Many expect fishing to be tough on three rivers – Mike Iaconelli, perhaps befitting his New Jersey roots, is regarded as perhaps the brashest angler around on the pro bass fishing circuit.
Heading into Pittsburgh for the Bassmaster Classic, he may also be the most wildly optimistic.
Iaconelli thinks the angler who wins the Classic is going to have to weigh in 20-25 pounds of fish over three days to do it.
“I’m guessing mid-20s,” Iaconelli said. “I think 30 pounds is a little bit high, but I think the mid-20s is a realistic idea.”
That puts him solidly in the minority among his competitors. Many of the pros who spent the last week of June practicing on the three rivers found the fishing to be extremely tough. They’re not expecting things to be any easier when the Classic gets underway.
“This could go down as one of the lowest winning weights in history,” said Kevin Vandam, the Michigan pro who won the Classic in 2001. “George Cochran’s record could be in jeopardy.”
Cochran won the 1987 Classic title with 15.5 pounds of fish. No other Classic winner ever took the title with less than 18 pounds, while the highest winning weight was more than 75 pounds.
Pittsburgh’s fishery just doesn’t support bass in the numbers and sizes to get even half of that, said professional angler Kevin Wirth, who lives along the Ohio River in Kentucky. Wirth has fished the Ohio from one end to the other and calls it a “confidence killer” because of its lack of fish.
That’s why he doesn’t consider the Pittsburgh Classic to be a “tough” tournament per se.
“When they (bass) don’t live there, that’s not tough. A tough tournament is when the fish are there and you can’t get them to bite because of the conditions or the weather or some other factor. That’s when you have to keep working to try to unlock the puzzle,” Wirth said.
“In this kind of situation, you’re just throwing and hoping most of the time.”
It’s possible that, with fewer fish available, one big one might be enough to put an angler into the winner’s circle, agreed Chad Morgenthaler, an Illinois pro who will be appearing in his second Classic.
“That’s exactly my game plan, to get into a spot where I can get three or four legal bass in a hurry, then get out there and look for that one big bite. If you can get a two, three or four pounder to bite, and you land him, then all you’ve got to be is consistent from there on out. That should put you in the running,” Morgenthaler said.
“I think you’re only going to get one or two bites like that in three days, though, so you better not blow it.”
Local anglers and biologists don’t necessarily disagree, but, like Iaconelli, they seem to be a little more optimistic than most of the pros.
Rick DeMichele of Allegheny Bait and Tackle in Tarentum said the bass fishing on the rivers has been very tough over the last few years, perhaps because of the flooding the area has seen. Still, he thinks it will take 20-25 pounds to win the Classic.
“I don’t think they’re going to catch that many big bass, though,” DeMichele said.
Jim Adams, president of District V of the Pennsylvania Bass Federation agreed, saying that most of the bass weighed in will be about one pound. That’s why he’s predicting a winning weight of 18 to 20 pounds.
“These aren’t going to be those big largemouths they’re used to catching,” Adams said.
Gary Smith, fisheries technician in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s southwest region office, thinks it’s going to take 25.5 pounds to win the Classic, with the Monongahela producing the most fish. The Allegheny, though, will give up the biggest bass, he predicted.
Smith’s boss, fisheries biologist Rick Lorson, agreed in regards to what the Monongahela and Allegheny will produce, but hedged his bets on a total weight. It could go as high as 27 pounds or drop as low as 20, he said, depending on river conditions.
Denny Tubbs, an aquatic resources planning specialist with the Fish and Boat Commission, thinks it will take at least 26 pounds to win. And he wouldn’t be surprised to see someone bring in 30 pounds of bass.
He’s also looking to the Ohio River to produce the biggest fish.
“There are not a lot of big fish in the Ohio, but there are some really nice ones. If these guys can find them, I think some of these people are going to be impressed,” Tubbs said.
Wayne Lykens of Island Firearms on Neville Island would have agreed with him in years past. The area where the Ohio and Beaver rivers come together has always been a bass hot spot, he said. It’s been off lately, though.
“Usually in that general area is where we see a lot of nice bass come from, but they’re not catching them there this year,” Lykens said.
Vandam just hope to find bass somewhere.
“I’ll tell you what the biggest fear for a lot of these Classic anglers is. It’s coming into that coliseum (Mellon Arena) skunked,” Vandam said. “And it could happen. It could happen to me.”
Bob Frye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (724) 838-5148
By Bob Frye
TRIBUNE-REVIEW OUTDOORS EDITOR