The Closer: Bass Anglers Who Close Out Victories
By Paul Streg
Certain anglers possess a special ability, an uncanny sense, for closing out victories.
New York Yankee Manager Joe Torre walks out to the mound in the bottom of the ninth. He calls upon his trusted relief pitcher, Mariano Rivera, to close the game. Torre's team leads by a single run with two runners on and no one out. Forty thousand opposing fans begin a rhythmic chant in hopes of rattling the seasoned reliever. With a nonchalant poise that defies those in attendance, Rivera takes his place at the mound. He toes the rubber, hunches over, and focuses on his catcher. The next three successive batters are retired quickly in order. The Yankees win, congratulate each other, and walk off the field.
The workmanlike approach of the game's best closers is often viewed by competitors as arrogant, overconfident, and even conceited. But for the closer, this approach is essential to ensure a win. Otherwise, they will most certainly succumb to the enormous pressure of closing the game and blow the chance at a victory.
Semi- and tour-level bass fishing circuits have similar situations. In multiple day tournament formats, front-running anglers are faced with unique pressures. Fields in excess of 200 anglers are continually chasing down a single person, the leader of the event. The angling peloton often consists of the best local and touring professionals bass fishing has to offer. Review the final standings, and one can see that certain anglers possess a special ability, an uncanny sense, for closing out victories.
Michael Iaconelli of Runnemede, New Jersey, has the gift. He has placed atop the leader board at virtually every tournament level. His victory event list includes: the BASS Federation National Championship, BASS Top 100, BASS Top 150, Bassmaster Elite Series, the Bassmaster Classic, and the FLW Tour. Most recently, Mike secured the Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year title on the last day of the last event of the tour season. He led the points race for almost one-half of the season. Aside from the titles, nearly all of his victories have one thing in common: he has led going into the last day. So, how does one person who rose from the grass-roots level to the upper echelon of bass fishing continue to 'close the game' at every level along his rise?
ANATOMY OF A VICTORY
Mike established a formula early on in his career that seamlessly translated into closing final day victories. Founded from the very beginning, the formula has carried through today and has evolved into a purposeful style of fishing. For an angler who follows that model, it can tip the odds in favor of getting on the tournament podium. The basic components include: pre-tournament preparation, executing a sound game plan, being versatile enough to adapt to changing conditions, and concluding every tournament with an evaluation. In a recent interview, Mike identifies specialized tactics and proven strategies that can improve any angler's chances of closing tournament victories. And, as he was quick to point out, it all starts with preparation.
PRE-TOURNAMENT PREPARATION: DEVELOPING A GAME PLAN
Much has been documented of Mike's thorough preparation ritual. In fact, his method has generated enough of an interest to inspire the release of an instructional audio disc. In his tutorial, Mike discusses the importance of completing lake research, searching tournament results, practicing hard, and game planning. But beneath those scribed words, is there actually more to be learned?
The approach used by Mike during practice is organized, but at the same time open-minded.
Mike explains, "I don't approach the lake like 'Hey, let's go fishing!' It is more organized than that. I have always been big into research and putting together a game plan. In the three official days of practice, I am trying to identify locations of fish and develop confidence in a wide variety of lures. In essence, I am developing a template to put me in the ballpark of what the fish will be doing when conditions change."
Although structured, Mike's practice period involves breaking the lake down into sections or, if the lake is large enough, focusing on a section that he believes will be most productive. Concentrating on one piece at a time helps him to gain confidence in the template that he will utilize during the event.
Although rarely discussed by touring professionals, game planning is extremely important when entering a tournament and will often have the greatest influence in positioning an angler for the win. Tournament format, a basic factor that many competitors overlook, can be categorized into two types: cumulative- and reset-weight. With cumulative-weight tournaments, the winner is determined by the total weight caught for the entire event. For reset-weight contests, an angler's position entering the finals (the last day, or last two days of competition) is established by the total weight caught previously. Weights are then reset for the final day of competition.
