CELEBRATION, Fla. — With two events left in the race for the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year title — the Capitol Clash presented by BUSCH Beer on the Potomac River this week and The Rock presented by TheraSeed on Table Rock Lake in September — leader Michael Iaconelli will have to fight to hold off a charging field of accomplished Elite Series anglers.
The highly coveted Angler of the Year award — a lucrative, season-long points race that awards the most consistent Elite Series angler with the sought-after title and $125,000 cash — is considered one of the most prestigious titles in bass fishing.
Iaconelli, 34, of Runnemede, N.J., has built an impressive BASS career that includes five BASS tournament wins and 26 top-10 finishes. Iaconelli, the 2003 Classic champion, is one of just 17 anglers to earn more than $1 million fishing BASS. But one title has always eluded him: Angler of the Year.
Iaconelli assumed the Angler of the Year lead after the Pride of Augusta presented by Lowrance on Clarks Hill Lake in May. And, with solid performances throughout the season, he hasn't flinched, leading for the 14th consecutive week with a cumulative point total of 2,170.
However, narrowing the gap and within striking distance are current Toyota Rookie of the Year leader Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., just 50 points behind (2,120); Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu, Ariz., in third (2,117); and two-time Bassmaster Classic champion and three-time Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam tied with seven-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Kevin Wirth for fourth place (2,116). Reigning Angler of the Year Aaron Martens is sixth (2,073).
"It's pretty incredible to be in the company of Ike, VanDam and Rojas and be right in the middle of that mix," said Kennedy of Alabama. "When I got the schedule at the beginning of the year, I was drooling. They were all big-fish lakes at the right time of year. I knew I was going to catch them, but I had no idea I was going to be this high in the points."
Looking at the field of anglers behind him, Kennedy said VanDam was the Elite angler he most worried about. "He's unstoppable at this point. I don't think Ike's going to roll over, but VanDam is determined."
Despite a disqualification at the Santee Cooper Showdown presented by MotorGuide, VanDam successfully worked his way to the top of the standings. His other performances have provided an opportunity to capture his fourth Angler of the Year title, which would trail only Roland Martin's top record of nine.
Adding to the allure, BASS has increased the total prize purse by 100 percent in 2006 to $601,000. The Angler of the Year award boasts a top prize of $125,000 and will pay 50 anglers — nearly half of the Elite field.
"I'm extremely excited about it," said Rojas. "It's going to come down to a lot of hard work and how bad I want it. Those are the two things driving me right now."
The Angler of the Year title will be awarded Sept. 17 in Kimberling City, Mo., at the conclusion of The Rock presented by TheraSeed on Table Rock Lake, the last Elite Series event of the season.