Bass Fishing Tournament Strategies

How-To Fishing Videos
Mike Iaconelli reveals his pre-tournament tactics that enable him to win on the water!

Glenn: Why don't you just start talking about what you do when you're practicing for a tournament and what are the types of things you're looking for?

Mike Iaconelli: Practice for an event for me has been a process really, Glenn, that's developed since I've fished at the club level. But it's always had, from day one, it's always had a lot of the same basic elements. For me it's kind of broken into two parts, and I've been a big believer of this in my career.

The two parts of practicing for an event are, the first part is actually the stuff you can work at before you ever get to a place -- it's what I call the at-home research stage. Then the second part to my practice period is actually when you get on the water, you know, and you've got that official practice period. A lot of times that's two days, sometimes it's three, depending on what event you fish.

But they're both real important parts so I'll kind of give you the breakdown of what that really means. We could actually use some real-life examples from the past of what I'm talking about. We could take the Red River Tournament in Shreveport that we had a few years ago, the one that Skeet won where I came in second, we'll use that as an example - that was a good one.

Before I ever got to the Red River for the official practice period (which was a 3-day practice period) I tried to do things at home months and months before the event to prepare myself for the event, or to practice essentially, you know?

There's kind of three things that I do at home to get ready for an event. The first one is what I call historical research. All I'm saying when I say "historical research" is that I look for information that's out there about that particular location.

Red River is a great example -- I knew I was going to the Red so I started the historical research process. And for me what that was, was looking at a lot of old tournament reports; it was researching articles through old magazines; it was going on the website and Google-searching "Red River" and the pools we were going to fish; looking at the bass fishing websites like BassResource for information.

It's getting all these sources, and then what I'm doing is I'm looking for what I call buzzwords. I'll get -- I'm grabbing off the desk here -- I'll get and I'll start a notebook (just a regular notebook). I'll buy a whole bunch of these in the beginning of the season and I'll start this whole notebook, and right at the top I'll write "Red River" down on there, and then I start writing down these buzzwords.

Things like lure color, if "black and blue jig" keeps coming up in all these sources; or an area called Red River South as being a good area keeps coming up; or an area called The Jungle in Pool 4. These are buzzwords that keep coming up. I'll write them down as I'm beginning to think about this place.

The second part of what I do at the at-home research stage is I buy maps. I think that in today's age, a lot of anglers, a lot of folks have gotten away from traditional paper maps, but not me! So I'll go out and solicit map sources of this place. For the Red River I think I found like three different map sources.

There was ADC Mapping; I think there was Fishing Hot-Spots Map, and then there was an actual river chart that was a government chart that was several pages that was basically aerial photos. I had all three of those, and in addition I went on sites like Bing Maps and Google Maps and was able to actually look at these almost real-time photos of the layout of the river.

So I've got historical information, I've got my maps now and aerial photos. And the last part of that is I start thinking about seasonal pattern. Based on seasonal pattern I'm able to take these maps and this historical information and I'm able to take a place that's as big as the Red River - and we had access to three pools there (probably hundreds and hundreds of miles of fishable water) - and I'm able to break it down into manageable sections. And those things I do before I ever get there.

So for the Classic, our event is late February, based on seasonal pattern I knew that that time of the year in Shreveport and northeast Louisiana, that it would be a pre-spawn - later winter pre-spawn pattern. The fish would be wanting to spawn. You know, staging - moving from their winter places to their spawning areas. So that coupled with historical research, I could take a big giant place like the Red River and make it manageable. So that's the first part that I do.

The second part is when you actually get there. And for the Classic we had three official practice days the week before the event, followed by one more practice day right before the event (which we fished together; you've got some great video clips of that). I used those days to essentially take this information that I already came up with, this plan I already concocted, and then define it even more.

There's something I really want to stress here, that I'm using that stuff that I did at home not as set-in-stone information, but more as a template or as a starting point -- something to put me in the ballpark to what I'm going to do when I actually get there and practice.

So the first day of official practice I get there, I'm finally on the water. Now I've got a starting point and I've got an idea of what I want to do based on that research I did at home. Now I kick into the on-the-water part, which is essentially taking the smaller, narrowly focused areas that I've figured out at home, and now it's getting out there and using this technique I developed to really hone in on what I call the sweet spots. What they are is kind of these tournament-winning areas.

To kind of give an example, this is again a real-life example of how I almost won that tournament. It was the second day of practice. I was down in a pool, Pool 4, down in an area that through historical research I knew was a tournament winning area, and then through seasonal pattern I was able to look at the map and kind of guesstimate where these fish were going to go and spawn.

