It has been nearly six months since Michael Iaconelli competed in his last national tournament. Of course, that was the 33rd CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer where he won the most important title in competitive fishing.

It was on the Classic stage in New Orleans that the 31-year-old New Jersey pro enjoyed the biggest moment of his career - break-dancing and boat-bellowing his way to a narrow victory over veterans Gary Klein and Harold Allen and a $200,000 grand prize. Although he has been enjoying the riches and fruits of being the reigning Classic champion since then, Iaconelli is fired up about the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Tour season that launches on Florida's Harris Chain of Lakes later this month.

"I'm absolutely stoked for a lot of reasons," he said. "The changes that are happening with the sport, like the new Elite 50 circuit and the new Busch Shootout, are exciting within themselves. But on a personal level, I'm excited about the new season.

"I'm excited about getting back to fishing tournaments again. I'm excited about going after my next goal in this sport, which is Angler of the Year. I know it's going to be a tough thing to do, but Jay (Yelas) did it last year. He proved to us all that it can be done. So I'm shooting for that thing. That's my next project."

During the 2003 Tour season, Yelas joined 1993 winner David Fritts as the only Classic winner to follow up with the Angler of the Year title.

Despite automatically earning a return trip to the 2004 Classic, Iaconelli isn't resting on his laurels. His competition should note that he plans to revert to the style of fishing that enabled him to enjoy one of the most rapid rises in BASS history (that included the 1999 BASS Federation National Championship and two Tour-level regular-season victories).

"Last year, I had the Classic made when the season started (via his Open success), so I made the decision to change the way I fished by going out and swinging for the fences every tournament," Iaconelli recalled. "I just tried to fish for big fish. To be honest, it didn't work that well. I don't regret doing it because it was a great experience, but I think that was the wrong approach. Some other guys tried that mentality, but it didn't work for them either.

"This year I've got the same scenario. I've got the Classic made, but I'm going back to just fishing how I fish. I'm going back to fishing in the moment, like I did in the Classic. The best way to fish is by fishing the moment - finding a group of fish and just letting things develop during the course of the tournament. My style has always been to go out and fish the moment, fish the fish for that day. That's really what I'm going to get back to this year."

The make-up of the 2004 Tour and Elite 50 Series has Iaconelli eager to get back to work.

"I like the lakes. I've always enjoyed having a mix of the lakes that you love, but also to have some new fisheries, too," he said. "The whole second half of the season is new fisheries for me, that whole Elite (50) schedule. I've never been to any of those lakes and that's great. I love going to new places.

"That, in itself, makes the fish in the moment (philosophy) come out because you have no history, you've got no background on it, and you really have to start from scratch. A lot of times, that helps you get in tune with what the fish are going to do because you have no history to fall back on. You just go out there and it just happens for you.

"I also like the fact that there are a lot of rivers on the schedule this year. I've always excelled in situations where there are rivers and current. That's always been a strength of mine. I'm an old river rat going all the way back to my BASS club days."

CAREER CHOICE. Veteran Missouri pro Denny Brauer makes it clear that he is thrilled that he won't be available to again serve as guest analyst on the television coverage of the upcoming Classic in Charlotte on ESPN.

"That was kind of an easy gig and it didn't pay too bad," said Brauer, who has already qualified for the 2004 Classic via the Southern Opens circuit. "But we're all competitors and it was killing me, sitting up there watching the other guys out there. You're always wondering what you might do in those same situations.

"My heart's in tournament fishing. We get involved in a lot of other things, but if I had to just choose one thing to do, it would be fishing tournaments."

DID YOU KNOW? Rick Clunn, Larry Nixon and Denny Brauer are all tied for second place in the all-time records list, with 14 BASS victories (well behind Roland Martin with 19).

PRO BIRTHDAYS. Texas pro Bud Pruitt turns 38 on Jan. 13. Missouri's Mark Tucker will blow out 43 candles on Jan. 31. A pair of former Classic champions (Ken Cook, 57, and Denny Brauer, 55,) will celebrate their birthdays on Feb. 2 and 3, respectively.

IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... Missouri pro Shane Voyles might still be working in the inventory control department of the Price Shopper grocery store chain in Kansas City. Voyles, winner of the 2003 Southern Open on Lake Eufaula, later convinced Price Chopper officials to become one of his biggest sponsors (providing him with a wrapped boat and truck).

THEY SAID IT. "I'm living a dream. I'm fortunate to be given the opportunity to fish competitively at this level. There are so many good fishermen in our area of Texas. I think there's a lot of them that could do it. But they have families or they have jobs and they're just not able to take the time away. But I had the opportunity and I feel really blessed because of it." Rising young star Todd Faircloth, who has qualified for the Classic in each of his four BASS seasons.