By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Mike Iaconelli says that if you'd questioned him two years ago about how long he'd continue to compete at professional bass fishing's top level and he'd answered honestly, he'd have said he probably only had a couple more seasons in him. Now he says he might be around for another decade or so.
"If you take the period, say, 14 to 36 months ago, there's no question that I'd lost a little bit of my drive to compete," he said. "I figured it was getting close to the right time to step away because I had so many other things going on, and in my mind I was setting up to leave competing behind.
"Now I'm fishing winter leagues around the house (in New Jersey), events that have 10 boats, because I want to go catch them and I want to win. I feel like I have another 10 years of competing in front of me."
Needed a Figurative Slap
Iaconelli has no trophies from the MLF Bass Pro Tour's inaugural season to stick on his mantle and no titles to add to his lengthy résumé, but he somewhat quietly put together a superb campaign (two bombs at Table Rock Lake notwithstanding). Including the Redcrest championship, he compiled five finishes of 13th or better in nine BPT outings and also notched a 4th in the Bassmaster Classic on the Tennessee River. He also won the James River Bassmaster Eastern Open in late July.
"If you give me just a mediocre finish in those two (Table Rock) tournaments it'd absolutely be one of the best years I've ever had," he said. "Catching this wave late in my career is really a cool thing and it's fired me back up."
The big change in his mindset occurred in a hotel parking lot in Knoxville, Tenn. as he was staging for the weigh-in on the final day of the Classic.
"I'd had some personal turmoil going on in January and February, and then that day in the parking lot everybody kind of knew that Ott (DeFoe) had won the Classic and I was feeling a little down because I had an opportunity there and didn't close it out. (Wife) Becky came up to me and said, 'It's a shame that you don't want to do this anymore because you're really, really good at it.'
"It was like a smack in the face with an open hand and it woke me up. It's hard to describe, but from that tournament on I've had a burning desire to compete and I still have it now."
There was precedent for his stellar year in the wake of a big shake-up within the sport – he won his B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title in 2006, which was the year the Bassmaster Elite Series came into being and basically forced anglers to choose between it (and it's $5,000-per-event entry fee) and the more affordable FLW Tour. Several of the sport's biggest names opted for the latter.
"There's absolutely something to that and Becky has suggested that I go to a psychologist to find out why. When things aren't perfect, when the situation's a little shaky, I perform a lot better. I don't know the reason for that."
Not Entrenched in One Camp
As one of the 14 charter angler/investors in Major League Fishing, Iaconelli has an ownership stake in his present circuit. Nonetheless, he doesn't go around proclaiming to other pros or young anglers attempting to climb to the top level that it's the only place to be.
"I'm not anti-B.A.S.S. and I'm not super pro-MLF," he said. "I think both circuits are viable and I like the fact that we have different leagues. On the tournament side, there are strengths to each circuit and there are things that I love and some that I don't like and maybe even some that I miss, but I'm saying that I think there's room for both and focusing on the growth of the sport should be the number one objective for all of us.
"The pros, the fans and even to some extent the organizations are wasting energy by focusing on the divided nature of the sport. I think it's great that at this point in time we have two really strong leagues and that anglers are getting opportunities that they wouldn't have had otherwise."
Rumors circulated recently that he'd join fellow former AOYs Gerald Swindle and Brandon Palaniuk in returning to the Elite Series next year under the "legends exemption." He said such talk was unfounded – he's fully committed to MLF.
Palaniuk and Swindle were guests on his "Ike Live" podcast after making their announcements and they detailed the reasons behind their decisions. He said he understood their rationale and wished them well, but also said he hopes they'll serve as voices to remind other Elite pros why the BPT was formed.
"A lot of people seem to have forgotten already that we had an outcry of professional anglers, a lot of whom had been in the sport for 10 years or more already, saying we want things to be better for us, for the sport and for the next generation of professional anglers. That's what the movement was really all about. B.A.S.S. had a little bit of a wake-up call and I hope they keep doing some of the things they've done (to lessen the financial burden on anglers). With MLF, we've created a new organization where the anglers have a lot of say in what happens and we have to make sure we keep moving in that direction. MLF can't become another organization like B.A.S.S. used to be because that would be going backwards.
"I believe that in 20 years, when we look back at this weird time, it'll be looked at as one of the most important things that ever happened to the sport. There's a lot of unrest and confusion right now, but it did need to happen."