And so what I do is I get out there and I use what I call a fast idle, or a zig-zagging idle. Essentially what that is is I will idle in my boat and as I'm doing that in this area I'm looking for change. I'm looking for change two ways. I'm looking for change first the obvious way, and that's with my eyes. As I'm idling - and in this particular case it was near a spawning flat, it was a spawning flat and it was a northwest protected pocket, just perfect, you know?

And I'm idling. As I'm idling I'm looking with my eyes and I'm looking for change. In a normal situation that might be water-clarity change; it might be a stick up; it might be a dark spot; there are so many things that could be visual change. And then in addition to my eyes I'm looking at my electronics, which I call my underwater eyes. But I'm looking for the same thing - I'm looking for change.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was idling across this flat, kind of zig-zagging, heading back to where these fish would eventually spawn, and I looked at my depth-finder and I kind of did a double-take because I thought I saw . . . I was like, wait a minute! That just happened?

I saw the depth-finder was at a static 1-foot: you know, foot and a half, 1 foot, 3 inches, a foot and a half, a foot - just really shallow. And all of a sudden I saw it go 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 feet! And I'm like kind of, I did that double-take, and then it came back up and it was like 7, 5, 3, 2, 1. And then I was 1, one and a half, 1.

And I'm like, oh, oh my God! I turned back around in that fast idle, went back over that area and there it went again, whoosh. And again, what I found now that time was with my electronic eyes (my Lowrance unit), was I found a submerged hole or a pit. What I ended up finding out later on is that what that actually was is an old tank pond that was there before the place was even impounded, was even flooded. But that essentially ended up being a winning area.

So once I found that area the next thing I did was I grabbed a buoy; next time I idled over as soon as I saw that start to drop, [makes sound] I threw a marker buoy out there; now it gave me a reference point.

And now this is the last piece of this process that I do -- it's what I call 'using search-baits' to now not only find the fish or get bites, but define the spot or feel around in the spot a little better. I've got three that I use that are my favorite: one is a Carolina rig; one is a jig (specifically a heavier jig); and the third one is a crankbait.

And again, using a real-life example, in that situation I took, at the time I had a half-ounce black and blue jig (Mann's Stone Jig), and I had a shallow-running black and blue crankbait (a bait made by LaserLure at the time), and I used those baits to search around that hole. What I did in the process is I got a couple bites, so the fish were telling me that they were there. But in addition to doing that I was feeling the bottom, and I was identifying sweet spots within that spot.

So not only was this a hole, you know, kind of a ditch on this big flat, but through my baits, through the crank bait and that jig I was able to feel the actual composition of the bottom and feel cover and identify sweet spots. You know, that's kind of a Cinderella story of how this process works; it doesn't always work that smooth, but that is the exact process that I use in every event. It's basically the process I used back when I was a club fisherman in a john-boat, and it's the same process I use now.

Gosh, it's such a great technique. I can tell you that I tell people all the time to utilize this, I get a lot of e-mails back saying, "Oh my gosh! I went from showing up at a tournament and being confused, feeling overwhelmed," you know that feeling of dread when you've launched a boat and you look out and you're like, 'Where do I start?'

By using this technique it makes you a lot more confident. You're narrowing the window so it's essentially making that fishery smaller. You're putting yourself in the ballpark, and it makes you a lot more confident once you launch your boat. I know that was a long-winded answer, but that's the process I use when I'm practicing for a tournament.

Glenn: But once you find, let's say you found that one spot you found.

Mike: Yep.

Glenn: If you found three or four of those spots how do you prioritize? Which ones I'm going to hit on day one, and what are the ones I'm going to put in my back pocket and hold until maybe the last day?

Mike: It's a great question. And I can tell you that the number one thing that I've learned over the years is that I always go into an event trying to have multiple patterns and multiple areas, so you're right. You  find this spot. I caught three or four; a couple of them were in the size caliber that I liked and I got out of there. I marked it; I mentally now know what I'm looking for, this could be another pattern. Let me go look for other areas. But in addition I want to find other patterns.

Again, getting back to a real-life example, that last practice day (which is the day I fished with you), we never even ran down to that pool.

We stayed in Pool 5 and we essentially looked for back-up fish, and that's something that I think is important, too. So in every event I try to find an A-pattern, an A Plan, and in that Classic that was my A-spot. And I try to find a B-spot.

A B-spot, like you said, might be another area like that near that spot, you know? And I did end up finding a few of those. Then I try to find a C-Plan; I try to find something that's different in a different area, an emergency area. If A fails and B fails, what can I do to go try to catch a couple fish? It's important to not just die on that one spot. I think way too many anglers find what they call glory hole, like that spot, and they just say, "That's it! I'm going to win a tournament there!" They stop practicing, they sleep in the next practice day, and now that's all they've got. That's the wrong thing to do.

