Mention Mike Iaconelli’s name in any Southern state where bass fishing tournaments are as popular as cornbread and fried okra and you will be greeted with sneers, jeers and remarks not fit for a family newspaper. One thing is certain: He could use the services of Dr. Phil to calm him down.
At East Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Fla., last month, Iaconelli, 34, of Runnemede, N.J., was disqualified after the first day of competition in the annual Bassmaster Classic, a kind of world championship of bass fishing. Unlike the 2004 Bassmaster Classic, from which he was DQ’d for fishing outside prescribed waters, this time it was more serious.
The volatile Yankee, known for his exuberance and yelling outbursts whenever he catches a fish (especially if he spots a camera boat nearby), did the unthinkable. He had a whopping temper tantrum as shoreline and boating onlookers watched. Upon opening the lid on his aerated livewell box and seeing some bass floating belly up, he instantly knew when he returned to the weigh center he would be penalized for each dead fish, possibly dropping him far in the standings. This is, after all, a sport that sometimes is decided by mere ounces.
The sight of the dead bass caused him to lose his cool.
In the words of Bass Angler Sportsman Society tournament director Trip Weldon, “On Day 1 of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic, Michael Iaconelli violated Rule Number 5, the sportsmanship code, after he deliberately destroyed a piece of safety equipment, specifically a running light, and he also used extensive profanities. His catch was disqualified for the day.”
What Weldon didn’t mention is that the bass boat’s destroyed rear running light, a short aluminum pole with a small light fixture on top, also contained an American flag.
ESPN, the owner of the BASS tournament organization, verified it.
“Iaconelli did destroy a running light with an American flag on it,” a spokesman said.
That started a firestorm of protests. Not only isn’t it good for the image makers at ESPN and BASS when one of the fishing stars has a “hissie fit,” as they say down South, it’s especially bad form to show disrespect to the American flag. Iaconelli soon was in trouble.
The Ranger Boat Company of Flippin, Ark., which sponsored Iaconelli by providing him with a boat that costs more than some people’s vacation homes, immediately “withdrew sponsorship and affiliation of BASS angler Mike Iaconelli for his recent conduct during the 2006 BASS Classic.” Despite recognizing his accomplishments as an angler, Ranger Boat president Randy Hopper said Iaconelli’s conduct “did not represent the deep-seated values on which our company was built and continues to operate.”
Potomac River fishing guide Andy Andrzejewski, who witnessed some of Iaconelli’s temper during ESPN’s coverage, sent an angry letter to the parent company of BASS. Andrzejewski has special feelings concerning the American flag. He was a member of an elite U.S. Marine Corps drill team some years ago. Mess with the flag and you’re messing with the Marines, he figures.
Now there’s pressure on Iaconelli’s other tournament sponsors, including the Berkley division of Pure Fishing headquartered in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and the Mann’s Bait Company of Eufaula, Ala.
Said one fanatic bass fisherman: “If they don’t send this wild man packing, I’ll never buy another Berkley or Mann’s product as long as I live.”
Iaconelli, incidentally, offered an apology of sorts for his temper tantrum, saying the sight of the dead bass set him off. He also said he would have his attorney look into the disqualification, meaning he obviously didn’t agree with Weldon’s decision.
Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org