success came primarily by briskly working a prototype Mann's plastic worm through shallow vegetation and then following up with a Mann's Super Finesse Worm on bass that chased but missed the bait.
For the first time, the four-time Classic qualifier enters the final day as the leader in the race for the $200,000 top prize and the most important title in competitive fishing.
"It's a great feeling to be going into the last day of the Classic leading … and actually leading two of the guys I've always admired," said Iaconelli, who sports a colorful bass tattoo on his right bicep. "They're my heroes.
"But I'm not worried about Davy Hite and Gary Klein … because they are uncontrollables. I'm only concerned about my fishing tomorrow, which is the only thing I can control."
Hite, 38, had Thursday's biggest jump, with a second-round catch of 13-14. His success came on a Gambler worm fished in the same area (Bayou Boeuf), where he won the Classic four years early.
"I'm really excited about tomorrow," said Hite, the 2002 Angler of the Year. "It's going to be a shootout."
Klein, 47, is a two-time BASS Angler of the Year who has never won the Classic. He came close on two occasions.
"I'm in the hunt and that's when bass fishing is really fun to go into the last day with a chance to win," said Klein, who switched from a jig to a soft-plastic creature bait on Saturday. "It's going to be a war."
Michigan's Kevin VanDam, the 2001 Bassmaster Classic champion, took Saturday's big-bass honors with a 5-pound, 6-ounce largemouth.
The 61-man Classic field was pared to 25 for the final round. First-round leader Mark Menendez struggled to catch just 4 pounds, 3 ounces of bass and fell to seventh place, at 20-13. Defending Classic champion and Busch BASS Angler of the Year Jay Yelas posted a weight of 9½ pounds and sits in 10th place with 20 pounds even.