"The complaint," says Iaconelli, "is that we're 'thuggin' out bass fishing," or "ghettoizing it." Rucks loves to hear that some of his anglers are pissed off. In fact, he is dying for confrontations between his competitors. How to get them? "The athletes are going to get naturally more aggressive as the prize purses are raised," he explains.
Even the old schoolers understand that more drama and sexier stars mean a healthier sport. Tim Tucker, who has been covering the sport for 30 years, welcomes the changes. "We need the Ikes of the sport," he says. "Ike has pizzazz. The guy is sharp."
Sharp enough to know that the best thing for the Iaconelli brand, and the sport itself, would be for him to win the 2005 Classic, thus cementing his dominance and perhaps enabling him to transcend the sport and snag another spot on CNN, or even another mention from David Letterman. The world would be in his grasp. Going into the final day, he is in prime position. All he has to do now is win.
the final morning of the tournament dawns warm and clear at Point State Park, the downtown launch point that juts into the water. It is 6:30 a.m., but the place is bustling. Giant speakers blare ZZ Top's Cheap Sunglasses, then Creed's Higher. The anglers stand near their tied-up boats, inside a waist-high fence. Outside the fence is the crowd, which is already 15-deep in front of Iaconelli's boat. They are holding out hats--Mercury hats, Yamaha hats, Triton hats, BASS hats, old dirty college hats--fishing for autographs. They hold these hats over other fans, or between the nooks and crannies of the arms of other fans. Ike signs quickly and smiles. Photos are snapped. On a raised seating area there are signs: WE LIKE IKE!!! and NEVER GIVE UP.
The sky pinkens, the crowd expands and by launch time, 30 minutes later, the fans line the water's edge, for 300 yards upriver. People stand on the railings, on the shore. It's finally time to fish. The anglers are in their boats. The national anthem plays through those giant speakers, and then the announcer yells, "AND THE DOVES FLY! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!" and, ridiculously, two dozen doves are released from a pen and really do fly. Then, to a blaring riff from the Alan Parson Project, as if it's the tip-off to a Bulls game, the fishermen are off. The crowd rushes across the park to watch their heroes motoring away.
Iaconelli makes for his lucky spot from the day before, the ferry dock, and 19 boats, five of them hauling media, follow. When he gets there, he is a vision in flames and red hat, warmed by the rising sun, as he sidearms his casts around bridge pilings. Above him, on the bridge, three fans lean over the railing to watch him. He is a star. But he's not catching any fish.
After 30 minutes with no bites, he takes off upriver, screaming along to get through the first lock before it's closed for the day. The media boat follows, its speedometer at 68 mph, tearing straight into the morning. Iaconelli gets through the lock in time and quickly plans his strategy as the water around him settles. It is here, upriver, that the Classic will be won or lost for Iaconelli.
Over the next seven hours, all that trickles back to the fans, who show up early at Mellon Arena, are rumors--Ike isn't catching them.... Ike is catching them.... VanDam already has his limit.... Reese is zeroing.... There's not much else the bass fans can do, so they sit and wait and wonder.
At 1 p.m. Iaconelli still doesn't have a fish in his hold. Racing against the clock, he tries to re-create the old Ike magic and heads back below the first lock, to the fertile fishing grounds closer to the city where he'd had success the previous day. Sure enough, he snags three bass in the next two hours. Still, as he tears back to make the 3 p.m. cutoff, he has a dull feeling in his gut. He knows his three bass won't be enough.
All that remains is the final hullabaloo. That night, Mellon Arena is throbbing with 13,413 fans in attendance. Iaconelli's family is there, as are some of his childhood friends, the I-K-E boys and even some members of the Top Rod club, the fishing group Iaconelli founded in Jersey. They all sit through two hours of fish-hoisting before the weigh-ins for the Super Six, the sextet of anglers who have a chance to win: Iaconelli, VanDam, Swindle, Martens, Jeff Reynolds and Scott Rook.