Mike notes the differences between the two formats. "There definitely is a big difference in strategy between the two tournament formats. The reset-weight format is probably the only time where I feel like I try to conserve both numbers and weight of fish that I catch in the opening rounds. I believe an angler fishing that style tournament should almost build up their weight when going into and fishing the finals. Doing that creates momentum. I am often asked if I ever save fish during a tournament. I can honestly answer that I have never done that in a cumulative-weight tournament to date. In my opinion, you go after the most amount of weight you can catch every day. I think that is important because conditions change, and you cannot count on catching fish the same way and in the same locations as the day before."
Game Plan Styles
As obvious as the differences between tournament formats are the not-so-evident subtleties between game plan strategies. Depending upon the time of year, familiarity with a lake, or the results achieved from pre-fishing, an angler may choose to develop a tournament strategy focused on winning. That single decision ultimately factors into the frequency of wins and the variability of not-so-victorious occasions. Take, for example, an angler who chooses to fish their strength. A stubbornness to adapt to actual conditions may prohibit the angler from achieving a 'decent' finish. But when that devotion is applied to the appropriate conditions, the angler will be very difficult to beat. Examine the tournament as a whole, and the margin of victory will be relatively large, even more so if weather and other conditions remained stable.
Mike confirms the success of this methodology. "In most cases, everyone has to do what works for them. There are a handful of guys out there that love to do one thing. Over the years they have developed the strategy, 'If I'm going to win a tournament, I am going to win it fishing my strength.' And they fish their strength all year. And I can testify that they have won tournaments, Classics, and Angler of the Year titles. The strategy there is 'If I keep fishing my strength, it's eventually going to put me in a position to win.'"
Multifaceted anglers, however, are known for their ability to change and for being good at several different techniques. Their tournament resumes are highlighted with successful performances across the country and on several different types of water. When that style is used in game planning, a consistent performance almost becomes routine. And, once that particular angler takes the lead, that consistency will pay big dividends, especially in variable conditions.
"Everyone eventually develops a strategy to win that they are most comfortable with. For me, it's been preparation before I get to a lake, developing a game plan, practicing hard every day, fishing the moment, and being versatile. Yeah, I prefer to power fish, but in most of my tournament wins, I've had a spinning rod involved. So it is that versatility that has allowed me to fish instinctively and to ultimately win."
EXECUTION AND ADJUSTMENT
Putting yourself in a position to win and closeout a victory is no easy task. Executing a solid game plan simply may not be enough. What happens if the weather changes? What if you've underestimated the production of your key fishing areas? How do you 'hang on' with a lead that is diminishing? These are questions that are addressed by proper execution and adjustment.
'Get Your Five'
Mike is a devout believer in catching a limit. He attributes his 2006 Bassmaster Elite Series victory on Lake Guntersville, Alabama, to his decision to fill his limit. When conditions changed that prohibited him from milking another fish from his key weed line, he changed his strategy and went shallow.
"The last day of Guntersville, I caught two nice fish right away and went the next couple of hours without a bite. During that stretch, I was saying to myself, 'All I need to do is to wait for these fish to turn on.' At the same time, though, I knew that I needed five. So I scrapped my original plan to stay off shore and crank, grabbed my spinning rod and went up shallow. The decision paid off and I caught three more keepers. Looking back on it, those three fish won the tournament."
This simple principle also went a long way for Mike during the 2006 Bassmaster Elite Series, when he secured the Angler of the Year title. A single fish on the last day, at the last event of the season proved to be the difference between winning the title and a runner-up performance. Also of note is that when Mike first captured the lead in the season points race, he never relinquished the top spot, another result of his daily efforts to secure a limit.
A focus on obtaining a limit also encourages change. The phrase, 'Fish the Moment', has become a mission statement for Mike. It is an axiom that he continues to follow during competition.
"Forget about what happened yesterday, an hour ago, or even five minutes ago. You are trying to fish in the present. When the bite dies and an hour passes, that is when the fish are telling you to change. That says to me, 'Hey, Mike, you gotta change!' I try and listen to that. It is hard because, as a human being, your instinct is to go back and fish your history. Everybody does that at times, even the best in the world. But when you open yourself up and start fishing 'free' - fishing instinctively - that is really when you are going to start to win tournaments. You have let your instinct take over."
