The story of how a hip-hopping, break-dancing, tattooed dude named Mike Iaconelli from South Jersey shattered the tradition-bound world of professional bass fishing.

In all ways but one, Mike Iaconelli was a typical student at Triton Regional High School in Runnemede in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He liked skateboarding, deejaying, hip-hop, and street hockey. “All that stuff was really cool,” he remembers. What wasn’t so cool was his geekish passion for bass fishing. Sitting on a long beige couch in the living room of his Voorhees condo, not far from his old high school, Iaconelli, now 33, can only laugh at the memory. “Fishing at that time wasn’t something I wanted to go in front of the class and talk about,” he says. “I didn’t want to tell the chicks from school that, ya know, I love to fish!
Today, anyone with even a passing interest in professional bass fishing knows that Mike Iaconelli—Ike, as he’s known among the sport’s cognoscenti—loves to fish. Out on the pro tour, where Iaconelli spends nine months of each year, he still looks like a crazy teenager. When he boats an especially fine bass, he pumps his fists, rears back, and howls like a demented loon. Sometimes he celebrates his good fortune by break dancing on the bow of his boat. He’s also been known to look a freshly hooked bass square in the eye, from mere inches away, and shout, “Who’s your daddy? Who’s your daddy?”

Some people witness this behavior, either in person or during Saturday morning broadcasts of Citgo Bassmaster on ESPN, and get the wrong idea about Iaconelli. In January, at an outdoorsmen’s show in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, a father and his young son finally make it to the front of a long line of people waiting to meet him. The father shakes hands with Iaconelli, expresses his admiration for the angler’s showmanship and superior fishing skills, and asks him to autograph a T-shirt. As Iaconelli leans over a nearby table to sign, the man prods his son to acknowledge Ike’s eminence. “Isn’t he great?” the father asks. “The way he yells and break dances and kisses the fish when he catches them? He’s great, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” the boy answers, adding, “He’s nuts!”

Totally misunderstood.

For the record, Iaconelli isn’t nuts at all. In his mind, out on the water he’s just being his normal self. “That’s just Mike,” confirms his mother, Roberta Iaconelli, who stood behind a table at the Bloomsburg show selling her son’s merchandise—not only T-shirts but copies of his autobiography, Fishing on the Edge, and, for $100 apiece, replicas of Iaconelli’s black tournament jersey, the one trimmed with hot-red flames. “Even when he was a kid,” his mom says, “whenever he caught a fish, he was always screaming about it.”

Still, because so many people think Iaconelli is crazy—and because he’s one of the world’s best freshwater anglers—he’s become that rarest of creatures: a pro bass-fishing star. The flamboyant behavior, which flies in the face of everything that professional bass fishing has ever stood for, is his hallmark, for which he’s well known and handsomely paid. And Iaconelli, who studied advertising and public relations and in 1996 graduated summa cum laude from Rowan University, is keenly aware of its potency as a marketing tool. Far from nuts, Iaconelli is a shrewd student of sports and popular culture and how athletes become celebrities worthy of Madison Avenue. “I’m able to look at McEnroe, I’m able to look at Jordan,” he says. “I’m able to look at guys like that and see how they elevated their sports.”

When Iaconelli turned pro in 1999 after six years of kicking around the amateur and semi-pro circuits, he wasn’t at all interested in elevating his sport. At the time, the same sort of anglers and fans had dominated professional bass fishing since its inception in 1967—humble young men from the South who were raised with a rod in one hand and a cold brew in the other. These mild-mannered men of few words didn’t take kindly to insurgent Yankees.

Iaconelli was determined to fit in. He minded his manners. He cut his long hair and wore modest button-down shirts tucked neatly into stiff Wrangler jeans. When he caught a nice bass, he just flipped it calmly into the live well aboard his boat. That behavior, he discovered, served him well. “All of a sudden, I started getting my first few sponsorships,” he recalls. “I was being more accepted because I was fitting in more. Looking back, I feel bad I did that. But you gotta remember, all I could think of in my mind was This is all I want to do. All I want to be able to do is make a living fishing. That’s your mentality. So you pretty much say to yourself, I’ll do anything.

By early 2002, despite the possible misgivings of his few sponsors, he began to shed the phony persona. “I started looking at tournaments differently,” he says. “I was stressing because I wasn’t doing well. Failure was breeding on itself. And I just got to the point where I was, like, You’ve got the best job in the world. Have fun. And immediately, within a month, I started doing better. I ended up winning the first tournament I entered after I snapped out of it.”

Iaconelli’s transformation back to his freewheeling self culminated at the 2003 Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans, the Super Bowl of professional bass fishing, where he also sealed his reputation as the sport’s most irrepressible rebel. At the end of each of the tournament’s four days, anglers take the five largest bass they’ve caught that day to the weigh-in. Whoever catches the most weight by the end of the tournament is declared the winner. That’s how most bass-fishing tournaments work. The weigh-ins are usually well attended—the fishing itself, from as many as 150 boats spread out over huge bodies of water, has its limitations as a spectator sport—and traditionally haven’t been regarded by fans or anglers as appropriate places for unorthodox behavior.

So here comes Iaconelli, a wiry upstart from the South Jersey suburbs, into the Superdome for the first day’s weigh-in with a big bag of bass in hand. In front of thousands of fans, he celebrates his catch by break dancing on the stage, a stunt he says he agreed to in exchange for a few extra minutes of mike time to promote his sponsors and hawk an instructional CD. Three days later, with only five minutes of fishing time left on the classic’s last day, Iaconelli landed the bass he needed to win the tournament. An ESPN cameraman on his boat filmed him rolling on his back, ecstatic, and shouting into the camera, “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!”

“I just don’t think people were ready for Mike,” says Iaconelli’s traveling companion and best friend on the tour, Pete Gluszek, a bass fisherman from Mount Laurel who turned pro in 1997. “We had a couple young hotshots when Mike came along, so he wasn’t the first one to be young and successful. But he had the air of a rock star about him. He was break dancing and brash. He ran extremely counter to what was going on in the sport. I think some of the people—fans, sponsors, and other anglers—were a bit taken aback by him. They had never seen anyone like Mike until Mike came along.”

Going into the 2006 season, which began in late February, Iaconelli was ranked tenth among professional bass fishermen (he’s been ranked as high as fourth), with five tournament victories and 21 finishes in the top 10. He’s earned more than $1 million in prize money and about half that amount in endorsement fees. More significantly, perhaps, today he’s considered a leader among a new wave of fishermen. “You have guys out there with long hair, saying what’s on their minds,” Gluszek says. “I think Mike has opened the door in allowing guys to be wide open and to just be who they are.”

At February’s CITGO Bassmaster Classic, an irate Iaconelli was disqualified in the first round for ripping out his boat’s light pole after two of his fish died. Upset about the penalty, he returned for Day Two—with fans in tow. “When I started in ’99,” he says, “the fans were traditional Southern white males 40 to 50 years old. Now when you go to a weigh-in, you’ve got a lot of kids, you’ve got a lot of women, you’ve got 20- and 30-year-olds from nontraditional backgrounds.”

Even some of the old purists have been won over by Iaconelli’s charm, enthusiasm, and, not incidentally, his fishing skills. Revered or despised, Ike’s cool with it either way. At least everyone’s watching.

David Pulizzi is a freelance writer who lives in Warriors Mark, Pennsylvania.

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