NEW ORLEANS - Mike Iaconelli, who cut his teeth fishing amateur tournaments on Chesapeake Bay tributaries, used that knowledge to capture the 33rd annual Bassmaster Classic.
The 31-year-old angler took the lead Saturday and won yesterday with a three-day total of 37 pounds, 14 ounces, defeating sentimental favorite Gary Klein by 1 pound, 12 ounces.
For Iaconelli, who fished his first Classic as an amateur in 1999 and finished sixth, it was a chance to come back to the same spot and show how much he had improved.
"To come back here and win it is an amazing feeling. I feel proud," said the New Jersey resident, who won $200,000.
Iaconelli almost didn't pull it off. With just seven minutes to go before he had to start back for the weigh-in, he pitched a worm to an area where he had seen a fish and hauled in a bass weighing about 3 3/4 pounds. He culled one weighing less than half as much, and with that secured the victory.
Iaconelli said he chose his spot because the salinity, vegetation and current reminded him of conditions he had fished on the Middle and Sassafras rivers.
"You almost know when you've found something magical. I knew before I made my first cast that I had something special," he said. "I had experience fishing marsh from fishing the Chesapeake, so I knew what I was looking for."
The winner switched between three lures: a Super Finesse worm in red shad; a Mann stone jig in olive green and a prototype, called a Swim Worm, in olive green with an orange underbelly and a green pumpkin trailer.
Iaconelli said he "fished the moment," and approached each day "with no history from the day before."
"With seven minutes to go, I was mentally and physically exhausted, but I didn't give up," he said. "I'm more proud of that today than anything."
Klein, winless in 21 Classic appearances, was in third place at the start yesterday and was poised to make his charge past Iaconelli and Davy Hite.
"If Davy and Mike stumbled and nobody else had a good bag, I felt I had a shot. But it's hard to make up 2 1/2 pounds when everybody's catching the same amount of fish," said the Texan.
Although Louisiana calls itself a sportsman's paradise, not all the locals felt that way about the Classic.
An angry landowner fired a single gunshot over the head of Klein as he motored to one of his favorite spots. An ESPN cameraman caught the incident on videotape and Klein filed a police report.
Third-place finisher Harold Allen was chased out of public waters yesterday and Saturday by an irate man on an air boat who claimed the angler was trespassing.
"I was put in a scrambling mode," said the Texan. "I was pretty messed up mentally."
The curse continued for Roland Martin, the oldest angler in the Classic, who hasn't won in 25 tries.
Martin finished fourth (31 pounds, 4 ounces) and said he made a "fatal, fatal mistake" when he mismanaged his time and wasn't able to devout more than 40 minutes to a very productive area.
Maryland native Curt Lytle finished fifth with a three-day total of 31 pounds, 3 ounces.
"I did a good job here, but I just didn't do it the first day," said Lytle, who lives in Suffolk, Va. "I made the right moves; I just didn't make them soon enough. I ended up not covering enough water."
Mark Menendez, the first-day leader, folded under the pressure and finished 23rd. Defending Classic champion Jay Yelas was unable to become only the second angler in 33 years to win back-to-back events. His total dropped each day, and he finished in 20th place.