As an outdoor writer, I’ve spent a lot of time on the water with some really good tournament anglers. The guys I’ve fished with are usually at the top of their field in regional or state levels, but none of them fish for a living.
When I saw that the B.A.S.S. Elite Series was coming to a lake nearby, I knew I had a good chance at getting a ride-a-long with a professional. I made a lot of e-mails and phone calls and finally got in touch with the right folks and was ensured I’d have a trip with one of the Elite anglers during a practice day, but they didn’t tell me which angler until a few days beforehand. I knew anyone in the tournament was going to be good, but I just hoped the angler had a little character. One thing is for sure, my day on Lake Seminole was anything but a drag.
I’d struck gold and got the chance to spend a day on Lake Seminole with professional bass angler Michael Iaconelli on the third day of practice before the first tournament of the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series season.
We met 30 minutes before daylight at Sealy Point Landing on Spring Creek, and he asked me to maneuver the boat to the dock as he backed it down the ramp. I was leaning over the front of the boat trying to figure out how to unlock the trolling motor when their was an explosion of air and water in my face that sounded like a canon went off. I thought it was some type of high-tech air ride suspension on his new boat trailer, but it turns out that even professional anglers have equipment failures.
The boat had somehow been at too steep of an angle when it went in the water and fell off the support when the big metal hook on the front of the boat was the first thing to hit the spare tire and put a hole in it the size of my fist.
Mike jumped out of the truck and ran back to the boat, and I’m seeing stars like someone threw a flashbang in the boat with me. He was asking what happened, and I’m still trying to figure out who I am.
“I’ve never seen anything like that ever happen before,” said Mike. “That’s the strangest freakin’ thing I’ve ever seen! We’ll worry about that later, we’ve got to find some fish right now.”
Mike parked the truck as a line of five more freshly wrapped boats and trucks arrived to use the single boat ramp in the middle of nowhere. He threw me a life vest as he jumped in and explained his game plan for the day as we idled out of the no-wake zone.
“We’re going to fish like maniacs! If I can hit 100 different spots, that’d be fantastic. We’re gonna fish fast, find out if there are fish there and then move to the next spot. If you’ve got any questions throughout the day, just ask them, and I’ll be fishing as fast as I can,” said Mike as we neared full-plane on a chilly March morning.
My first question was going to be if we were intentionally driving through a stump field at a high rate of speed, but that was abruptly answered by one that nearly took the outboard off the back of the boat—at least that’s what it felt like.
“We weren’t even in the freakin’ channel, can you believe that?! I thought that tall stump right there was the channel marker,” Mike said as he punched me in the shoulder. “We’re off to a good start, huh?!”
Well known for his outgoing and spontaneous personality, it was already obvious that it wasn’t just a put on for his television appearances. Mike, or “Ike” as he is known in the fishing circles, is just a crazy individual that happens to be really good at bass fishing.
We took a short 10-minute ride to our first stop, and he quickly had his life jacket off and trolling motor in the water and picked up one of 10 rod and reels that rested on the deck of the boat.
“I’m going to hit this flat through here with a crankbait, then flip the edge of this grass a few times, then we’re gonna get out of here and hit the next spot.”
I was taking it all in as he called his wife, who doubles as his scheduler, bookkeeper and generally takes care of anything not directly related to the bait being bitten by the fish. He asked how all the kids slept the night before, then if his new 2014 jerseys were going to make it before the tournament and was trying to schedule the repair of his spare tire by someone at the event when he loss cell service altogether. That’s when it first occurred to me that he was having to plan a lot more than just what the fish were biting.
Mike said his wife holds it all together and really lets him just focus on the fishing aspect of it all. The fishing season lasts from February through September, then he’ll fish some open tournaments and film some television series until December when he gets a real month off. Then it’s back to pulling a bass boat around the country and long lonely rides on the interstate.
It seemed like a really glamorous gig until you realize how much time is spent away from home, I thought.
“There’s usually a week or maybe two in between the tournaments, and I try to drive like crazy to the next event then catch a flight home to be with the family for a few days before I fly back out to practice fish. We have a pull-behind camper that my wife and family bring to some events. I’m not just gone for nine months at a time, but it can be really exhausting at times,” he said.
He explained a usual practice day was fishing from “dark til dark,” except the third day when they’ll usually have a meeting and only be able to fish until about 3 p.m. Some of the lakes could be as far as California, which is a pretty long drive from his New Jersey home, so he has to make the most of practice days and cover as much water and fish as fast as possible.
“You don’t want to catch all the fish on a practice day. You’re just finding them and checking things out, then hoping for a home run during the tournament. But, these guys are good. Chances are if I found the fish, someone else has already found these same fish. That’s why I have to have as many plans as possible,” said Mike.
