Mike Iaconelli knew his fate depended on low water, so the Pitts Grove, N.J., pro made a key decision during Saturday's final round of the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on the James River.
After placing sixth in Thursday's opening round with 15 pounds, 2 ounces, Iaconelli repeated that weight Friday and took the lead with 30-4. Then Saturday, for the third day in a row — while much of the field ran far downriver to the James River tributary, the Chickahominy River — Iaconelli stayed closer to the main river take-off site so he could take advantage of the morning tide schedule.
That decision led to a five-bass limit that weighed 13-12 and pushed him to victory with a three-day weight of 44 pounds.
The tournament started with a small window of morning low water, with another window on the afternoon change. But with tides advancing an hour each day, the final round saw tournament hours overlapping only the morning low.
"The low water was the key," said Iaconelli, who earned $39,000 for his first B.A.S.S. victory since 2014. "I didn't mind if it was incoming or outgoing, but lower water stages were the key."
Iaconelli fished what he called a "trout stream pattern," which basically meant he pushed as far back as most anglers will push — and then kept pushing. Depths were sketchy, but referencing similar scenarios he fishes on his Delaware River home waters, Iaconelli knew he would find two important benefits: The creek's lowest water and largely unmolested fish.
Rotating among six creeks, Iaconelli focused on areas with hard cover adjacent to pads. He caught some of his fish on a 1/2-ounce black/blue Missile Baits Mini Flip jig with a black Berkley Power Bait chunk trailer (flippin blue color) and a 1/2-ounce Molix Lover vibrating jig with a Berkley Power Bait Chigger Craw trailer.
"Today, the fishing got tough and the fish got on the ends of the cover even more," he said. "I caught almost everything I weighed today on a Rapala DT-6 in a color called Old School."
Noting that his decision to stay close and chase the optimal tide stage was a calculation based on several years of tidal water fishing, Iaconelli said he caught all of his weight by 11 a.m. That left a lot of time without culling and he left the water unsure if he had done enough.
"On this river, you usually have to be consistent, which means 15 to 17 pounds a day," he said. "The entire time, until five minutes before the weigh-ins, I had no idea I might win this. I didn't have that kicker today.
"This win means as much to me as my first club tournament win, because I've come close so many times. This is the sixth B.A.S.S. event on the James River, and I believe this is my fourth Top 12. I always had one bad day to keep me from winning. Today, it was enough to win."
Whitney Stephens of Waverly, Ohio, finished second with 41-15. Making a big improvement from 11th place, Stephens said the second half of his day delivered all of his weight fish.
"Every day this week, I could have slept in the first four hours," he said. "At 12:24, I had no fish. At 1:03, I had the bag I weighed."
Stephens fished the Chickahominy and caught his fish on a drop-shot rig with a 6-inch Reaction Innovations Trixter worm in the Muscatine color and a Neko-rigged Zoom Trick. Worm in green pumpkin magic.
"I would throw the Neko rig when I was fishing the current more; I'd throw directly into the current and just let the bait drift along," he said. "The dropshot was more target-oriented for underwater objects that you couldn't see with the naked eye.
Day 1 leader Bryan Schmitt of Deale, Md., finished third with 40-6. He spent his week in the Chickahominy and caught his fish on a 3/8-ounce swim jig with a Missile Baits Twin Turbo trailer and a wacky-rigged Missile Baits 48 worm.
"The swim jig seemed to get a big bite, but you had to get a limit and the wacky rig did it," Schmitt said.
Timothy Lucy of Prince George, Va., won the Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with his 6-11 largemouth.
Jon Wiese of Charlotte, N.C., held on to his Day 2 lead and won the co-angler division with 30-5. After catching limits of 9-7 and 8-11 the first two days, Wiese closed the door with 12-3 Saturday — his biggest catch of the week.
Wiese caught most of his fish by swimming a Texas-rigged black/blue flake Zoom Finesse worm and flipping a Missile Baits Baby D-Bomb (purple/red). Varying his presentations from what his pro was doing proved an effective strategy.
Wiese dedicated his win to his mother, Mary Dell, who passed away five years ago. Her constant encouragement, Wiese said, kept him on track for the dream he realized today.
"My mother would always call me and say 'Are you fishing?'" he emotionally recalled. "Yeah, mom — I'm fishing!"
Scott Stephenson III won he Phoenix Boats Big Bass award in the co-angler division with a largemouth that weighed 7-8.