Mike Iaconelli at a tournament!
Photo by Professional Edge Fishing, Inc.

On the Water With Bassmaster Champion Mike Iaconelli

In the ultra competitive world of Championship Bass Fishing, Mike Iaconelli stands out above the rest!

Q: Who taught you to fish and when did it really kick in that this was your path in life? 

A: My family, specifically my uncle and grandfather, taught me how to fish when I was really young. I have pictures of me fishing at three or four years old. Every summer we would take family vacations to the Pocono Mountains and the Jersey Shore, and all we did was fish. Throughout grade school and high school fishing was my main hobby, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that the dream of fishing professionally really kicked in. That year I fished an amateur event in North Carolina and won. First place was a fully rigged bass boat valued at $30,000! At that moment I realized that this is something I wanted to pursue for a career. 

Q: Name your favorite lake and what’s your “go-to” lure? 

A: My favorite lake in the entire country is Lake Champlain in Upstate New York. It’s a very scenic big lake with a perfect mix of both largemouth and smallmouth bass. My go-to lure on Champlain is a jig. With a skirted jig, I can flip shallow grass and cover for largemouth or cast it to deeper rock reefs and shoals for smallmouth — and the jig will catch the biggest fish in the lake! 

On the lake bass fishing with Mike.
Photo by Professional Edge Fishing, Inc.

Q: When you hit a new lake, how do you key on the perfect spot? 

A: The perfect spot, what we call a sweet spot or “the juice,” is what every angler dreams of finding. I look for these spots by finding an area on the lake that contains multiple elements of “change.” By change, I’m talking about a rise or drop in the bottom contours along with a few other elements in that same area. These other elements could be things like cover (grass, wood or rocks), water-clarity change (dirty to clear water) or where calm water meets current. Find all of these elements of change together in one area, and you have the makings of the perfect spot.

Q: Do your kids share your passion for fishing? 

A: Yes, all four of our kids share the same passion for fishing and the outdoors as my wife and I do. The interesting thing is that they all enjoy it in a different way. Our oldest daughter, Drew, just loves being outside in nature. Our 17-year-old, Rylie, is intensely competitive and always wants to catch more fish than anyone else. Vegas,Our 6-year-old son, is a professional-angler-in-training and spends every minute of the day either fishing or thinking about going fishing. And finally, our youngest daughter, Estella, is a pure natural angler and makes it look so easy. 

Q: We’ve seen movies about NASCAR, golf, football, hockey, etc., but never one about a bass fisherman. Obviously, it’s long overdue. Which Hollywood actor would play you? 

A: Yes, we definitely need a movie about bass fishing! If there ended up being a character in such a movie that would play me, I’d like to see either Adam Sandler or Steve Carell play the role! Both of them are high-energy, funny and a little “out there,” just like I am.

Q: “Never Give Up” is printed on a bunch of your merchandise. Explain the meaning behind the motto. 

A: The motto came at a turning period in my life. Back in the early 2000s, my uncle was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and my professional career had pretty much stalled. On top of that, I was in the midst of going through a divorce. By 2003, my uncle had beaten his cancer but I was really thinking I was going to leave fishing. My final event of that year was our sport’s championship of bass fishing, an event called the Bassmaster Classic. I was leading going into the last day, but I needed one more fish to clinch the win.

With a few minutes to go before I had to head back to weigh in, I caught the winning fish. At that moment, with the cameras running and broadcasting on ESPN, I screamed, “Never Give Up!” It was a moment of really pure emotion that captured my pride in my uncle’s battle with cancer and my state of mind with everything negative going on in my life. It ended up being one of the most important moments of my career and my entire life. My “Never Give Up” motto embodies the spirit of never quitting in fishing or in anything else in life.   

Mike Iaconelli on his bass boat in a competition.
Photo by Professional Edge Fishing, Inc.

Q: No names, but what’s the slyest way you’ve seen someone cheat in a tournament. 

A: That’s funny! I’ve never actually seen anyone cheat in a tournament, but I heard of a guy who had bass penned up in an underwater cage. The guy placed a hole in the top of the cage small enough that the bass couldn’t figure out how to get out on their own. But when he pitched his lure to the cage, the bass would bite and he was able to pull them out. I’m not sure if this really happened, but if someone were doing this for the money and not for the gratification of figuring out how to really catch the fish, they are doing it for the wrong reasons. 