He had already lost several hours of fishing time due to the flu on day one of practice.
“I was so sick I didn’t feel like doing anything at all. At one point I got stuck on top of a stump and was so exhausted I just laid down on the deck and went to sleep. I woke up and the sun was in my face. It was blistering hot, but I felt a lot better and just started fishing. I bet anyone who was fishing close to me was like ‘Is he bed fishing, what’s he doing over there? Is he just guarding that bed, it must be a good one!’”
He pulled out a paper map of Lake Seminole and then pulled up the locations he wanted to check out on his GPS. We’d get to where he wanted to be, and he’d glance at his sonar and depthfinder and say, “This is the place, but there’s no grass. No grass, no bass,”
And we were 70 mph to the next spot on the list. That doesn’t seem that fast, but you add in a 25 mph wind and bigger waves than the Gulf Coast averages, and you’ll be wishing for a seat belt.
We pulled into a shallow backwater cove with a lot of abandoned bass beds. There was probably one every 10 feet but no bass to be seen.
“They’ve already spawned and left. I don’t like this, let’s find another spot, it doesn’t feel right,” he said.
Just a half mile from there we found another cove that the bass fry were jumping out of the water in front of his bait, and the adult bass were hammering it on almost every cast.
“Alright, there’s fish here. Let’s move on, maybe one more cast,” he said.
He hooked up on the next cast on a solid 2-pounder and explained the catch confirmed these fish were all male “fry-guarders,” that he wasn’t going to win the tournament on 2-pounders, but if he needed one more decent fish, he’d know where to find it.
We moved just around the corner and found a similar area but with huge bass beds all around. He blind casted to one without checking it out, and a 10-pounder swirled and missed his bait.
“Did you freakin’ see that? Look at that big mama right there. We’ve got to get out of here before we spook them. Look there’s another right there, oh man, this is insane! Give me a high five! Give me another one! This is crazy!”
He was jumping up and screaming and giving me high fives like he’d actually caught the fish, but he didn’t even want to, he was saving it for the tournament.
We moved on to some similar areas, but the fish just weren’t there like they were in the previous spot. So we jetted over to a location he’d already checked several times in the previous two days because he knew if the fish showed up, he could virtually win the tournament in a matter of minutes.
He threw to the same flat on Spring Creek with a crankbait for about 20 minutes before he said we’d come back, and we moved to some more backwater stuff.
“I know I can catch fish in here, but I hate having to idle through all of this stuff. It just takes too much time to get places, and there’s just very little access to deeper water back here,” he said, concerned about the oncoming cold front pushing spawning bass into the deeper water.
A missle-like being smashed his worm on the next cast, and he laughed and said, “That’s a pike or jack or chain pickerel or whatever y’all call them down here. But I’m going to catch him anyway.”
He played with him for several more casts before he had a nice-sized jack in the boat. He smiled as he set the hook and looked like he enjoyed catching the jack as much as he had seeing that giant bass on the bed just an hour before.
“Let’s take a photo with this one,” he said mockingly making the same toothy grin as the jackfish as I snapped off a few photos. He tossed him back in the water and decided it was time to go back and check on the same flat we’d zeroed on earlier.
“I know the fish should be here, and if I catch them here, they’ll be the right fish, but I could spend all day out here for five bites. They’d be the five bites I wanted, but I’m just not brave enough to do that I don’t think,” he said.
Just a few casts in he hooked up.
“I’ve got one, this one’s big, it’s real big, get ready,” he said.
I raced for the camera as the fish shot under the boat, and he ran around trying to keep him from getting tangled under the boat. As the bass surfaced, it was apparent it was at least a 5-pounder when one flip of the head, and it was off and back to the depths.
“Sorry, that was the photo fish right there, and I let it get off. I’m real sorry about that.”
I laughed because the real story wasn’t the fish at all, but the competitive nature of someone who took something he loved doing and did it with such an extreme passion that he made a career out of it.
Mike started bass fishing in a jonboat and never had a bass boat until he won one in a tournament. He began by fishing small club tournaments in high school, then B.A.S.S. Federation events and B.A.S.S. open tournaments after college graduation before he finally won enough to give it a full-time shot.
“I worked at Dick’s Sporting Goods and was fortunate enough to have a manager who was also a big B.A.S.S. Federation guy. He gave me a lot of time off to practice for the events, and that gave me the chance to make a real effort at winning some of them,” he said.
Fifteen years since his career began, Mike has won the Bassmaster Classic once, had seven first-place finishes, 56 top-10 finishes, caught 6,022 pounds of fish and earned $2,066,402 in B.A.S.S. prize money. He ended the Seminole tourney in 75th place on Day 2, but I think it’s safe to say he’ll be back to fish again.