By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"That's the sort of guy he is," Stan Gerzsenyi says.
That's how much he wanted to win the Classic.
B.A.S.S. held the 2004 Classic on the mammoth Lake Wylie in late July, some 12,455 acres of fishing 13 miles from uptown Charlotte, North Carolina. Omori scouted the lake for three days before the tournament began.
The drama of any Classic does not come on the lake. It comes at the weigh-in. At the end of the day, for three days, anglers walk to a stage before a crowd of people--the stage often located in a convention center near the lake--with a large plastic sack in one hand. In the sack are bass. If the day went well, there will be five bass in the sack, the day's limit, and they will be big and ugly.
On the stage is a podium. On the podium is a scale. Anglers dump their catches onto it. Because ESPN televises the Classic, the live audience can't see the scale and must rely on a master of ceremonies to scream the bass' weight into his microphone, which adds drama to the event but also gives anglers a chance, after the screaming, to thank their corporate sponsors. (The podium, which the audience at home can see, has sponsors' names all over it.)
The first day of the Classic, Omori walked into the Charlotte Coliseum, with 13,000 people looking on and more than a half-million watching at home, carrying in one hand a heavy plastic sack. He dumped the fish onto the scale. Because it's ESPN, an eerie, tense score played over the Coliseum's speakers. Then the emcee, Fish Fishburne, screamed: 16.2 pounds! Our first-day leader!
Omori's eyes went wide. He grabbed two fish by their lower lips and ran around the stage in a victory lap. It made for good TV--as did Omori's competition.
On day two, he lost his lead to Rojas.
Omori caught two bass around 9 the next morning. Then one 5-pounder got away. Then, somehow, another. He thought he'd lost the Classic.
Camera crews stopped by--no bites. Spectators on boats. Nothing. He went from spot to spot. Hit up new spots. The noon hour passed. Still nothing. How did those fish get away? Would he be a failure again?
No. Around 1:30 he noticed the water near the bank had lost depth, the wind had picked up, there was a swift current where before the lake was still. He had seen this scenario before in the Carolinas. He needed to switch from a jig bait to a crank bait. But not any crank bait. These waters called for a Bagley Balsa BII, which wasn't carried in stores anymore, but, thankfully, Joe Axton still had them around, and in the days before Omori left for the Classic, he and Axton must have gone through countless tackle boxes before Omori found some BIIs, which he thought he might need.
Within three minutes of switching lures, Omori caught a 3-pounder.
His boat was 15 minutes from the starting dock. He had to have it on the dock's ramp at 2:30 p.m. It was now 2, and he needed two more fish.
Cast and retrieve. Cast and retrieve. 2:05. Cast and retrieve. Cast and retrie--a tug on the line. A big tug on the line. A 4-pound hog at least!
Still five more minutes. Cast and retrieve. Cast and--another tug. Another bass. Almost as big. My God, he might win this!
No time left. Omori raced his boat back toward the dock. "Big fish. Big fish," he said to anyone within earshot, dying to leave the lake and get to the weigh-in.
Rojas had a bad day. Ike had been disqualified for fishing in off-limits waters. Denny Brauer had faded. Aaron Martens, though, who finished second at the 2002 Classic, had come on strong, and his three-day total of 36.6 pounds gave him the lead. If Omori's five bass weighed more than 10.75 pounds, he'd win the Classic.
Omori plunked them on the scale: 13.5 pounds. The dream was realized. He pounded the podium repeatedly, fell to his knees and cried. The white, overwhelmingly Southern crowd gave him a standing ovation. "This is the best day of my life," Omori said when a mike was put before him. "I've waited 18 years for my dream to come true--since I was 15."
Emotion poured through him the rest of the day. The first question at the news conference was about the winning lure he used. "This is the greatest day of my life," he repeated.
He went on to tell the press his life story. Afterward, he had to call Joe Axton. "I wish my father was alive to see this," Omori told Axton. "Maybe then he would be proud of me."