That versatility is accommodated in Mike's original game plan, where he established a template to put himself 'in the ballpark' of what the fish will do when conditions change.
The Final Day
Tournaments today are unique in that anglers are competing against one another without knowing how the opposition is performing. Couple that lack of knowledge with situational encounters such as boat breakdowns, spectator traffic, and a camera crew recording every second, and it is easy to forget what the competition is all about: catching fish. An angler, however, can maintain focus simply by redefining the things that cannot be controlled. Mike will categorize those situational occurrences with other variables such as weather, current, water color, and season. As much as tournament anglers would like to ignore the fact that a virtual armada of boats is chasing them, the reality of the situation requires conscious adjustment.
Mike takes those adjustments in stride, "For years, we've talked about how the neat thing about this sport is that there are thousands of variables coming at you every day. And they change all the time. You are trying to identify those variables and keep up with the overall puzzle. And, when leading, the pace required to keep up is that much greater."
Adjusting to those additional final day factors does not require a change in how or where an angler fishes, but rather requires a change in the approach. Spectator boat traffic, as Mike identifies, is one good example of when there may be a need to adjust to those special factors.
"If I have 40 boats following me and I'm fishing a weed bed, I'm going to stop short of the spot and make longer casts. I may ask people to shut their depth finders off, too. So, yeah, spectator boats factor into the equation. To me, it's not a situation where I would change and do something completely different. It's just another variable."
With final day factors identified, Mike surprisingly tries not to think about the competition. Whether he is leading or chasing, he tries not to get caught up in what the other competitors are doing.
"I try not to waste energy worrying about things that are out of my control, especially the performance of other anglers. If a guy decides to gamble and goes out and catches 50 pounds and beats me - man, that was awesome. He absolutely made the right decision. But it doesn't help me to continually look over my shoulder because it is out of my control."
Often to the detriment of their performance, many anglers will scrap their original game plan, even within sight of a win. Mike advises that, if in doubt, anglers should not make a change.
"If I am within two or three pounds of the lead, I've got a realistic shot of winning. So, I stick with my original plan. But there are other tournaments where I go into the last day in 12th and am 10 pounds out. That's really I say 'Man, I have to swing for the fences.' But honestly, when I am in sight of the win, I don't fish like that."
Going into the final day with a lead, this approach has helped Mike close every one of those professional tournaments with a victory. And, as the size of his trophy case has grown, so has his comfort in being a front-runner.
"I'd rather have the lead, whether it is a pound or 10 pounds. I don't think there's ever been a situation where I said to myself, 'I wish I was in second' going into the last day. I want to be in first from the very beginning of the tournament until the final day. Early-on in my career, yeah, there was tremendous pressure associated with being a leader, but as you mature as a tournament angler, you learn how to adapt to that pressure."
In those situations where he has lost a lead prior to the final day or was unsuccessful in overtaking the front-runner, Mike will try to learn from experience by evaluating his performance.
In every tournament, there is only one winner. For those anglers that are left looking up, a post-tournament evaluation can pay dividends down the road. A thorough introspection asking the most basic question, "What did I do and what did the winners do?" serves as a good starting point according to Mike.
He adds, "As disappointing as it is not to win, I try and use that feeling as a tool to make things better in the future. I will say to myself, 'Next time I am going to try and not let that happen.' Then I will put it out of my mind and start thinking about the next event. That's the mentality you need to have, especially over the course of a season. You need to be able to put disappointments behind you."
Evaluations, however, don't always have to be depressing. An analysis of tournament wins or successful performances can help an angler notice similarities between their victories and the decisions that were made to get them there. For Mike, the common trend is obvious.
"I think every one of my victories came down to a last day decision. And going into the last day, if you were to ask me, 'Mike, how are you going to win the tournament today?', I would have answered with a description of a pattern or plan that ended up being completely different than what I had done in the previous days of the event."
Identifying that trend also builds the confidence required to make an instinctive change on the last day. Combined with game planning, execution, and adjustments, Mike has proven that his formula is a success.
So, the next time you are at the ballpark, take note of who's on the mound in the bottom of the ninth. You may be watching Michael Iaconelli - the game's best closer.