Mike Iaconelli's Winning Pattern Baits & Gear

Think about Mike Iaconelli's tournament season for a moment. At the Grand Lake Bassmaster Classic in February, it could be argued some maddening trolling motor issues and his ongoing dialogue with a golden retriever on shore overshadowed his 4th-place finish. Then at the Sabine River to open the Elite Series season, he struck a stump and his boat careened completely out of the water and into a wooded section of shoreline. Luckily, he and his marshal escaped injury. From there, he just couldn't get into much of a rhythm. He cashed five checks, but finished no higher than 31st and wound up 44th in points, nine points shy of a Classic spot. With the witching hour of his season upon him, it was looking more and more like Ike would be working the Classic Expo rather than fishing at Lake Guntersville next February. Counting the Lake Erie Northern Open, he was down to four chances to punch a ticket for the Classic and his only way in was to win one of those derbies. Bottom line, he was on the ropes. Downtrodden and weary from a season of struggles and in the midst of a 7-week stretch on the road, he turned in a performance in the western basin of Lake Erie last week that BassFans won't soon forget nor will he.

He took the lead on day 1 with a stout 23-15 stringer, then endured a weather cancellation of day 2 before slamming the door on his first career Open win with a tournament-best 24-09 effort on Saturday. His 48-08 total topped the 123-boat field and guaranteed him a spot in his 13th straight Classic and 15th overall. "It's so big for me in my mind. It was like a double or triple whammy," he said. "The first thing was making the Classic. I don't want to say it was my last chance, but it was last good chance to win. If I didn't win, I was getting in the truck Saturday after the weigh-in and I was going to drive to Oklahoma for the Arkansas River (Central) Open. I would've had a few more chances, but this was my last good chance. "That put a lot of burn in me. Making the Classic is the big one. Winning an Open was important to me, too. A lot of people are like, 'It's just an Open,' or 'The competition's not there.' I honestly disagree. I fished my first Open back when they were called invitationals back in 1996. I've been trying ever since to win one. There's amazing competition in these Opens and I don't think a lot of people realize that." With so much water available to fish (anglers were able to fish all Ohio and Ontario waters out of Sandusky, Ohio), Ike combined a game plan that accounted for potential pitfalls with two key presentations to deliver as clutch of a victory as he can recall earning.

Iaconelli put in 5 full days on the water before the tournament, but his prep work started shortly after the Lake St. Clair Elite Series season finale. In that event, several of the top finishers made lengthy runs into Lake Erie out of the Detroit River. Iaconelli tapped into how those anglers went about their fish-catching as part of his game-planning for the Open. "I'm always putting together a game plan and doing research and it was nice because that information was so current," he said. "Normally you're looking at stuff from last year or 2 months ago, but I was able to do a little Internet study and look at what those guys who fished in Erie did. I really looked at guys like Aaron (Martens) and (Mark) Davis and (Jeremy) Starks, guys who were strong there. "That did help me and pointed me in the right direction. When you look out at Lake Erie, it's like looking out at an ocean. That's an intimidating feeling, but all the little things like the information from the Elites and a little map study starts to break it down and make it more manageable." Before he started practice, he ruled out two areas right away - the north (Canadian) shore straight out from Sandusky and the south shore to the east of Sandusky - because of their susceptibility to be hit by winds out of the north and south. "I basically cropped out a 30-mile area of the lake around the islands (Kelley, the Bass Islands and Pelee Island," he said. "When you look at it geographically, no matter what the wind did, I would have a little bit of a block from one of those islands. That was my focus going out before I launched the boat." Once on the water, he focused on finding areas with three key elements - bait, current and bottom irregularities with the presence of rock, or "rough," as he called it. "When I found a (contour) break, I'd throw a buoy on it, turn around, drop my trolling motor and fish it for 10 or 15 minutes," he said. "If I didn't get bit within 10 or 15 minutes, I'd leave and go to the next one. I felt like if the smallmouth were there, they'd tell you in a little window. I did that over and over and over over those 5 days.

"I'd only find one to three areas a day. It was amazing. I'd go 6 or 7 hours of this process of idling and dropping a buoy and fishing and idling some more and not catch them. I'd catch drum or walleye or gobies, but not catch a bass. Then I'd get on a place that would line up perfect with the break, rock and the right current and it would be bite after bite after bite." He then sorted through baits and after trying the typical Erie goby-profile offerings, he settled on a wacky-rigged soft stickbait fished on a dropshot rig in 18 to 22 feet. "That was real important," he said. "Instead of sitting there and catching 10 on the same bait and then leave, I'd catch a couple, then put the rod down or switch baits or presentations. "I started playing with other stuff. When I started playing with a bigger profile soft stickbaits, I got bigger bites. It was obvious." He also found a crankbait pattern that put him on some big fish. "Half of the places I fished had high spots on them," he said. "They were either ends of points or tops of shoals or humps. The tops of them were 13 to 15 deep. When I dropshotting, I was fishing way off the sides of those high spots. In practice, I'd fire a crankbait around the tops of them. I wouldn't get a lot of bites, but when I got bit, it was a giant. That's something I've seen over the years with smallmouth. I call them rogues. They get out of the school and want to be by themselves. That was the case here."