Q: What are the after-parties like for single guys on the tour? Bass fisherman stay out of the TMZ radar, so our readers want to know

A: That’s not true! Byron Velvick, a former professional angler and also one of the stars of TV’s “The Bachelor,” was actually on TMZ. But in all honesty, it’s probably the same for young, single guys in other professional sports. When you travel so much and put in so many long, hard hours on the water practicing and trying to win tournaments, it’s nice to let loose after the event is over. The main difference might be that, unlike most other professional sports, the average fishing groupie tends to be a 40- to 50-year-old white male from the South! 

Q: Do you have any fishing superstitions? 

A: Yes, of course I have superstitions. My two biggest superstitions deal with bananas and clothing. For the bananas, it is really, really bad luck to have a banana in the boat when I’m fishing. I’m not sure where this one started, but every time someone unknowingly brings a banana into the boat with me, I don’t catch squat! And as for the clothing, it basically comes down to when I’m doing well in an event (most events are three to four days), I like to continue to wear the same clothing for the rest of the competition. I’m talking about hats, pants, socks and yes, even underwear! 

Q: Out of all the techniques in bass fishing, which is the most fun? 

A: Of all the techniques in bass fishing, I believe that power fishing and finesse fishing are the most fun. In power fishing, you are constantly moving, casting and reeling. You never slow down and you cover a tremendous amount of water with bigger baits and heavier line, and that elicits a reaction strike from the bass. But in finesse fishing, it’s the opposite. You are using lighter line with smaller baits and you are slowing way down and fishing methodically. This type of fishing can be enjoyable because you are trying to make the bass bite out of hunger, and the fight with lighter line and tackle tends to be way more interesting.

Q: What’s the funniest or strangest thing you’ve ever used to catch a fish? What’s the funniest or strangest thing you’ve ever reeled in?

A: OK, I’ve got two answers, but I’m not sure if you can print the second one in this magazine. As far as the strangest thing I’ve ever used to catch a bass, I’d have to say bacon. I shot a YouTube video a few years ago where we created a challenge of trying to catch a bass with bacon. I actually caught three using small strips of non-fat turkey bacon!

As far as the strangest thing I’ve ever hooked while fishing, I have a great story. At the very beginning of my career I was fishing an event on the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. I was fishing in the river itself and after I made a long cast, I felt a heavy weight at the end of the line. I set the hook thinking it was a bass, but after a few turns of the reel handle, I realized I had just snagged something on the bottom. As I reeled up the snag, I couldn’t believe what I had hooked. It was a giant sex toy that the bait had hooked right in the middle! After I got it to the surface, I promptly got my scissors and cut the line, allowing the toy to sink back to the bottom for the next lucky angler to catch — true story! 

Q: How old were you when a company said they wanted to put your name on a product? How good did it feel? 

A: It actually happened pretty early in my career. In the mid-90s, I started making a homemade jig and using it locally with some success. I started calling it the “Stone Jig,” because of the flat head of the jig and the way it would skip like a stone when you would cast it. Then in 1998, I won the B.A.S.S. National Championship for amateur anglers. After this win, one of the companies I had been working with, Mann’s Bait Company, approached me about mass-producing the jig. I was shocked and stoked all at the same time. It is really the best feeling in fishing when you can catch a bass with an artificial lure that you have created yourself! 

Q: Take us through a typical tournament week

A: A typical tournament week starts with checking into a hotel or rental house on Sunday and getting all the tackle and equipment prepared. Then we move to a three-day practice period on Monday through Wednesday. These practice days are dark-to-dark days, often 12 to 14 hours of searching the lake for spots to fish in the event. Then, after a tournament briefing and meeting on Wednesday evening, we begin the event on Thursday.

A full field of over 100 anglers compete on Thursday and Friday, and the top 50 anglers with the heaviest weight of bass will move on to Saturday. Finally, the top 12 anglers in weight will move on to Sunday’s final round of competition. It’s always the goal in every event to try and make it to championship Sunday. These twelve anglers will make the most money in winnings and will get the most media coverage and exposure.

Q: How do you balance family life and your non-stop tournament schedule? 

A: Balancing family and professional fishing is the hardest part of my job. It’s a balancing act that I’ve been working on for 20 years, and it’s still not perfect. But in general, I try to have my family travel to a few of the events during the year. I also use technology to keep connected with them when I’m at an event alone. Things like FaceTime and Skype have really helped with keeping in touch.

