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Jersey boy hooks the big one
By Mike Shute ’93

ike Iaconelli made sports history with his “Superbowl size win” of the Bassmaster Classic. Maybe walking on water would have made a bigger impression on the bayou, but Iaconelli’s win netted him a prestigious prize most pros only dream of.

At age 12, Mike Iaconelli ’96 dreamed of becoming a bass fishing champion. This past summer, he realized that dream and now he’s trying to revolutionize an entire sport. If recent history is any indication of future performance, he’s on his way to accomplishing that goal, too.

The 31-year-old Iaconelli broke new ground by becoming the first professional angler from the northeast United States to capture competitive fishing’s biggest championship when he won the 33rd CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer in the Louisiana Delta in New Orleans. The only competitor from New Jersey, he came in first place in the 61-person field during the three-day event.

“Winning the Classic means a lot,” said Iaconelli, who earned a $200,000 prize for his championship and has collected nearly $600,000 in career winnings since becoming a full-fledged pro in 1999. “It’s been a dream of mine and to do it was awesome. It’s the Super Bowl of bass fishing. It’s a life-altering experience and it has opened a lot of doors for me to things I never thought I’d be able to do.”

While most bass fishers use sophisticated boats powered by outboard motors, Mike got his competitive start fishing out of a 12-foot plastic boat that he modified for bass fishing, including adding an electric motor. Growing up in Runnemede, he did most of his fishing in lakes in and around the Delaware Valley. Now fishing takes him worldwide, including trips to Spain and Venezuela. In October, he appeared on ESPN’s New American Sportsman hosted by former football and baseball star Deion Sanders.

“I’ve been fishing for as long as I can remember,” Iaconelli said. “My mom has pictures of me holding up fish that I caught from when I was 3 or 4 years old that I don’t even remember. My family was always very into the outdoors and we would go on vacations two or three times every year to the Poconos and go camping and fishing.

But a childhood pasttime soon became more for Iaconelli. “In my early teens, one of my friends had a Bassmaster Magazine and reading through that really got me excited about the sport,” he recalls. “It was just a hobby until 1991 when I first competed and then it was not until I enrolled at Rowan that I realized that this was something I could do for a living.”

For three years he fished as a semi-pro angler, the highest level at which he could participate while still remaining an amateur. But professional ranking beckoned and he had to travel more and fish more to attempt making a living as a sport fisherman.

So far, he’s been doing it very well. By winning the Bassmaster Classic, Iaconelli is now the only angler in Bass Anglers Sportsmen’s Society (B.A.S.S.) history to win a Federation Divisional tournament, the Federation Championship, the amateur side and pro sides of a Bassmaster Tour event, and the Bassmaster Classic. The only mountain left for him to conquer is a victory on the CITGO Bassmaster Open Trail which is an 18-event tour with stops all over the United States.

But Iaconelli is not just interested in championships. He’s also got his eye toward making his sport—which is now viewed as a bit obscure and primarily geared toward fans in the southeast U.S.—into an exciting, captivating, mainstream endeavor. An exuberant and unorthodox angler, he seems born to change the image of the sport—and has already ruffled the feathers of some veterans in his game.

“I’m very different from your typical fisherman,” Iaconelli says. “I’m younger than most of my peers, I’m from the north and I talk fast. It’s me, it’s my personality—and in the fishing world, that creates a little conflict. It’s a change and people are hesitant to change.”

According to Rowan alum Takashi Abiko ’96, ’98, an avid fisherman and fan of his former classmate, “Iaconelli is great for the sport because he’s very animated, screams and yells when he catches a big bass. He’s breaking down the stereotype of fishing, that it’s no longer just a slow, country boy pastime.”
Style and drive go a long way, but Iaconelli says his education is also helping him market himself to a new audience and take his sport to a new level. At mikeiaconelli.com, he offers the lure he designed, the stone jig, as well as an instructional CD and articles in which he writes about fishing technique, equipment, philosophy and even sunglasses.

“My education at Rowan was great because everything I learned there, I use 100 percent now—things about business, about marketing and about promoting myself,” said Iaconelli, who was pursuing his master’s degree at Rowan in 1997 before putting that on hold to chase his dream. “The one big advantage I have is that not a lot of fishermen at this level have a college degree or the background I have. I can use it as a tool and it’s pretty important to me.”

The BASS tour is much like the PGA or NASCAR in that each competitor must secure sponsorships to help cover their expenses to compete and, in turn, often make appearances at sponsors’ requests. Already sponsored by Dick’s Sporting Goods, Yamaha and others, Iaconelli has hired a sports agent and a publicist and is looking to target media sources that don’t normally cover his sport in an effort to bring competitive fishing to the mainstream. Abiko believes Iaconelli is the right man for a sea change: “Pro bass fishing is fast, furious, highly competitive and big money and even a Jersey boy can be at the top of the sport.”

Iaconelli knows his championship has earned him credibility maybe as significant as his winnings and status. “I have solidified my foundation in this business and now I have a platform I didn’t have before. By hopefully acquiring new and more powerful sponsorships, I want to expose the sport I love to people that normally don’t really see it,” he says. “Maybe there’s a kid in Philly or New York City or somewhere in the northeast that might like fishing and I want to show them that they can do it too.”

_________________
Michael Shute ’93 is a copywriter at Fleer Trading Cards in Mt. Laurel. The Gloucester Township resident also writes freelance and works as a statistician for live sports broadcasts on CN8.
 
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