4:45 a.m. – It’s Wednesday, the final day of practice at the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the Delaware River in Mike Iaconelli’s hometown of Philadelphia. “Man, this is killin’ me. I slept good. Just not nearly long enough. Two 14 hour practice days in a row is a beat down,” admits Iaconelli as he fills a Rapala mug with Dunkin Donuts original blend from the family Keurig machine.
He got off the water at 7:40 p.m. Tuesday, then, more than willingly, signed autographs for fans waiting on him at the ramp until 8:30 p.m., before finally making it home at 9:15 p.m.
“Today is the day to clean up any loose ends,” says Ike, as he checks the morning’s high and low tide times via a website on his smart phone before heading out.
4:54 a.m. – He’s in his Tundra ready to leave home and head for the boat ramp. The radio is tuned to his favorite XM satellite station, “Backspin”, and DJ Jazzy Jeff sings “Parents Just Don’t Understand” to begin the commute to the Gloucester City Boat Ramp.
The commute takes 47 minutes, and along the way, Ike talks more and more about how critically important tides are to catching bass on the Delaware River.
“I’ve probably practiced 60 miles of river, and the river could be a foot-and-a-half low down south, but 60 miles north, it could still be high,” Ike tries to explain. “So, not only do you have to know the tide charts, but you also have to take into account that tide levels vary in a huge way from one end of this river to the other, and then, you have to figure out what spots on the river are best on high tides, and which are better on low tides.”
“The rule of thumb says the fishing is best on a low tide, but there are areas you can only reach when the water gets high, and those fish don’t get as pressured. So the high tide has its benefits too.”
As we get closer to the ramp, a bit of sentimental reflection occurs from behind his Tundra’s steering wheel. “I fished from the bank or a jon boat until I was 22-years-old, then I won a boat as an amateur competing in a Bassmaster Top 150 at Lake Norman in 1994, and the first place I ever launched a full size bass boat of my own was right here on the Delaware,” says Ike.
5:42 a.m. – Iaconelli knows I’m from Pittsburgh originally. So as we approach the Gloucester City Ramp he tells me, “This little town will remind you a lot of where you grew up.” He’s right. Old two story homes that show high resemblance to each other are connected to the sidewalk by a few short steps that folks in this part of the world call “stoops’. Ike is right. This looks a lot like back where I come from. He’s not the only one having sentimental thoughts this morning.
We back down a narrow single lane ramp into The Delaware. His headlights are complimented by the lights of industry and office buildings in America’s fifth largest city behind him.
5:55 a.m. – First cast of the day, as the well-known Walt Whitman Bridge serves as a background.
6:35 a.m. – Jet airplanes are taking off seemingly every minute from the Philadelphia International Airport as Ike pulls up nearby to fish a piece of isolated cover. “This is a flower pot special … a big ol’ hidden sandbar that makes for a good place to accidentally ‘plant’ your boat if you don’t know it’s here.”
6:45 a.m. – Iaconelli’s 21-feet of fiberglass seems tiny compared to the gigantic freighter we just whizzed past at 70-mph before making a left turn into a creek that looks like an aquatic paradise.
Surprisingly, duck blinds dot the shoreline in the backwaters of this major metro area, and Ike says the Delaware River is healthy with eel grass, milfoil, and hydrilla, as well as tons of emergent vegetation such as reeds and lily pads.
7:50 a.m. – He is literally casting beneath a concrete structure that supports the Harrah’s Casino racetrack. Horses up above. Bass down below. Iaconelli in between.
7:57 a.m. – Ike finally takes time to eat breakfast. A sausage, egg and cheese croissant he bought from the Wawa convienent store two hours earlier. It’s the only thing he ends up eating in the seven hours I’m with him. Fishing consumes him.
8:15 a.m. – As we idle, Ike reflects on the size of the bass he’s caught throughout two decades of fishing The Delaware. “My biggest bass ever on The Delaware was a 6 ½ pounder. That was during cold weather. I’ve caught a couple 5-pounders, probably a dozen 4-pounders, and a whole bunch of 3-pounders.”
8:50 a.m. – We idle past pro Justin Lucas, and he’s sitting in his boat brushing his teeth. “That’s for sure the strangest thing I’ve seen on the river all week,” laughs Ike.
8:55 a.m. – The exuberance Iaconelli is famous for comes busting out as he gets a bite on a stretch of bank he’s never fished. Not to mention, it happens during high tide, which is typically not the best fishing. “Man, I’m stoked!” he says as he jumps up and down on the front deck.
If you ever doubted whether or not the “Ike Excitement” you see on TV is real, stop contemplating. It is. There are no TV cameras near his boat, and yet he’s shaking as though he’s about to win the 2003 Bassmaster Classic again.
9:55 a.m. – There are no TV cameras, but there is a spectator boat that’s been following and watching Ike for close to an hour now. Ike’s not bothered, he genuinely appreciates his fans.
10:35 a.m. – Iaconelli has jerked-up the trolling motor, slipped on his Mustang inflatable life vest, and motored to the next spot he wants to fish about 35 times in four hours of fishing. He’s moves at energy taxing pace in an effort to find fish that you can’t help but admire.
10:45 a.m. – “Oh, man … I’m hittin’ the wall … I’m exhausted … but I have to push through,” he says. Getting up at 4:00 a.m., practicing for 14 hours on back-to-back days, before gobbling down dinner late at night while visiting briefly with beloved wife Becky before bed at 10:30 p.m., is taking its toll.
11:08 a.m. – We run out of a narrow backwater lined by aquatic vegetation. It looks like Florida around here. But it’s not. It’s Ike’s hometown, and by noon he wants to be finished with practice.
He’s purposely only hooked two fish in three days, but his confidence is very high. “You’re not trying to see how big they are here. It’s tough. You just wanna try to get bites, and I don’t want to ‘burn’ any more keeper bites than necessary by setting the hook on them in practice,” he explains.
“The last thing I hope to do tonight, before bed, is make myself a cheat sheet with notes on what spots to fish at certain hours of the day based on the tide,” he concludes.