By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
He comes to America with no money and fewer friends, knowing the English language only as it relates to bass fishing. Takahiro Omori loves bass fishing. But not the Japanese kind: The bass over there are too small, the competition in the professional tournaments too easy.
He tells his parents he wants to be a pro fisherman in America, where the bass are grumpier, heavier and smarter. And the men who catch them are the best in the world.
His parents think he's nuts. Why not go to college? Why not get a real job?
But Omori doesn't want a real job. A real job would mean following dutifully in his father's corporate footsteps. Omori wants to follow his own.
So, in 1992, at the age of 21, Omori lands in Dallas, without a career, without a college degree. And because of this, because of everything he's left behind, there's something else Omori's without as he steps off the plane: the love of his father, who has more or less disowned him.
Over the next 12 years, Takahiro Omori will struggle as perhaps no other pro fisherman has. He'll sleep for years in a beat-up van. Sneak into motel rooms to shower. Eat infrequently. Endure prejudice from the bubbas in his sport. Endure the comments of his father, when they're on speaking terms.
Yet Takahiro Omori will never complain.
He will only work harder. Drive to more tournaments than anyone else, fish for more days, for more hours per day, than anyone else. Move to Lake Fork, an hour and a half southeast of Dallas, where the bass do not come bigger. Spend his evenings away from the lake thinking of fishing or, better yet, modifying his lures for the next day's casts.
Takahiro Omori will become a man whose obsession is bass fishing. Even his peers, the best anglers in the world, will marvel at it. The obsession will border on the pathologic.
There are two reasons for this. Omori wants to win more than you do. And he fears, even today, that he is a failure in his father's eyes.
In 2004, Omori will win the Bassmaster Classic, the Super Bowl of bass fishing, the one tournament he wanted to win since he was a teenager in Tokyo. And his win will bring great joy and some relief and will come at a time of unparalleled success in bass fishing. More people will watch the Classic, either at home or at the tournament, than ever before. This will make Takahiro Omori a very rich man.
Ray Scott, who created professional bass fishing in 1967, will call Omori "my hero" and say Omori's story is the story of the American dream. Scott should know. Thirty-seven years ago he was an insurance salesman; today, he's a millionaire many times over.
But Scott's not quite right. Sure, some of Omori's story is classic Horatio Alger stuff. But some of it's too improbable, too heart-wrenching.
No, what the story of Takahiro Omori really is, is a fishin' story.
The world's first true fishin' story.
These figures catch the attention of television executives and the sponsors who air their programs. Both B.A.S.S. and the FLW Tour--which stands for Forrest L. Wood, the maker of Ranger Boats--broadcast their tournaments throughout the season, B.A.S.S. on ESPN, the FLW Tour on the Outdoor Life Network. This year, ESPN upped its coverage of the Bassmaster Classic from two hours to 11. Ratings increased by 59 percent.
Omori can expect $1 million in stateside endorsements next year, just for winning the Classic. Want another sign of the sport's growing success? Many of the endorsements will probably come from non-fishing sponsors such as Snickers and General Mills.
He will defend his title next year in Pittsburgh, the second time a Classic will be held in the Northeast. "There's no reason to believe it should stay in the South," says Gary Morgenstern, the executive director of ESPN Outdoors. "One of the best ways to create fans is to put [the Classic] in their back yard."
Or put the fisherman on TV. Later this fall, look for BassCenter on ESPN2--the same format as SportsCenter, but, you know, about bass fishing. And starting September 22, the new single man in ABC's series The Bachelorwill be Byron Velvick, a 40-year-old from Nevada who's never seen the reality show before. "I spend too much time on the road" fishing B.A.S.S. and FLW, he says.
The mainstream media are giving bass fishing its due. Sports Illustratedand ESPN the Magazinehave recently profiled bass fishermen. And Esquire, in its August issue, ran a 12-page story on the sport, calling it, among other things, "the new NASCAR."