By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
How many guys, after failing to qualify for the final day of a tournament, would take a boat and follow around those who did? Or, if the boat was low on gas and you were out of money, how many guys would hitch a ride with an ESPN camera crew to watch the final day's proceedings?
How many guys loved fishing but also loved a man halfway around the world who hated it? How many guys wanted to prove that success and respect are not limited to the business suits you wear and the corporate title you keep?
"Nobody's ever going to stop him from fishing. It's in his heart. It's in his soul," says Tracy Nix, a fishing guide on Lake Fork. "I don't think there's anybody in the United States that has as much dedication as that man."
Sooner or later, the hard work was rewarded. Omori won the Missouri Invitational in April 1996. His three-day bass total weighed more than 47 pounds. (Each day, anglers weigh the five biggest bass they catch. The guy whose three-day total weighs the most wins. He also gets points for winning. The other top finishers get points, too.) Omori's check was $35,000.
Sponsors called and asked if he'd wear their name. Soon, Omori didn't have to eat at McDonald's or sleep in his van. In 1997, he spent his first summer in the United States and not Japan.
That was also the year he fished full time on the FLW Tour, the pro circuit that started in 1996 and offered at times more money than B.A.S.S. It wasn't great money in 1997. But factor in the checks from his growing list of sponsors--some guys make more from sponsors than they do fishing--and Omori made about as much as a restaurant's worst waitress.
He improved each year. And in 2001, he earned $221,000, bought a house near Lake Fork and had enough top finishes at season's end to qualify for the FLW Tour Championship, as well as the holy grail of bass fishing, B.A.S.S.'s Bassmaster Classic.
Messages to Tokyo in 2001 were relayed to Toshichika Omori. Takahiro was making money. He'd bought a house. He'd qualified for the Bassmaster Classic he talked so much about. He was a success. He was respected.
Something stirred inside the father. For the Classic, Omori's family flew in from Japan. And Toshichika Omori came along.
All four Omoris, Toshichika, mother Masako, Masahiro and Mariko, saw Takahiro's new home during their stay and heard from Joe Axton about Takahiro's dedication. They then drove to New Orleans for the Classic, met some of Takahiro's friends and watched as he received a $4,000 check, for just three days' worth of fishing in the August sun.
Takahiro's mother, brother and sister told him they were proud. They always had been. As they said their goodbyes, the exchange between Toshichika and his son was awkward--thoughts still needed expression--but just his coming to America said volumes, didn't it?
Takahiro Omori would never know. Two weeks after his visit, Toshichika died of a heart attack.
In heavy mourning, Omori decided to fish B.A.S.S.'s Michigan Tour Pro a couple of weeks later. He finished last. "I couldn't caught fish if it jump in my boat," Omori told Axton when he got back to Lake Fork.
Gone was the love of fishing, the drive to be the best. Omori asked Axton if he should quit, move back to Japan and be the son he should have always been. Axton told him to go home, spend time with his family. If he wanted to come back and fish, Omori more than anyone knew what it would take. So Omori left America.
A month and a half passed.
He came back to the States. He struggled for a year and a half. He couldn't concentrate. Couldn't focus on each cast as he once had. Couldn't shake the fear that Toshichika Omori, upon his death, still viewed his firstborn son with scorn.
"For almost 16 months, my feelings not good about anything," Omori says.
But they would improve. He learned to cope as best he could with his father's death and the unanswered questions it brought. And once he did that, the lust to fish returned. By the end of the 2003 season, he had amassed $128,850 on both tours, qualified for the Classic and won the B.A.S.S. Horizon Award for most improvement in a year's point standings.
Before it was filled, Omori painted a 1-inch-wide line down the center of the pool. As he prepared for the bass season, he'd grab a fishing rod and one tackle box from the walk-in closet filled with tackle boxes (but not clothes), sit in a chair a full cast from the pool, smell the chlorine and try landing his different lures onto the 1-inch strip, making adjustments if the lure didn't land right, making adjustments if it hit the strip but then drifted away with a current. He'd do that for hours.