After three days on the water in practice, Mike Iaconelli is confident the Bassmaster Classic will be won with mostly crankbaits. He’ll be throwing Rapala® DT’s and Shad Raps.
“They’re going to be the two big players this week,” the Rapala Pro says on the eve of the elite tournament, which will be contested March 14-16 on Ft. Loudoun and Tellico reservoirs, launching out of Knoxville, Tenn. “And you’re going to see people that aren’t even Rapala guys throwing DT’s and Shad Raps.”
There’s “no better bait to fish than a crankbait” now in the Knoxville area, Iaconelli says, given the water and weather conditions. “I predict the majority of fish caught by the winner will be caught on this type of bait – whether it’s by me or somebody else.”
Fellow Rapala pros Gerald Swindle and Brandon Palaniuk say they’ll also throw Rapala DT® and Shad Rap® crankbaits in the Classic. Swindle says he’ll mix in a spinnerbait with double willow blades as well. Palaniuk says he’ll also throw Rapala Shadow Rap® jerkbaits and three other crankbaits: Rapala BX® Brats, Storm® Arashi® Square 3’s and Storm Original Wiggle Warts.
“I may fish all those baits within a single competition day, based on what’s in front of me,” Palaniuk says. “I’ll have lots of variations for different depths and different body styles to match the conditions. Depending on what part of the lake you’re fishing, you can find chocolate milk that you can see 2 to 3 inches in, or you can find water that you can see 3 to 4 feet in, or even a bit more.”
Heavy rains throughout a cold winter have made many Knoxville-area waterbodies faster and dirtier than usual for this time of year. That’s not necessarily bad, Iaconelli says, but you must account for those factors when setting and executing your game-plan.
“There’s been some doom and gloom looking at the conditions and weather, but if you’ve fished the last few days — and you’ll hear this not just from me — the fish are biting pretty good,” he says. “The conditions are actually making the fish bite. Specifically, the current.”
To prevent water levels from rising too high following heavy rain in February, dam operators have been releasing water, which creates current, Iaconelli explains. “Since the rains keep coming and filling the lake, they have been forced to open up the gates and really move water through the system,” he continues. “And what that current is doing is it’s positioning the fish really, really well and making the fish bite. Current makes fish bite.”
That being said, heavy current can also make the bite “a little tricky” in places, Swindle says. “The flow is too fast on the main river to get many bites,” he explains. Creeks and pockets were better for him in practice.
Palaniuk encountered water temps between 46 and 59 degrees in his first two days of practice. “But there’s not just like one temperature that’s better,” he notes. “It’s not like just because you find a certain water temperature that there is automatically going to be fish there.”
Swindle would like to see water temps in the areas he likes raise from around 50 to 53 degrees. “That will help,” he says.
Palaniuk isn’t sure water temps will warm much, based on forecasts he saw on Wednesday. “It’s going to progressively get colder every day to where last night’s lows will be warmer than Thursday through Sunday’s highs,” he says. “Lows in the 50s dropping to lows in the 30s can make a pretty big difference this time of year, as far as fish movement. So something you thought you may have found may not actually end up being worth anything. Or, something you found could possibly get better. That’s why I’m going to have a variety of different baits tied on. Because I’m not just fishing one condition, I want to be prepared for whatever’s thrown at me.”
In addition to lipped crankbaits like DT’s and Shad Raps, Iaconelli says he will throw some Rapala Rippin’ Rap lipless crankbaits and Shadow Rap and Shadow Rap Shad suspending jerkbaits as well.
Rapala® DT® Series Crankbaits
“DT” stands for “dives to.” Built of balsa wood, Rapala’s signature material, a DT-4 will get down to its maximum depth of four feet sooner than – and thus stay in the strike zone longer than – any other shallow-running crankbait on the market. The way its balsa body wobbles while swimming and deflecting off cover make a DT a perfect tool for triggering bites from shallow, early-season bass on waterbodies with little to no vegetation, like Ft. Loudon and Tellico.
In stained to muddy water, red, orange and chartreuse DT’s generally out-produce brownish and greenish patterns. Iaconelli says he won’t be the only angler in the Classic throwing DT’s in the red-orange Demon color pattern. It’s one of the “Ike’s Custom Ink” color patterns he designed for Rapala.
“I don’t think there’s a hotter bait color in the country right now for catching fish in these dirty-water conditions than Demon,” he says.
Rapala® Shadow Rap® and Shadow Rap® Shad
A Shadow Rap or Shadow Rap Shad will also “be a player” in the Classic, Iaconelli says. “Even though the water’s dirty, there are areas in this lake right now — especially in Tellico, which runs clearer — that the visibility is OK for a suspending jerkbait.”
While most jerkbaits follow a forward trajectory with each twitch of the rod tip, Shadow Raps will also dart side to side and, with a sharp jerk, spin around almost 180 degrees. They move vertically too. Shadow Raps combine a horizontal struggle with a vertical fade, perfectly mimicking a dying minnow’s movements. They are designed to fish in two to four feet of water.
Similar to the original Shadow Rap, the Shadow Rap Shad is taller in profile but not as long. And rather than slowly sinking on the pause — as does the original Shadow Rap — a Shadow Rap Shad slowly rises when stalled, slightly wobbling.
Rapala® Rippin’ Rap®
Lipless baits will “catch a lot of big fish this week,” Iaconelli says. “And a Rapala Rippin’ Rap is one of the best.”
Featuring flat, skinny sides and a deep-belly profile, Rippin’ Raps flutter-drop on a slack line and pop off the bottom with a hard-vibrating action accented by a loud, distinctive rattle system. Textured scales, gills with deep-set 3D holographic eyes and fast-piercing VMC black-nickel hooks seal the deal.
In stained to muddy water, Iaconelli throws Rippin’ Raps in reddish crawfish-imitating colors like Red Crawdad and Redfire Crawdad. In clearer water, he favors shad-imitating color patterns, like Chrome Blue.