<
>

IN-YOUR-FACE MIKE IACONELLI IS THE MAN OTHER BASS FISHERMEN LOVE TO HATE

"You guys are gonna do this whole piece on him, aren't you?" asks champion bass fisherman Skeet Reese, flipping up his visor so he can run his hands through his bleached blond hair. "That skinny little butthead."

Whatever. Michael Iaconelli has been called a lot of names in his five years chasing fish on the BASS Pro Tour, and Butthead is about as mild as it gets. The tricky part is figuring out who's joking (like Reese, a friend) and who has a serious grumble with the guy.

Iaconelli-a.k.a. Ike, a.k.a. the new face of bass fishing-grew up in New Jersey, far from the traditional locales of tournament bass fishing, the slow waters of Alabama and Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi. Within an instant of meeting him, it's obvious why the 32-year-old might rattle the world of men who chase green fish. There are the wireframe glasses and the hip-hop booming from his truck speakers. Then there's the loud voice and demonstrative manner. Make that very loud and very demonstrative.

How Not to Win Bass Fishing Friends, Part 1: During the final-day weigh-in of last year's Bassmaster Classic, Ike grew so excited with his catch that he broke into a raucous break-dance. He won the championship and pocketed the $200,000 check, but it was his dance, not his fishing, that landed him on SportsCenter. Not all of his fishing peers were amused.

How Not to Win Bass Fishing Friends, Part 2: At a tournament in January, Iaconelli hooked a fish, turned to a fan watching from the porch of his home and launched into fist pumps and a rapid-fire "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" Then Ike flopped on his back, sat up, put his face inches from his catch and taunted the fish with an emphatic, "I beat you!"

The spectator's reaction? Equal parts amusement and bemusement, which is typical for an Iaconelli episode. When it comes to Ike, competitors and fans agree on only one thing.

The guy catches boatloads of fish.

IT'S a beautiful March morning at Randolph's Landing on Santee Cooper Lakes in tiny Manning, S.C. Or it will be beautiful when the sun comes up. Right now, at 5:30 a.m., it's butt-numbing cold, and Iaconelli is late. Actually, he's not late. He told everyone to arrive at 5:30 but planned all along to come at 6, ready to hit the water for the final day of practice before the start of the tournament. The Santee Cooper Lakes event is the last of six stops on the Bassmaster Tour, and Ike is trying to build momentum for the Classic, the Super Bowl of bass fishing, which casts off July 30 at Lake Wylie in Charlotte, N.C. Improbably, the Jersey boy is defending champ.

At 5:55, Iaconelli rolls up in his white SUV, towing a blue 18'6'' Ranger 518 VX bass boat. It's "unwrapped," meaning no sponsor logos, and on the back is a 250 HP Yamaha motor capable of pushing the rig 70 mph in pursuit of bass. Inside is a GPS, to navigate lakes and mark fishing holes, and 15 rods (Daiwa LT "Light and Tough" series). Spinning rods are stacked on the left side of the boat, casting rods on the right. Iaconelli moves quickly along the deck, double-checking tackle and stuffing gear into storage compartments. His real opponents hide in the lake's 180,000 acres of shallow water, and Iaconelli is driven to find them. "When I launch, I'm not thinking I gotta beat legends like Kevin VanDam or Denny Brauer," he says. "I'm thinking I gotta beat that little fish."

Which he does, often. In only five years as a pro, Iaconelli has vaulted to No. 21 on the BASS career earnings list ($642,450). But it's his attitude that's made him bass fishing's most recognizable name, and explains why some in his sport don't much care for him. By look and noise, Iaconelli is more X athlete than bass master. His stereotype-busting manner has drawn attention to a sport long ignored by mainstream media outlets. Today, a writer from NASCAR Magazine shares his boat. GQ and Esquire will arrive later in the week. He's done morning talk shows and thrown out the first pitch at a Braves-Astros spring training game (accidentally drilling a cameraman).

