Three weeks before the 2005 Classic Iaconelli met with a reporter in New Jersey. He is skinny and compact, built like a gymnast. He has big eyes and a thin head that tapers into his neck like an isosceles triangle, accented by sideburns. On this day he is wearing a lime-green striped button down, jeans and old-school Chuck Taylors. His hair is perfectly gelled, and there's a thin crescent of beard on the bottom of his chin. He says he's 5'10", 140, but he looks shorter. He is both handsome and nonthreatening, like the oldest member of a boy band.
He lives in a nondescript two-bedroom condo amid a mass of such condos off Exit 4 of the New Jersey Turnpike, in Voorhees. Across the street is an advanced dermatology laser and cosmetic center. His home is sparsely furnished; there are two turntables, a bevy of photos of his two young daughters (he's divorced), some awards, a few books (including Rodman's Bad As I Wanna Be) and not a whole lot else. His girlfriend, Amanda Rosborough, is on the couch watching the Discovery Channel on a large TV. She is a former collegiate lacrosse player; thin, blonde and friendly.
When asked how many days he'd spent in the condo this year, Iaconelli counted on his fingers, then said, "12 or 13." The rest of the time he was on the road: competing at tournaments or attending to media and sponsor duties. He is a brand, one that he refers to in the third person as Ike. "That's not me, that's Ike," he said at one point, making a distancing motion with his hand. "That persona is important to branding. My excitement isn't phony, but I'm aware of its value."
Iaconelli has made a little more than $1 million in competition over the past six years, but he estimates that accounts for only 25% of his income; the rest comes from sponsorship deals. Here are the company logos stitched onto his jersey: Ranger, Berkley, Dick's (a sporting goods chain; he worked in one after college), Cocoon, Gulp, Citgo, Yamaha, Tru-Tungsten, Lowrance and Trilene. To top it off, he wears a Toyota hat. Still, he says what he really wants is a big "nonendemic" sponsor. So, perhaps wishfully, he wears Nike sandals.
From his condo we "rolled" (Ike's word) to lunch in his black Escalade, which has huge woofers where the trunk used to be and DVD players on the back of the front seats so his daughters can watch movies. He talked nonstop as he drove, and almost everything he said was delivered by one of two personas: his business persona or his "dude" persona. The business persona talked about "growing the sport" ("We're not leaving it to sit like what happened in the '90s when you saw it flatline"), about his deals (he has a meeting with the executive producer of Extreme Makeover to talk about a reality show based on his life), his marketing motto ("I want to blare untraditionality") and the upcoming Classic ("I'm more confident going into this event than any I've ever fished.") The dude persona, on the other hand, told stories about partying, about the women on tour ("There are some bass groupies") and about moving on after his divorce last year. The dude persona also swore often, perhaps as a way of signaling that it was the dude persona talking.
Both personas were on hand for lunch, which was in a strip mall, where Iaconelli was recognized by some young boys ("What's up, brothers!") who asked for his autograph. Later, we drove through his old hometown, then swung by his uncle's place, where he stores his fishing gear and magazines. In a little river behind his uncle's house, Iaconelli caught a channel catfish using just a children's rod and a piece of hot dog. Upon doing so, he let out a loud whoop, followed by a scream.
Fast forward to the Classic. It is Day 2 of the three-day event, and Iaconelli is headed up the Monongahela River, which looks like a rumpled army blanket. On either side the hills are thick with a green Afro of trees. It is warm, in the mid-80s, and people are on the dock to watch some professional fishermen fish--shirtless dudes with Steelers caps, girls in bikinis, depleted 30-packs of Coors Light nearby.
To catch a bass, Iaconelli contends, you must think like a bass. That shouldn't be hard to do. The bass is not unlike the American consumer: It will ingest most anything that happens by and is, frankly, rather lazy. It's also ornery, moody and a strong fighter. A predator fish, it prefers to ambush its prey, which include crawfish, minnows and worms. So it sits in dark cover and waits for something to go by, then darts out and tries to swallow it. Down south, in man-made lakes in Florida and Alabama, bass grow up to 10-plus pounds, but in Pittsburgh, two pounds is as big as anyone is seeing. So instead of 20-pound line, Iaconelli uses a light line and small lures, trying to "match the hatch."
He uses all manner of casts: He pitches the line submarine style, like Dan Quisenberry, to get his lure under things. He throws it like a bocce-ball player for a soft entry close to the boat, uses an overhand release to fire it long. He sometimes banks his lure off concrete shore walls and abandoned barges for a softer entry into the water--more like bait, less like a lure--and he fires it under docks and between moorings. He can cast a three-ounce bait to any spot in a 70-foot radius and hit within a foot of his target. This may not look as sexy as nipping the outside corner with a 95-mph fastball, but it's probably just as hard.
The bait he throws during a tournament might not mean anything to a casual observer, but to the core audience, it is very, very important. This is how he will describe his pick of the day later to the fishing press: "I'm fishing a six- and eight-pound Berkley vanish fluorocarbon, and I'm throwing a finesse plastic bait. It's a cross between a tube and a creature bait, and I'm fishing it on the Tru-Tungsten. I'm getting about four foot out of it and finessing. I'm trying to make it look like the river minnows, when something's chasing them, they go diiidiiid, stop, diiidiiid, stop. So I'm trying to mimic it."