Q: What’s the best part about your job? 

A: The best part of my job is that I get to fish or talk about fishing every day! Fishing was my childhood hobby, and it has always been my lifelong passion. To get to do something you truly love everyday of your life is really something special.

Q: What’s a common misconception about your profession? 

A: There are two common misconceptions about professional fishing. The first is that fishing is luck and that it doesn’t take any real skill or talent to be able to catch a bass — not true! There is as much or little luck in fishing as in anything else in life. Fishing is really all about the study of the behavior of fish. It’s a mental sport of predicting where and when the fish will bite. Knowing the behavior and life cycle of the bass is the key to constantly catching fish.

The second big misconception is that all professional anglers do is fish, which is also not true. It’s only about 50 percent of the year that I am actually fishing. The other half of any year, I am working with sponsors, designing new products, doing seminars or teaching, and working on my “Ike Live” podcasts and “Going Ike” TV show. I also devote a lot of time to my Ike Foundation business and teaching Bass University classes. Of course, I also work with the media and do articles for awesome magazines like this one! 

Q: We read you have an impressive vinyl record collection. Which one is your favorite? 

A: Yes, I’ve been collecting vinyl records since the early 80s. My Uncle Don had a big vinyl record collection of 50s through 70s rock and Motown. Then, when the hip-hop movement hit in the mid-80s, I started breakdancing and DJing. Back then, all DJs used vinyl and turntables. Every week, I would head to the record shop in Philly to buy a few records. Even now, I’ll occasionally add to my collection. My all-time favorite is the “Tommy Boy Greatest Hits” album. It has some of the greatest and most iconic early hip-hop artists and DJs all on one record, including Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force! 

Q: Tell us about “Going Ike” (Pursuit Channel) and the Ike Foundation. 

A: My wife, Becky, and I made a decision early on to try to grow the brand and business outside of just tournament fishing. We wanted to attract people using as many different platforms as possible. “Going Ike,” the Ike Foundation, “Ike Live” and the Bass University are how we do this. “Going Ike” is a TV project that captures the real story of a fishing trip — the travel to the location, the day of fishing (good or bad), and the beauty and uniqueness of the area we are fishing. It’s really a show about the excitement of fishing and why we fish — the hunt and chase to capture a bass on an artificial lure! 

The Ike Foundation is a nonprofit that we started about four years ago. This is one of our most important projects, and it is really dear to our hearts. It is our way of giving back to a sport that has been so good to us! Basically, we wanted to create a way to get kids fishing and keep kids in the outdoors. In today’s age of electronics and other things kids can get into, we wanted to help keep kids fishing — especially kids growing up in nontraditional or urban environments.

Through the Ike foundation, we donate rods and reels to kids’ groups, hold kids’ fishing events, and donate scholarships to graduating high school seniors with a passion for fishing and the outdoors. Our goal is to grow the Ike Foundation into a true national platform and to expose kids from all over the country who have never fished to the joy and excitement of fishing in the outdoors! 

Q: What advice do you have for the 15-year-old kid reading this who wants to be a pro angler?  

A: My advice to the young kid reading this who aspires to be a pro angler is both simple and complex. On the simple side, all I can say is to follow your dreams in life! Never let anyone tell you can’t fish for a living. I heard that so many times growing up, but thankfully, I had tremendous family support. On the more complex side, my advice is to prepare for this career in a detailed manner through three steps. First, fish every chance you can and learn all of the different bait styles and patterns. Go out of your way to fish different types of water, from deep, clear reservoirs to muddy lowland lakes to shallow, stained rivers.

Second, join a bass club or high school league as soon as you can. This will be your introduction to fishing organized competitions and will help with the learning process while interacting with other kids with the same aspirations. And finally, go to college and get a four-year degree. Only half of what you will do in this job is actually fishing. The other half is the business stuff. A degree in business, marketing, advertising, PR or other, related areas of study will help you tremendously. Oh, and pick a college that has a bass fishing team — good luck!

If you’re a fan of Mike Iaconelli or want to know about other pro athletes living the alpha lifestyle, check out our podcast Skillset Live!  Get in on the conversation on our social media pages or pick up a back issue of Skillset at OutdoorGroupStore.com

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