Why all the interest? For one thing, Iaconelli's a better interview than most fishermen. Ask him a question, and his answer lasts roughly as long as the duration of his stay in South Carolina: "Did I tell you the crankbait story? Well, I'll tell it again ..." He rants about the tell-all book he'd love to write (think Ball Four with casting rods). He quotes Run-D.M.C. He's a noun ("Pulling an Ike") and an adverb ("Going Ike"). And while he's rich with traditional fishing sponsors, including Yamaha, Fitover Glasses and Owner Hooks, he's also one of the few fishermen to get nibbles from mainstreamers such as Cheerios, Coke and McDonald's. Raising the profile of bass fishing is Ike's crusade. But it's not just the sport that he's selling, it's himself.

Ike was 2 when his father was killed in a car accident, so he took his first fishing trips with his uncle and grandfather in the Poconos, at Fairview Lake in Tafton, Pa., and off Long Beach Island on the Jersey shore. He doesn't remember his first fish, but the day 9-year-old Ike discovered bass fishing remains vivid, tied to his discovery that breaking rules could lead to positive results. "My grandfather always told me, 'Stay out of my tackle box!' " Iaconelli says. "So one day on vacation, I opened the box and found this lure. A floating jerk bait. Black back, silver sides." He stole the lure and crept out to the dock. "I remember it hitting the water and I didn't know what to do," Iaconelli says. "Then, voom! A 2- or 3-pound bass ate it and I caught it. That was the day I got hooked."

As he got older, Iaconelli's fishing jones presented a dilemma. "When you're 15, from right outside Philadelphia, fishing is not cool," he says. "I'd ask my mom for a ride to the lake, and I'd have to make sure none of the chicks from school were around." Outside his core group of friends, he says, "Nobody really knew I was Weirdo Bass Fisherman.

I was like Batman." He navigated teenage suburbia with more popular personas like Mike Iaconelli, break-dancing DJ, and Mike Iaconelli, undersized hockey player. It wasn't until his senior year of high school that he quit sneaking to fish. "I finally said, this is ridiculous. I like to fish, so who cares?" In college, Iaconelli began developing his tournament technique, slipping away on weekends to fish on the Federation circuit (bass fishing's amateur league). When he graduated from Rowan, he was named Most Likely to Become a Professional Bass Fisherman.

Not long after, Iaconelli found his holy grail of jobs, managing the hunting and fishing department at Dick's Sporting Goods in Mt. Laurel, N.J. And once again, Iaconelli found that flaunting rules worked to his advantage. For three years, he honed his talents in the store's aisles, drilling makeshift targets with amazing accuracy and learning the rare skill of ambidextrous casting. "I can't tell you how many rods and reels I sold because customers would see me casting," he says. He also cultivated relationships with companies that later became his sponsors and got time off from sympathetic bosses to practice and fish competitively.

After seven years on the amateur circuit, Iaconelli turned pro in 1999. That same year, he finished sixth in his first Bassmaster Classic and got married. He and wife Kristi were soon the parents of two daughters, Drew, now 5, and Rylie, 4. But the growth of Iaconelli's pro career meant more tournaments, and the constant travel was too much for his marriage. The Iaconellis, who live 20 minutes apart in suburban Philly, are divorcing.

"We're cool," Ike says. "And I still see the girls all the time when I'm home."

DAY 1 of the Santee Cooper tournament begins at 6 a.m., and 152 boats idle in the water, waiting to launch. Officials check each boat to make sure that live wells, where fish are kept during a tourney, are empty and that life jackets are zipped. Iaconelli gets the okay and heads off to find fish.

Two hours later, he still hasn't had a nibble. A two-handed sidearm cast sends the lure hard and fast over the water. Nothing. He stands at the bow, wired and nervous, his oversized blue sweatshirt and snowboard pants fighting the chill as his shaggy hair curls from under a red Mann's Bait Company cap. Zero. He reels in and casts again. Zilch. Iaconelli is a power fisherman, and his lure doesn't spend much time in the water. He casts quickly to scour as much of the lake as possible, and his heavy line allows him to toss into weeds and lily pads without fear of its getting caught and breaking. It's a fishing style that suits his full-throttle personality. Cast. Hit. Move. Always moving. And always thinking.

