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Pro fisherman angles in Philly storm drains with hot dogs and soft pretzel bait

The angler is getting his own urban fishing show on Nat Geo Wild. It premieres Friday.

Mike Iaconelli with a catfish he caught out of a storm drain at Broad and Race Streets in Center City Wednesday. Iaconelli's show, "Fish My City," premieres on National Geographic Wild Friday.
Mike Iaconelli with a catfish he caught out of a storm drain at Broad and Race Streets in Center City Wednesday. Iaconelli's show, "Fish My City," premieres on National Geographic Wild Friday.Read moreDIANE MASTRULL / Staff

Mike Iaconelli thinks angling in Center City storm drains is grate — and he was caught doing just that at Broad and Race Streets by bewildered passersby Wednesday.

It's not as if Iaconelli doesn't have bigger fish to fry. The pro fisherman who won the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series fishing competition has a new show called Fish My City premiering on the National Geographic Wild Channel on Friday.

But on Wednesday, there were no national TV cameras in sight as Iaconelli plopped himself on a bucket at the curb for three hours and dangled his line into a storm drain using soft pretzels as bait.

"There's a thing in fishing called 'match the hatch.' … When you're doing this you've got to think of what these fish are seeing. I'm using soft pretzels — and hot dogs are really good too," he said. "Think about it: People are walking down the street, it gets discarded and goes in the drain."

Iaconelli said that when he went urban fishing in London, he used SPAM.

Despite using the ultimate Philly bait, Iaconelli said he got just three bites and pulled in only one small catfish Wednesday.

He did hook a lot of amused pedestrians, who stopped to pepper him with questions like "Why?" and "Do you eat it?" (don't worry, he doesn't), and "Can I take a picture?"

"I enjoy making people's day," Iaconelli said. "They get to see something they don't normally see and I enjoy making people aware that there's fishing opportunities in the city."

If you think this sounds like a fishy story, you're not alone. But according to Andrew Desko, Southeast Region outreach specialist for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, it's possible to catch fish in Philadelphia's storm drains if the drains are connected to area waterways.

"As long as there's an opening for those fish to get in and they can swim up and work their way up into those drain pipes, it is possible," Desko said. "But personally I have not heard of it until this project that Mike is working on."

Iaconelli, 46, who now lives in Pittsgrove, Salem County, was born in South Philly and moved to Runnemede as a child. He learned to fish in the Schuylkill, the Wissahickon Creek, and Pennypack Park with his grandfather and uncle. Iaconelli said he learned about fishing in city storm drains from friends when he was a teen.

"They taught me early on that you don't have to live in Texas or Alabama to enjoy the sport, you can enjoy it wherever you're at," he said.

While attending Rowan University, Iaconelli entered a pro bass tournament and worked his way up the circuit. Since 1999, he's been a full-time pro fisherman. A former Bassmaster Angler of the Year, Iaconelli has endorsements and a foundation, the Ike Foundation, which introduces urban kids to fishing.

The Associated Press once called him the "Allen Iverson of bass fishing" for his "underdog spirit" and often wild antics. In 2006, Iaconelli was thrown out of a tournament for trying to revive dead fish and he's been known to yell "Who's your daddy, baby?" in the face of his catches.

Iaconelli, a married father of four, said an urban fishing movement is taking place worldwide. The lure of city fishing, he said, is that it is challenging.

"There's a lot of guesswork and the more you do it, the better you get," he said.

Iaconelli said he was approached to do a show about urban fishing by National Geographic Wild about a year ago, after producers saw his YouTube channel documenting his fishing adventures. They filmed from January to June in six cities from New York City to Taipei, Taiwan.

The first season doesn't feature Philadelphia, but Iaconelli said he'd spotlight the city if the show gets renewed.

On Friday, he plans to go out on a boat on the Schuylkill to do some social-media promotion for his show, which debuts at 10 p.m. He hopes to catch some good ones.

"I'm 46 and every time I catch a fish I feel like I'm 12 again," he said.

Staff writer Diane Mastrull contributed to this report.