At the registration meeting the night before the tournament started, talk centered around the potential that one of the competition days would be cancelled due to windy conditions. Knowing the forecast for Friday called for winds up to 30 mph, Iaconelli came into the opening day with a little different mindset than had the forecast called for clear and calm weather. "I think everybody knew there was a possibility of a day being cancelled," he said. "Friday being cancelled, for me, basically changed a little bit of not having to conserve anything. When they brought it up at the meeting, it made me fish a lot different on Thursday for sure. "Knowing that in my mind, I went out and said, 'I'm going to keep catching them. If I'm on a spot and they're all biting and they're 4s, I'm going to keep catching them.' I tried to hit them as hard as I could on Thursday knowing Friday could be cancelled." He started the tournament after having identified 12 schools of fish in the 30-mile circle he practiced within. He immediately wrote off four or five based on the pressure he anticipated them getting, which left him a half dozen or so spots that he split between "A" and "B" designations based on potential fish quality. He endured a rough ride out and back to his three key areas about 30 miles to the northwest of Sandusky. Using a drift sock to help maintain boat position, he caught 15 keepers to amass nearly 24 pounds. "There were three that were my shining stars not only because of the quality of fish, but they were the furthest away," he said. "I just figured they wouldn't have the boats. They were furthest northwest from where we were launching. When I got out there, I was right. There was never a boat on those specific spots. I only saw one or two boats near one of them and the other two, I really had them to myself. That's a rarity on Lake Erie, especially with a BFL going out of Detroit on Saturday." The call to cancel Friday was made Thursday night and the day off allowed Ike tp do some needed boat maintenance and prepare for Saturday's winner-take-all final day. "Every screw in my boat was loose," he said. "My motor mounts were all loose. My rub rail was coming off on one side. It was crazy. I went over the boat and fine tuned it."

He was concerned about the residual winds Saturday morning and the ride out of the harbor was brutal he said, but as he drove past the islands, he noticed the lake had started to lie down. "It was almost surreal," he said. "When I got to my first spot, I looked at my partner in disbelief. It was actually really calm and that allowed me to set up on those fish a lot better." He worked across his three key areas and had racked up 21 pounds before 11 a.m. "That was a big relief," he said. Still, he felt like the door was still open for someone to overtake him. "I had a 3-pounder and I started doing the math in my mind because on a place like Lake Erie where the potential is there to catch 25 or 26 pounds, it wouldn't have been enough for me if one of those guys in the top 5 caught 25 or 26," he said. "At that point, I felt like the fishing in those places got too slow. Maybe it got too calm." He ran to some of this secondary spots, which were all on the way back to the ramp. He managed just one smallie bite on his first rotation through them. With about 20 minutes to go before he needed to head back for check in, he stopped at his fifth spot not far from Kelley Island and caught a 5-14 to cull out of the 3-pounder and close the deal. "It was an important fish for me. It was one of those fish where I can close my eyes right now and see the whole thing happening," he said. "It reminded of the Classic (I won) because the minute I set the hook and got an eyeball on the size of the fish, I knew it was the winning fish."

Winning Gear:

Dropshot gear: 6'9" medium-light Abu Garcia Veritas spinning rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier 20 spinning reel (5.1:1 gear ratio), 15-pound SpiderWire Fluoro-Braid, VMC swivel, 8-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, 1/0 VMC wacky hook, 5" Berkley Havoc Flat Dawg (green-pumpkin and watermelon silver red), 3/8- or 1/2-oz. VMC tungsten pencil weight. He rigged the bait wacky style and tossed the green-pumpkin version mostly on day 1 when it was cloudy, then switched to watermelon red flake when the skies brightened on Saturday. Likewise, he swapped weights depending on the wind conditions. The drop-shot accounted for about 80 percent of his bites during the event. Ike put a couple drops of a minnow-scented Berkley Gulp! Alive! Marinade into each bag of Havoc baits and he feels the added scent helped him attract more bites. The marinade, which was introduced at ICAST, will be sold in 1/2-oz. vials and is available in 11 different scents.

Crankbait gear: 7' medium-action Abu Garcia Veritas Winch cranking rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel (6.4:1 gear ratio), 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, Rapala DT-14 crankbait (smash). Another thing Ike did on the off day was tie up an inventory of dropshot leaders to save time on the water Saturday. "I'd rip off a piece of cardboard box and tie up a dozen leaders and use some electrical tape to tape them on there so it saved me a ton of time on the water," he said. "I went from a 5- or 6-minute retie to a 1-minute retie. I was breaking off a lot because all of my areas had that rough on it. Over 2 days, I probably saved 30 or 40 minutes. That's a lot of time."

Main factor: "Putting together a game plan that was weather proof and took into consideration where the competition would be and finding the right baits that triggered the bigger bites."

Performance edge: "All of my equipment. In a Lake Erie tournament, your equipment is your ally. It's a lot less important on a 40,000-acre lake where it's calm. My Lowrance HDS-10 with StructureScan was really key and my Yamaha and BassCat on day 1 in those giant waves were great. Another important thing for me was the HullSpeed coating on the bottom of my boat. It lets the boat plane a lot easier and manageability in waves is better than it is without it."

Lake Erie Winning Pattern Bassfan 9/17/13 (Todd Ceisner)

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