At 2:45, back at the dock, he's thinking the day's been a waste. The fish won today, and Iaconelli's catch of 11 pounds is good for all of 61st place. Still, he's confident he'll make tomorrow's cut. Later in the afternoon, after he's weighed his catch, stowed his gear, changed clothes and hauled his boat out of the lake, Iaconelli sits cross-legged on the deck, shirtless. He talks about his days as a DJ. About missing his daughters. About his five huge tats: the sprawling piece on his back, with a heart and a tree, was done following the failure of his marriage; the Chinese characters on his left rib cage stand for faith, love and spirit; the bass on his right shoulder celebrates his '99 Federation Championships victory. By the time this fleshy tour is over, the tourney's first day has faded into a lazy Southern night. And Iaconelli is still talking.

He's driven by two simple challenges: finding fish where no one else can, and trying to trick them into eating artificial lures. "It all comes together when you hook one," he says. "The moment a fish comes into the boat is a victory for me. Every time." Iaconelli insists that he's not a natural fisherman, and he uses that self-described handicap as motivation, a chip on his shoulder to prove himself. "You can take a guy like Larry Nixon, blindfold him and drop him anywhere on the earth, and he'll catch a bass," Iaconelli says of the BASS Tour legend. In fact, some fishermen do seem to have a preternatural ability to read fish behavior, to understand their movements, to make intuitive lure and line choices. They might as well have gills. Iaconelli, on the other hand, works the fish game, believing that attention to detail and unquenchable curiosity separate amateurs from pros. "An average fisherman catches a fish and says, Wow, that was fun!" Iaconelli says. "A great fisherman catches a fish and asks all the questions. Why did I catch that fish? Where did I catch that fish? What was the wind condition? The water temperature? Why did he hit that bait? It's like putting a big puzzle together, and the guy who can put the most pieces together is gonna be the most successful."

In prepping for a tournament, Iaconelli is like any NFLer, getting in shape and doing bass fishing's equivalent of watching game film. In the months leading up to last year's Bassmaster Classic, for example, Iaconelli stepped up his fitness program, running three-plus miles daily on the treadmill and lifting weights. Why? Because reaching certain spots on the Louisiana Delta required bone-jarring boat rides of more than two hours (imagine driving 70 mph on a pothole-strewn road in a convertible). During the practice window before the tournament, he scouted the lake to find holes where bass might be hanging out. The payoff: on the final day of the tournament, with only five minutes remaining, he caught the deciding 3.5-pound bass in a spot he'd identified during a scouting mission. His threeday catch of 37 pounds 14 ounces gave him a 1-pound 12-ounce victory over perennial contender Gary Klein. "In terms of throwing mechanics, we get to the point where we're all very close," Iaconelli says. "But where we take those quantum leaps is right up here." He points to his head.

Ike hits about 10 tournaments a year. A typical event lasts four days and starts with 157 anglers. They cast eight hours a day and weigh their five biggest bass. After two days, the field is cut to 12; after three days, to six. Tension is thick at weighins because ounces mean thousands in prize money and sponsorships. Every fisherman gets excited when he hooks a fish; Iaconelli just takes it further than most. Okay, further than everyone.

"A lot of guys in the sport can't stand Mike," says Reese, "but they don't have the balls to tell him." Many think Iaconelli pushes the sport's unwritten rules of sportsmanship. "If Mike thinks there's a fish by a hole, he'll cast to it even if you're there first," says one Tour vet. To this charge, as to most, Iaconelli is unrepentant. "Hey, it's a competition," he says. "There's been times when I used the gentleman's code and shouldn't have."

In truth, though, you can't spend any time in the good-ol'-boy environs of a bass tournament and not come away with the idea that most Iaconelli snipers on the Tour aren't used to the kind of grandstanding that is second nature to pro athletes in other sports. They think Ike talks too much, that he postures for every camera, that he's a showboat.

Iaconelli says he's not showing anyone up, that he hollers equally for an 8-pounder he catches in a tournament as for the 1-pounder he hooks fishing at home. Does he ramp it up for the cameras? Probably. "I should sign fish with a Sharpie," he says, laughing. All he's really trying to do is juice the entertainment meter and take BASS mass.

