KISSIMMEE, Fla. Everyone was waiting on Ike. After watching 49 anglers roll through and weigh their bags, the thousands of fans in the arena inside the Orange County Convention Center, and according to the public address announcer, 6 million households around the world were waiting for Mike Iaconelli, the bad boy of bass fishing and the 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion, to reveal his catch.
The crowd roared. Kids waved signs reading "I LIKE IKE" the 33-year-old is the only angler who could command a gallery of more than a few strangers. But the Iaconelli who finally rolled up to the stage was subdued, and humbled. After an afternoon that had seen Classic record bass and bags, Iaconelli poured five fish, two dead, into the bin. After the requisite penalty for the dead fish, his catch weighed in at 11 pounds, 9 ounces, good for just 35th in the competition. He explained that he "just never got the big bite," and reminded the crowd that fishing involves good days and bad.
Little did Iaconelli know that a bad day was about to get far worse. B.A.S.S. officials shunted the angler behind closed doors for the better part of an hour before delivering to him the news that he was disqualified from the day's competition because he violated the sportsmanship rule.
Iaconelli gathered his things and left the building without stopping by the Classic's news conference. He explained on the way out that he had drawn his second disqualification another unofficial Classic record set for kicking a light pole and cursing when he opened his live well late in the morning and saw that his fish had died.
"I just don't feel like I can have a bad day gracefully," Iaconelli said. "Obviously I'm frustrated and after a day like that you want to go back and say, 'well, what did I do wrong?' and have a better day. And it's like they dig the dagger deeper. The rule of sportsmanship, it's a broad rule. It's Trip Weldon's decision. At this point I don't know what I can do except protest the decision, and I think that's what I'm going to have to do."
Just 11 hours before he was due back on Lake Tohopekaliga for the second day of the Classic, Iaconelli didn't know whether he would participate, saying it would depend on conversations with his lawyer. Iaconelli was also disqualified in the 2004 Classic for accidentally fishing in an off-limits area during Day Two of that event.
This rule infraction, though, wasn't exactly an accident. ESPN television crews videoed Iaconelli in an angry tirade after finding that a portion of his fish had died. The tirade, according to Weldon "used very profane language in front of spectators. He removed a running light, which is part of our safety equipment and destroyed it."
"Once we saw the videotape, it didn't take long to make the decision," Weldon said, citing Bassmaster Tournament Rule Number 5, "The Sportsmanship Rule" for the disqualification.
Iaconelli didn't agree with the interpretation.
"I totally feel like I'm targeted," he said. "I totally feel like I'm being sabotaged here. I don't know what my options are. I feel like if I don't take a stand, then not only myself but anglers from here on out are going to be open to this, and I'm not going to let that happen."
Asked why B.A.S.S. would want to remove the very angler it was hyping most vigorously less than an hour earlier, Iaconelli said, "I don't know the answer to that question. But I do feel I was wronged today.
"It could have been aerator faulty, it could have been boat faulty, it could have been human error," Iaconelli said of the busted live well. "Maybe as I was driving I hit the switch off. I don't know. I'm not blaming that on anything. But again, that created a frustration for me, and I showed frustration, and again, that's all it is. I feel like there's a big huge deal created about there was a fisherman who showed frustration because he opened up his live well and saw four of his fish floating dead. That's like normal, that happens all the time."
As Iaconelli headed for an exit, a 23-year-old aspiring pro angler named Jeff Slute approached Iaconelli for an autograph. Slute told Iaconelli that he's down in Florida living out of his truck in hopes of being like him.
"Unreal," Slute said afterwards of meeting his idol. "Unreal. I've read his book four times. He's a real inspiration to me."