Bass Fishing in America

How Takahiro Omori defied his family, flew to Texas, slept in a van and made his crazy dream come true

Thing is, it could be bigger than that. At least, that's what Ray Scott thinks. Scott founded B.A.S.S. 36 years ago. "People don't drive race cars," he says from his home in Alabama. "But people do fish."

Watching fishing is boring, though. Even the Bachelor Velvick admits that. The secret, ESPN's Morgenstern says, is to play up a fisherman's personality. "People identify with personalities," he says.

There are plenty of those in bass fishing. Take Mike Iaconelli, the heavily tattooed pro who grew up in New Jersey. After he won the 2003 Bassmaster Classic, Iaconelli, who prefers "Ike," celebrated with a break dance onstage. Then there's Ishama "Ish" Monroe, the black guy from San Francisco who talks trash to his fish after catching them. Brett Hite sports a soul patch. A few guys have body piercings. Gerald Swindle, the B.A.S.S. 2004 Angler of the Year and a good ol' boy from Alabama, drives to tournaments with DMX thumping. Says Ike, "There's a changing of the guard. I love guys like Ish and T.O."

Joe and Toshiko Axton, who became Omori's surrogate family in America, couldn't be prouder of what Omori has accomplished.
Steve Satterwhite
Joe and Toshiko Axton, who became Omori's surrogate family in America, couldn't be prouder of what Omori has accomplished.
Omori told his story to the press after his Bassmaster Classic win.
Courtesy of Walker Agency
Omori told his story to the press after his Bassmaster Classic win.

T.O. is what everyone on tour calls Takahiro Omori. What Ike loves about T.O. isn't his personality--he's expressionless on the lake and at the weigh-ins and still struggles with English--but rather, to be blunt, his race. "It's now truly a worldwide sport," Ike says.

The Japanese are crazy for bass fishing. In fact, bass fishing is second only to golf in the ranks of national obsessions. And that's with fewer lakes in Japan than America, and smaller bass.

Why the Japanese love bass fishing is unknown. But it's kind of like asking why Americans love bass fishing. Or maybe that is the answer: because Americans love bass fishing. Japan's culture has certainly borrowed heavily from American music and American sports. Why not fishing for ugly largemouths?

The fish were smuggled into the country from California by businessman Tetsuma Akaboshi in the 1920s--or so the legend goes. Akaboshi brought with him about 400 bass, and soon others sailed to the United States to return with many more. In time, bass were found in the moat surrounding the Emperor's Palace in Tokyo.

Today, the fishing guides on Lake Fork, where Omori still lives, tell stories of the 60 or so Japanese tourists who come to America each year to fish for bass on Fork, gamble in Vegas, see Mickey Mouse and then fly home.

A lure worth a few dollars here can sell for $100 over there. Boat shows featuring American bass fishermen bring attendance upward of 100,000, whereas here it's perhaps 30,000.

Ask any pro and he'll tell you: He's never signed as many autographs as he's signed in Japan.

And now, a native son has won the most prestigious of all bass fishing tournaments. It might not be a stretch to say what we have here in Takahiro Omori, this short, slight man with braces on his teeth that his recent wealth has allowed him, is a bona fide international superstar.

He never thought he'd be one. He never thought about stardom of any kind. All he thought about from the moment he caught his first fish was catching the next one, because that first fish hooked him as much as he hooked it.

Omori remembers the day well. He was 9. It was summertime, sunny, and he and a friend left their houses in the early morning for a small pond outside Tokyo. They reached the dock, put night crawlers to hooks, cast out their lines and waited. And waited. Early morning became midmorning. Midmorning became noon and still no bites. Yet Omori didn't complain.

In the early afternoon, he felt a tug on his line and thought, well, what else could it be? Omori reeled it in. But the bass fought him. Omori lost ground on the fish, so he reeled harder. The fish fought harder. He arched his back, put all his strength behind it.

Now, it was an epic battle: man (or boy) vs. beast (or bass). He loved it. He loved it because slowly he was winning. The fish was getting closer; he could see it through the pond's clear waters.

His retrieve complete, Omori yanked his rod high above his head and saw for the first time that which he'd struggled against. A puny pound-and-a-half bass.

Didn't matter. Omori was fascinated with the bass' fight, not his weight. How many more were like this? He found out the next weekend and the weekend after that and the weekend after that: all of them. All of them fought as hard as that first one had. With all of them a young Takahiro Omori waged epic battles and, more times than not, won epic battles. With each catch, with each passing weekend, his love for bass fishing grew deeper. (The fight of the bass is one reason people all over the world love to catch them.)

At 13, Omori discovered plastic baits--jigs and creature lures, both of which look like insects or other edible animals; spinner baits, which spin in the water; and crank baits, which are noisy. It was then that Omori's love for bass fishing became an obsession. Now, there was more than overpowering the bass; he had to outthink them, too. Or rather, think like them. (Bass' finicky nature--their unpredictable locations and eating patterns--is another reason people fish for them.)

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