That's a key to the sport's success, says Tim Tucker, a senior writer at Bassmaster Magazine. Tucker understands why Iaconelli irritates some, but he believes his personality is vital to the Tour's growth. Viewership of the Bassmaster Classic increased 90% from 2001 to 2003, which most attribute to promotion and airtime provided by new owners ESPN. "People are put off by change," Tucker says. "But we need guys who'll grab attention and tell young people that fishing can be hip."

At least some of Iaconelli's peers agree. "All I ever heard is that I didn't get excited enough," says Rick Clunn, who's won the Bassmaster Classic a record four times. "So this guy wins a world championship, and everyone says he got too excited? Can you make up your mind?"

DAY 2 in South Carolina brings a repeat of Day 1, which means very few fish. Ike moves from one lily pad-covered area to an identical spot nearby. "I'm fishing with baits I used all week in practice, and I'm still not catching them," he says. "I move to a similar spot, see the same thing-fish spooking off-and I stop. What do I need to do? Get a spinning rod out, start fan-casting it. Boom! Start cracking it. Long casts, to keep from spooking them, lighter line, so they're not wary of the cast."

Still, his luck doesn't change. His catch of 15 pounds 12 ounces moves him into 31st place, but he misses the cut. So while the select 12 chase fish on the semifinal day, Iaconelli mingles with the crowd, signing autographs, surprisingly cheerful for a fisherman who'll watch the final two days without a rod in his hands. One reason could be that Iaconelli is surrounded by fans, his being decidedly more attractive than the average bass groupies. But you also suspect that he's happy because he's doing what he's loved to do since he was a boy, and because he sees too many fish by too many tree stumps to be anything but hopeful about another tournament on another day. As always, though, no one needs to wonder what Ike is thinking. He's more than willing to share.

"When this negative stuff's happening," he says, "when you have the worst tournament of your life and you never catch a keeper and you got a 20-hour drive to the next place and you're, like, man, I can't wait to get to the next place?

"When you have that feeling, you know you're doing the right thing."

THE ONE-MINUTE GUIDE TO BASS FISHING

Strategy Bass are sneaky prey, which means bass fishermen spend far more time looking for them than catching them. In the search, most anglers follow a few basic guidelines. In the summer, for example, bass tend to be lethargic; they hang around docks, grass and stumps, looking to ambush food as it passes. When storms or wind roil the water's surface, the fish become more active and may be found throughout the lake. Calm, sunny days? Bring a book, because bass generally disappear. Rods Anglers use three types of rods to deliver bait:

* Flipping sticks are eight-foot rods with 10 feet of line attached to a lure. When an angler spots a fish, he tosses the bait by flipping the stick.

* Casting rods have open reels mounted on top of the pole and are used to throw heavy line (10- to 20-pound test) and lures. These rods are used for long casts, on windy days or to cast into weeds: the heavy line improves the chances of reeling the lure out of the weeds, fish or no fish.

* Spinning rods have closed reels mounted on the bottom and are fitted with light (5- to 8-pound test) line. Spinning rods are ideal when an angler wants to cast with precision into a tight spot.

Bait Bass anglers must fish with artificial bait, and pros use a variety of rod and lure combinations. Bass are like 5-year-olds: sometimes they're picky, sometimes not. When the bass are active, pro fisherman Skeet Reese uses a crankbait (a plastic lure that looks like a wounded fish) or a spinner bait (spinning blades with a disguised hook); both move in the water, sparking reaction from the fish. For lethargic bass, Reese uses plastic worms, which, for unknown reasons, cause the fish to bite. "You have to have a game plan," Reese says, "but you have to be willing to change." -A. & B. K.

FISHING FOR DOLLARS

Top pro anglers (there are more than 400) compete in two series: the Wal-Mart FLW Tour's seven events and the 11 events sponsored by BASS, for a total purse of some $12 million. The big events are run by BASS: from January to March, 157 pros compete in six Bassmaster Tour events; from April to June, 50 top anglers compete in the fourevent Elite-50 series; finally, 48 pros and five amateurs cast in the Bassmaster Classic-July 30 to Aug. 1-whose winner this year will net $200K. BASS (bought by ESPN in 2001) once stood for Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society. Now it just stands for a 500,000-plus membership group at the heart of a $75 billion freshwater fishing industry.