Scott, who sold BASS in 1986 but stayed on as its president until 1998, has been remarkably adept at selling corporations and publications on bass fishing's allure. It has been "the hot new thing" several times; in '82 The New York Times wrote that it has "all the razzle-dazzle of a professional football game," while Newsweek wrote in '91 that fishing had become not a hobby but "a media-industrial complex." (In '95 BASS even got some competition when former Wall Street tycoon turned boat company CEO Irwin Jacobs founded the FLW tour--named for boat icon Forrest L. Wood--which later paired with Wal-Mart.)
ESPN bought BASS from a group of investors in 1999 for $40 million, slapped it on TV and then went about trying to convince the rest of us that we should watch. What the sport (and ESPN) needed was a crossover star who was the opposite of everything BASS represented, someone not Southern, middle-aged, conservative, folksy. Someone outside the Walker, Texas Ranger demo. Enter Mike Iaconelli. "Ten years from now, assuming that bass fishing keeps growing, the one thing people will point to is Iaconelli's winning the 2003 Classic," says Jay Kumar, founder of bassfan.com and cohost of ESPN2's Loudmouth Bass. "That was the scream heard round the media world. And Mike took a ton of heat for it from within the industry. They thought it was inappropriate. Nobody would blink an eye in any other sport, but this was bass fishing. From that moment on, though, the media saw personalities worth showing on TV."
With that win, Iaconelli became "Ike" and was, almost immediately, one of the most popular anglers on tour. Old ladies approached him in supermarkets, asking if he was "that guy that screamed on ESPN." Hard-core fans liked the way he worked the water. Kids reacted to him--"even as young as three and four years old, they love Ike," says Kumar. Maybe it's that he speaks his mind. Maybe it's the tattoos that cover his torso.
In any other sport Iaconelli would be considered merely excitable; in the world of fishing, though, he was a bad boy, but he made it acceptable, even preferable, to be different. He's part of a young generation of anglers who listen to rap, drive to tournaments on 24-inch rims and party almost as hard as they say they do. There's the dyed-blond former go-go dancer Skeet Reese; the gregarious, hard-living Ish Monroe, the only black man to qualify for the Classic this year; the charming but coarse Gerald Swindle, the tour's Dale Earnhardt Jr.; the goofy, relentless Aaron Martens, with his Beavis and Butt-head vibe; and Kevin VanDam, the PC, masterly Borg to Ike's mercurial McEnroe. These anglers are changing the face of the sport. Not everybody is happy about that.
Here's Mark Tucker, a 44-year-old former construction foreman (with biceps to match) who has fished in four Classics: "I don't know if it's that Mike's from New Jersey or whatever, but lots of guys don't care for him. Don't matter how good you are, when you dance on the front of the boat, that sort of breaks some people down. Kind of embarrassing, really."
Embarrassing? The defense calls Skeet Reese. "Are guys jealous of Ike? Hell, yes. But he's doing something that we've needed, because when the Benjamins start flowing from the nonendemic stuff, it's just making my career better."
Monroe agrees. "A lot of the old guys are bitter because guys like Ike are appealing to a younger demographic, but people don't come to tournaments to see the good old boys." Monroe pauses, then nods intently. "I tell you, we're blowing the lid off this thing."
If that's true, it is because the new generation is as good as it is marketable, and no one--save maybe VanDam--is better with a rod in his hand than Iaconelli. And he is good because of an old-fashioned, not-so-sexy reason: He works his a-- off. At the three-day Classic anglers can catch up to five fish per day and have from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to do so. It is all go time, and Iaconelli is particularly frenetic. There is nothing languorous, nothing River Runs Through It about his style. To watch him fish is to witness controlled mania. Cast, wind. Cast, wind. Cast, wind.... His body is always tense. Fishing may not be inherently athletic, but he makes it so.
He preps for tournaments with the same fervor. "This isn't about luck," he explains. "Luck's been taken out of the equation." He began preparing for the 2005 Classic in October '04, when he spent four days scouting the Pittsburgh rivers--the confluence of the Ohio, the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers--studying topographical maps, navigation maps, aerial maps ("I'm a map f------ junkie") and using his depth finder to make his own charts. He searched through back issues of Bassmaster magazine--he has every issue since 1983, indexed onto a card catalog--looking for tips on fishing Pittsburgh's rivers. He researched bait and water patterns. He identified boat ramps and local tackle stores, spoke to folks at the local Department of Fish & Game office. Hell, he did everything but strap on a damn scuba tank and commune with the fish.
He was the only angler to scout the river on his own. The rest waited until practice week, a month before the tournament, when qualifiers have five days on the water. After that, they can't fish it, talk to anyone who has, boat on it or even fly over it.