Pete Robbins is a veteran writer who’s covered the bass world with a discerning eye for more than a decade. His work has appeared in many publications, including Bassmaster, Field & Stream, and Western Bass. He blogs regularly at Yamamoto’s Inside Line, and he’s covered more than a dozen Bassmaster Classics from the water. Robbins is also a well-traveled bass addict and glitterboat freak. He’s based in Virginia, and heads up our “Bass-ic Instinct” series.
Ever since he burst onto the scene two decades ago, a heavily-tattooed, breakdancing Mike Iaconelli has been a polarizing figure. Some younger fans immediately took to his brash ways, but others—particularly in the Sweet Tea Belt—found him to be more than a bit disconcerting. A big part of that was not just the Yankee inflections, but also the words he used.
In 2006, GQ Magazine declared him “America’s biggest basshole” in its list of “The Ten Most Hated Athletes.” Fishing fans couldn’t decide whether to be mad that he’d been vilified, or proud that a pro angler had been lumped into the “athlete” category, but the piece made clear that he wasn’t one of the good ol’ boys.
“Iaconelli is a big-city angler and a product of the street,“ said veteran Florida pro Bernie Schultz. “Our sport should be portrayed more like golf or tennis or sports of that nature.“
Iaconelli has never shied away from embracing his urban roots, his emotional nature, or his frequent use of expletives. “I’m from New Jersey,” he reminded me. “Part of what that means is that you come out of the womb cussing.”
At the 2016 Bassmaster Classic on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake, I sat in a boat 50 yards away as he frantically worked to solve a time-sucking mechanical problem. He tried and tried and tried to no avail, and the gallery of spectators surrounding him in their own boats largely remained quiet, but a dog on the bank didn’t get the memo. It barked ceaselessly at the invasion of his territory until Ike stopped what he was doing, looked up, and yelled back: “F**k you, dog!”
At the time, the rest of us were hesitant to react in any way for fear of pushing him over the edge, but today Iaconelli can laugh about it. Indeed, as he’s matured, the cursing hasn’t necessarily stopped, but he’s learned to channel his anger and frustration toward positive goals. He’s even stepped back enough to list his top five curse words and some example scenarios in which he deems each of them appropriate.
Four years after the incident with the Grand Lake mutt, Ike said that “f**k” is still number one. “I use it a lot,” he stated. “Usually when things are really, really bad, or really, really good. Like ‘oh f**k,’ or ‘f**k you,’ and of course ‘f**k you, dog.”
The perpetual runner-up is “shit.”
“That’s when something is just a little bit off,” he said. “I use it pretty much daily. I might be snagged, or maybe I tied my knot wrong or missed a fish.”
Sitting in the three hole is not just a single word, but a two-word phrase: “Suck it.”
“This one is more Jersey than anything,” he said. “I’ve said it to a lot of fish that I’ve missed, but the good thing about it is that 30% of the time if I yell it loud enough, they will suck it again.”
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but financial impacts are the source of better verbiage. Ike slides “Damn” into the cleanup spot, not because it comes naturally to him, but rather because it won’t get him fined. On the Bass Pro Tour, where he currently competes, saying “f**k” or “shit” on camera results in an immediate fine. Saying both of them together is likely a sign of the apocalypse. “I give them more money than I make,” Ike admitted. “Damn,” however, didn’t make the list of on-camera no-no words, so he’s working to substitute it in whenever possible to gain catharsis without losing money.
His distant fifth choice is “son of a bitch” or “son bitch”—which he uses when he loses a big fish.
“There are probably a million more,” he said, not so sheepishly. “I would definitely not recommend that people imitate this, and I certainly wouldn’t tell kids to do it, but for me it’s a release. I’ve also been known to snap a rod. That’s the same thing—I get rid of the frustration quickly and move on.”
Despite achieving success early in his career, Iaconelli admits that the initial backlash against him held him back. “Early on, I wasn’t myself,” he said. “I filtered it a lot more and I found that it was hurting who I am. In early 2003 I said, ‘This is ridiculous. I’ve gotta be me.’ It allowed me to fish better. I was free.”
He’s toned it down a bit in recent years—he’ll turn 48 this month and he’s a father of four—but he doesn’t apologize for the remnants of the street that remain in his personality. “To put it in context, if I’m fishing for a half million dollars, that’s a lot of pressure. Different people deal with that stuff in different ways, but we expect athletes in other sports to be emotional. People can appreciate that I am who I am. They can relate to the realness of it. I’m OK with that.”
He’s found that the best way to channel that energy is not to suppress it completely, but rather to put it in silos. “When I’m at home, I’m not Ike, I’m dad,” he explained. “And my mom and [my wife] Becky have put me in my place a lot. When they call me ‘Michael,’ I know that’s when I’ve got to get my shit together. But when I get on the water and I get into that zone, it’s hard for me to remember that there’s anything or anyone else around me. I get tunnel vision. I don’t see 30 boats sitting around me or a television camera pointing down my neck. It’s just me against that little green fish for eight hours.”
Those damn fish rarely win.