By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Didn't matter. Omori was living a dream. Jim and Tana McKean let him stay for free and fed him steaks. The lakes he pre-fished he branded into memory. There were more bass fishing magazines in America than there were in Japan, and Omori read them all, learning fishing techniques and the English language as he went. There were more bass fishing television shows, too. Omori taped them all.
"He lived, breathed and dreamed fishing," Jim McKean says.
It paid off. At his third tournament, the Alabama Invitational in February 1993, Omori finished eighth and took home $4,800. But that summer he needed money and flew back to Tokyo. He worked for the Popeye Hartman Co. and saved what he earned.
In September he was back stateside, working as Shimono's assistant. Then Omori's troubles began. He competed in six B.A.S.S. tournaments over the next year. He took home no money.
American fishing, it turns out, was different from Japanese fishing. The lines were heavier, the rods stronger; the bass, which were bigger and angrier, ate in muddy waters, not the clear lakes found in Japan. Omori needed a new way to fish.
Well, there was that one fishing show he'd taped on TNN, Bassmasters. Wasn't there a guy--David Vance, maybe--who'd caught an insane amount of very large fish for Bassmasters on Lake Fork, just outside Emory, Texas?
Omori told Jim McKean he wanted to fish Lake Fork with Vance. Through his connections with Ranger Boats, McKean tracked down Vance, whose home lake was Fork, and Vance agreed to fish with Omori.
It was everything he'd hoped for. The fish were huge. Seven-, 8-pound bass, Omori watching Vance's every cast, every bait switch, questioning everything.
Two days later on Fork, Omori caught a 10-pound beast.
So he talked to the people who owned Axton's Bass City marina, Joe Axton and his wife, Toshiko, about living on Lake Fork. The Axtons were generous people who didn't need all the money retirement afforded them, and Toshiko, originally from Japan, took a shine to Omori. The Axtons found him a 1965 camper for which Omori paid $2,200 and a 1985 Chevy van in running, if not perfect, condition.
Omori drove back to Mabank, an hour and a half south, said goodbye to the McKeans and headed to Lake Fork. Jim McKean understood. "If you want to make money, move to New York," he says. "If you want to catch bass, move to Lake Fork."
Within days of moving to Fork, the Axtons became Omori's "godparents," as Joe says, and Stan Gerzsenyi, another pro angler with a home near the lake, became Omori's best friend. Gerzsenyi helped Omori with his English. He helped him register his Chevy with the state of Texas. He grilled out with Omori. They fished a lot on Fork and hung out a lot on the road.
But Omori wasn't catching fish. In fact, he went two years--from the fall of 1993 to the spring of 1995--without earning any money on B.A.S.S. He relied heavily on the few sponsors he had, and worked, at times, as Shimono's assistant. And when he was alone and on the road, Omori pulled up to a motel and slept in his van. He did that for three years.
His diet consisted of rice and noodles and McDonald's cheeseburgers. He'd fly back to Japan in the summer--working for Ranger Boats and dealing with a father who said little beyond how much of a disappointment he was--only to fly back to the States in the fall, and hope, once more, that a summer's wages could be spread over another fishing season.
But again, he never complained. "Never," says Joe Axton. He only worked harder. In a sport where 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls are the norm, where tournament fishing means casting for eight hours without stopping to eat, drink or pee, Takahiro Omori quickly became known as the hardest-working angler in the business.
He'd finish one tournament, and even if the next was three weeks out, he'd drive there and pre-fish until it started. At night, Omori would find other pre-fishers and ask them to dinner, whereupon he'd talk fishing. Or, if there weren't other pre-fishers to dine with--because, really, who wants to pre-fish for three weeks?--Omori would head to his van and read a bass magazine. His trailer on Lake Fork became a library of Field & Streams and Bassmaster videos, stacked to the ceiling. Boxes of fishing tackle were everywhere. Eventually, Omori had to clear walking paths so he could get from his bed to the trailer's door without stepping on a Rick Clunn tape or a stray crank bait.
Most bass guys had families or at least dated, but how did you date when you put 40,000 miles a year on your beat-up van and were home only to pack up for the next trip? Most guys tinkered with their lures to make them fly better or land softer, but how many stayed up half the night making lure modifications for scenarios, for the moment when you're fishing in Kentucky, near a bank's edge, in the early morning, and it's sunny out, and the water's 5 feet deep? How many did that? How many had more than 110 tackle boxes with lures inside that carried a labeling, a reminder, of said fishing scenarios?