It’s hard for the average kid hitting the local fishing hole to imagine his or her weekend passion would ever amount to a lucrative fishing career. But for Mike Iaconelli, that’s exactly how his professional bass fishing career began.
“I’ve been fishing since I could hold a fishing rod,” says the 2003 Bassmaster Classic Champion. “I got into the bass fishing side of things in my early teens; [that’s when] I first started gravitating toward bass fishing, but I’ve fished since I could walk.”
Like many recreational fishermen and women, Mike’s career started as a family pastime before morphing into the competitive sport Iaconelli would grow to embrace in his late teens. “From a competitive standpoint,” Mike says, “I really didn’t get into [tournament fishing] until after high school. The year after I graduated I joined a small local boat club, and I competed at a very basic level.”
Mike’s competitive drive took off during the early 90s as he began competing as an amateur while simultaneously working to complete his degree. After graduating from college, Iaconelli fished in tournaments at a semi-pro level for several years before finally qualifying for the Bassmaster Tour in 1999.
Although the prospect of becoming a full-time professional bass fisherman become more of a possibility once Mike took home his first win during the second tour event he ever fished, it would be a long four-year haul before Mike felt comfortably established in the sport.
“I think when I won the Bassmaster Classic in 2003 it was a turning point in my career, because literally up to that point it was year to year [regarding] whether or not I could keep fishing professionally, [both] from a financial standpoint and from a personal standpoint. Winning that really does change your life, and it kind of cements a place for you in the sport.”
In the years following the 2003 Bassmaster Classic, Mike enjoyed some of the best tournament fishing performances of his career. “Once I won in 2003, it kind of freed me up a little bit, maybe even boosted my confidence. The next couple of years I had some of the best years of my career leading up to 2006.” In 2006, Mike won the Bass Angler of the Year, further solidifying his position as a bona fide tour pro.
Mike attributes so much of his professional success to the self-described “Magic Year of 2003,” a year when the stars aligned and everything fell into place for him leading up to his 2003 victory.
“It was one of those years where I didn’t lose the fish,” Mike recalls. “The fish came right into the boat (laughs). You make the right decision, like instead of going left when you want to you had a feeling about going right, and you went right and caught a big one. It was one of those years where things really lined up. You know the two marks in the sport are the Classic and the Angler of the Year, so that was a big one for me because that was another one of my goals since I was a kid, and I got to achieve that very early in my career.”
Iaconelli’s drive and persistence has paid off in more ways than one, with Mike’s professional success taking him around the world on some incredible fishing adventures he simply would not have had access to otherwise.
“When I was a kid, if you had asked me, ‘Will you get to go to South American and peacock fish?’ or, ‘Will you get to go to Spain and compete for Team USA in international competitions?’ I mean some of these things I got to do because of fishing, I would have told you that you were crazy. I’m just a Philly guy, I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life!”
Mike’s favorite fishing adventures would be a dream come true for any angler, but they weren’t just about snagging lips and wetting hooks, either. The South American trip, according to Mike, was about connecting with his surroundings on a deeper level. “[It was] one of the best fishing experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” Mike says. “Not just from the fishing, but from the culture, just being so far removed from everything else. It’s just you and the fish, and everything else is removed out of it.”
Iaconelli’s bass-fishing success has also led him overseas to compete for Team USA. “I just did it two years in a row, and the second year I was captain of the team. Going over there and winning while representing your country in international competition would definitely rank as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had fishing.”
Throughout all of his professional success, Mike Iaconelli still hasn’t forgotten his “80s kid” roots. Iaconelli worked as a DJ through high school and into college, and his love for the early hip-hop movement has never subsided – even though it occasionally drives his wife Becky a little crazy when they’re on the road. “When we’re on these long drives, Becky wants to kill me. There’s an XM channel called Backspin and I play that a lot. They play the older stuff from the 80s to the mid-90s, and I love that iconic hip hop; it’s some of my favorite stuff.”
Life on the road tends to lead tour pros far away from their favorite eating joints, but at least Iaconelli has found a suitable replacement for the Philly diners he grew up frequenting back home: The Waffle House. “Growing up in Philly, your breakfast places are diners, and once you get below Maryland the diners go away . . . so the Waffle House became my diner.”
And like any true Waffle House aficionado, Mike doesn’t need a menu when he orders. “Smothered, covered and diced; that’s my staple when I go in.”
Although the road from a fishing Philly kid to a BASS Elite Series Angler has been a long and arduous one, Mike Iaconelli’s perseverance has certainly paid off.
Featured Image courtesy of Berkley.