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August, 1999. Hot. New Orleans. Bassmaster Classic, and one of the “amateurs” in the field, a qualifier from Bassmaster’s Federation, some young man named Michael Iaconelli needed a media ride-along for the Classic’s third and final day.
OK. This kid’s in 10th place. Oh, he’s from New Jersey, maybe never had someone from there in the Classic. Could be a story here, if only because darned few anglers with more vowels than consonants in their names ever made it this far in the bass fishing world.
That day proved he was more than an amateur, maybe could be more than a weekend bass-chaser. He flipped and pitched into heavy cover in the Orange Grove area of the marshes south of New Orleans and brought in five good-enough bass to give him fifth place in the first, big-money bass tournament in our state. Davy Hite won that year with a solid 55-pound-plus catch.
The venue and the bass prompted three more Classics in the Crescent City.
The next one, in 2001, was fished amidst a threatening hurricane. The legendary Kevin VanDam won that one, and the fourth visit, in 2011, when he set a Classic 69 pounds, 11 ounces record haul.
Stuck in the middle of those was the 2003 Classic.
Mike Iaconelli won that one, and the footage, his “never give up” unbridled joy captured in a marsh canal off the Mississippi River — the video of Iaconelli landing a 4-pound largemouth on his final cast (he had to make a two-hour-plus run back to the Bayou Segnette State Park launch) — is a must-see for all fishermen.
Friday night, Iaconelli’s return to south Louisiana aired on Nat Geo Wild.
And this “Fish My City” episode is his tribute to the waters that launched his fishing career.
“It’s one of the reasons I pushed for the city, New Orleans,” Iaconelli said last week. “I have a great connection with New Orleans, really all of Louisiana. Winning the 2003 Classic there literally changed my life.
“And I won the Federation (Classic qualifier) on the Red River (from Bossier City), so Louisiana is a special place for me,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I pushed for New Orleans. I owe the city and Louisiana a lot.”
New Orleans is the second episode of six in the “Fish My City” series. First was New York, and after N.O. comes Miami, before two trips on opposite sides of our world, London, then Taipa. He finishes in Austin, Texas.
“All this was the right move for me,” Iaconelli said, explaining it was family taking him fishing years ago in Philadelphia and New Jersey that got him so involved in a sport he said he could love for the rest of his life.
“And with Nat Geo Wild, it gives me a chance to reach new people, people who don’t fish. That’s exciting, because the idea is to get more people to go fishing,” he said, adding the concept of taking a show into 138 million households across the globe brought him back to the ground-level reason why he’s become, and “will always be a tournament bass guy.
“It’s allowed me to come full-circle,” Iaconelli said. “It felt great to go back to New Orleans, to City Park to catch bass in the middle of a world-renowned city, to go after world-class speckled trout in Lake Pontchartrain, to take on a bull redfish.
“And I learned things, too, from everywhere I went. Learned things about fishing I never knew before,” he said. “Like alligator gar. I thought ‘trash fish,’ and that they’d be easy to catch. But I was blown away on how hard it is to catch one — and it’s hard.”
This species also allowed him to add another dimension to “Fish My City” other fishing shows might have missed.
“With the alligator gar, we spent time learning about the fish, about its the oldest living freshwater fish we have in the United States,” he said. “In doing that, we found out just how passionate true outdoorsman are, that they have a connection to conservation.
“We touched on re-establishing oysters on man-made reefs in New York, on the coastal flooding and oil spills in Louisiana, about cleaning up polluted rivers in Taipai and how anglers and outdoorsmen who live there are so conscious of the health of their areas,” he said.
That’s when he stopped, then in true “Ike” style, said, “You know, in doing all that, I felt like a kid again ... like a whole new world had opened up for me, and I wanted to bring that to so many others.”
The first show apparently drew rave reviews and Nat Geo Wild execs decided to fill time with re-airs. First airings are on Friday with a Saturday rerun. Now the New York and New Orleans shows will re-air Wednesday (Oct. 24) evening in an 8 p.m. prime-time slot.