The right thing to do is use that as a momentum builder. You know, use that; now you've got an idea of what the primary pattern is, go find a few more of those areas. But then don't even give up there! Then go work further and try to find something else. Try to find a B-Plan, try to find a C-Plan. I can't tell you in how many events where I thought, you know, I thought my A-Plan was going to win the event and it ended up being a B- or even a C-Plan that helped me either win or get to a high finish.

Glenn: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You hear a lot of people, you hear a lot of people win practice, but then they don't win tournaments, and it's because they do that.

Mike: Yep.

Glenn: They find one spot and they bank on it. And the other thought process is also they catch a lot of the fish that they otherwise would've caught during the tournament.

Mike: Yeah.

Glenn: So what are your thoughts? Do you clip off the hook points, do you bend the barbs back, or do you catch a few fish to see what's there? What are your thoughts on that?

Mike: It's a great question, and I think all tournament anglers are faced with that at one time or another, no matter what kind of event they're fishing. For me it's a strategy that's based on when the practice period is. I can tell you that, let's take a regular Elite Series event, for example. The first day of practice is usually a Monday; the start of the tournament's a Thursday. On Monday and Tuesday (which are two or three days before the event starts), I want to see a couple.

For me it's not enough, especially in a fishery like the Red River; you go back to that example. The water was muddy. I'd have no real way of knowing the true caliber of those fish unless I saw a few. So I'm a big believer in seeing a few and catching a few to see the caliber of fish, but not trying to win on practice day, like you said. That's a great point. But I do want to catch a couple.

My rule of thumb is like two or three, you know? I like to catch two or three fish to see the caliber of fish. Once I do that I don't need to catch any more there. If I'm going to continue to fish around that area I will clip off the hook or I'll tie on a bait where I can't hook them. I'll do those things, but let me tell you this: the closer you get to the event, the less I even like to see them at all.

Getting back to an example of when we fished together, going back to Hartwell Lake the day before the tournament (again, you and I fished together) and I didn't want to see a single fish. I was dialed onto the pattern. I had some really juicy areas and all I was doing the day I fished with you was kind of trying to expand my territory. I didn't want to hook a single fish. You remember we cut the hooks off those jigs and led a lot of those fish around, and I think that helped. I went back to a lot of those areas and caught fish in those same places.

So you know, I guess the best answer for that is definitely do not try to win practice, try to get a feeling of what lives there, establish some confidence and then leave it alone, leave it alone.

Glenn: Okay, that's perfect. And then the last question is: during that tournament, now you've got everything staked out, you've done the research, you've got your A, B and C (and maybe D plan). You got out day one and then none of those work. Now what?

Mike: And that happens! That does happen.

Glenn: That does happen - and now what do you do?

Mike: Well, I can tell you that there are days where it seems like all your cards are faltering, you know, nothing's working. And usually it's an A and a B, and usually (I'd say 9 times out of 10), that C or D you can go catch some fish. And I'm not saying, you know, these are the winning-caliber fish, but I'll give you two of my fail-safe plans when nothing else works. And then I'll follow that up by giving you one big theory.

So the two fail-safes for me, one is marinas; marinas or launch areas. Over the 13 years of tournament fishing professionally I can tell you that when everything else has failed on me, I can always go to a marina or a place where I know they have tournament releases out of, a release site, a launch site, and I could catch a couple. It's a sure-fire way. And like I said, again, maybe it's not winning a tournament but maybe it's catching a couple, or maybe it's catching a limit (or whatever it is). One sure-fire way to go catch a few is to fish around marinas and launch sites.

And then the second one for me is bridges and rip-rap or what I call causeways. It's another one of those areas that no matter where you're at in the world, in the country, no matter what time of the year, a bridge piling, a rip-rap causeway (a roadway), they're the kind of places that always hold some fish, and I could always go to those places and catch a couple. So they are kind of two fail-safe areas for me.

And then my theory (and you know I believe this), is whenever else is faltering, I'm a big believer in grabbing what I call my "panic box." And all a panic box is, is essentially it's a glorified finesse kit that I've created. So when A fails and B fails and C fails, I'll head to a marina, a boat-ramp, a bridge piling or a roadway.

I'll pull out a spinning rod with 6 or 8 lb. test and a panic box that's got things like little worms and grubs, ultra-light crankbaits, inline spinners. Almost trout and crappie baits. And with that panic box, and with that finesse rod in those areas, man, I'll tell you, in those 13 years - and I don't want to say I've never been skunked because I have - but it's really been a great way to salvage a tournament . . .