Even on an off day, Takahiro Omori takes his fishing seriously.
Even on an off day, Takahiro Omori takes his fishing seriously.
Steve Satterwhite

Bass Fishing in America

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.

To tell it right, you need to start with the present. Bass fishing is big. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.), the pro circuit whose 10 tournaments climax with the Bassmaster Classic, says on average 30 million people apply for fishing licenses each year. Fishermen outnumber both golfers and tennis players in the United States. Their impact on the U.S. economy is roughly $50 billion. Last year, the average fisherman spent $1,000 on tackle alone. "If sport fishing were a corporation," says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its annual report, "it would place 13th on the Fortune 500 list of America's largest businesses."

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 Bachelor will 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 Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine have 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."

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."

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.)

The jig might work in the early morning if the day is clear and the fish are hungry. If it's overcast and the water level's low, crank bait might stir a reaction. At night, a creature lure could work well in an area in which no one else has fished.

On and on the scenarios went. Sometimes the bass would abide by them. Sometimes they wouldn't. And when they wouldn't? "That's when I started fishing every day," Omori says.

At 15, he entered a junior bass fishing tournament in Japan. Competitive fishing had gained popularity there, and Omori loved to compete. And it was here, on these waters, against these kids, that his obsession became something more, something else. Or rather, he became something else. His obsession became him. Because that tournament combined everything he loved. He had to overpower the fish and outthink them and do so against other people--for a trophy as small as that first fish he'd caught. Which didn't matter either. In later tournaments he entered, the prize was often cash.

Fishing in a tournament for money. Could there be anything better?

Well, yes. Fishing in a tournament for money in America, against the best in the world.

Jimmy Houston, Larry Nixon and other American fishermen often trekked to Tokyo to satisfy their Japanese sponsors. At each boat show they'd slog through, there'd be a teenage Takahiro Omori taking pictures with them and later hanging the portraits on his bedroom wall. The smile on his face would be equaled only one other time, much later in Omori's life.

But taking pictures wasn't enough to sate his drive. So Omori took out a subscription to Basser magazine, the first Japanese publication devoted entirely to bass fishing. He studied that more than he did his homework. What would it be like, he thought many nights in bed, to win the Bassmaster Classic he'd read so much about?

At school, English classes were mandatory, but Omori had trouble learning anything that didn't include the word "bass" or "lure."

He didn't date much either.

At 18, Omori won the first professional Japanese tournament he entered. The thrill didn't last. The bass were tiny, the competition easy. Jimmy Houston would have crushed the field, too. In fact, any American would have won.

Before his high school graduation, Omori told his parents he wasn't going to college. He was instead saving his money to one day fly to America and live out his dream as a professional bass fisherman. "Are you crazy?" his father, Toshichika, asked. "You're going to college."

Toshichika was a businessman with business sense who expected no less from his firstborn son. Flying halfway across the world to chase around bass in a boat--that was no way to make a living. That was no way to be respected in your community. Toshichika would be laughed at. The oldest of his three children, wasting the good grades he'd spent 12 years accumulating, fishing in America. No way.

But his son was just as firm. The fall after his high school graduation, Omori was the only student in his class not to go to college. He fished in pro tournaments when he could but spent most of his time as a dishwasher, waiter and an after-school mentor, teaching kids math and science.

In 1992, Omori approached Japan's Ranger Boats dealer, Popeye Hartman Co., about a sponsorship. The company backed a Japanese angler in America, Masaki Shimono. But Popeye was hesitant about backing another.

The company did agree to hire Omori as Shimono's assistant. This meant Omori would have to shuttle Shimono from tournament to tournament, but it also meant, at some tournaments, Omori would get to fish. And an American exporter for Ranger Boats, Jim McKean, who did a lot of business in Japan, agreed after a discussion with Popeye to house Omori in his Mabank, Texas, home.

So with $2,000 in his pocket, Takahiro Omori flew to America to live his dream, leaving behind nearly all of his childhood possessions, nearly everything he had cared for and held close, including the love of his father.

From an American's perspective, it kept getting worse. Omori landed stateside, and his parents refused to support him. He had trouble finding sponsors. He had trouble driving--a cop once pulled him over because he thought he was drunk. Omori couldn't speak English (which turned out to be a good thing: Some of the bubbas on the bass fishing tour were racist, mimicking the trouble he had speaking and making jokes about sushi). He was on the road for days, months even. He had no social life. He longed to cast lines into shallow waters and, sure, he got to--but only as a scouter, the man who fished for days before the tournament and then handed his rod, reel and knowledge to the pro. In this case, the pro was Masaki Shimono, who, it turned out, was indifferent at best to his new assistant.

Finally, when Omori did fish for money, he finished 269th, and then, two months later, in November 1992, dead last. He took home no cash for either tournament.

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."

For pro anglers in the early '90s, living near Lake Fork was like living in an artists' bohemia: Everybody was poor--because the money in B.A.S.S. wasn't great and the FLW Tour had yet to form--and everybody was supportive.

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?

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.

Omori finished 26th at the Bassmaster Classic, better than one-third of the tournament's elite field. Omori's father, for the first time in Omori's adult life, extended him grudging respect during the visit. Or, as Takahiro says, "Finally, he start to say good things about fishing." No easy feat considering Takahiro's younger brother, Masahiro, followed in his father's corporate footsteps and Takahiro's younger sister, Mariko, worked at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow.

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?

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.

Omori built a swimming pool next to his house before the 2004 season. But he has yet to swim in it. There's a reason, of course.

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.

"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.

Mike "Ike" Iaconelli, the 2003 Classic champ, was in second place; Dean Rojas, who holds numerous B.A.S.S. records, in third; and Denny Brauer, the Michael Jordan of bass fishing, was in fourth.

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."

Nine o'clock in the morning, and Omori already has four fish in the boat. A camera crew from the Outdoor Life Network follows him, hoping he'll advance today to the semifinal round of the FLW Tour Championship, hoping, two days from now, he'll win the thing and become king of both circuits--Classic champion and FLW champion. It would make for great TV. Something bass fishing never worried about 10 years ago. Something Takahiro Omori didn't worry about till three weeks ago.

Now, he's an ambassador for his sport. He'd like to see it have more of an international appeal; and the best way to create it is to show the camera some personality.

"That's four," he says, forcing a smile in the direction of the OLN crew behind him. Sunglasses and a baseball cap cover half his face. "Pretty good morning."

Granted, the routine needs work. But he's been a fisherman longer than a Classic champ, so he has time.

Some time. His phone rings constantly in the three weeks after his Classic win. Sponsors want him to appear at demos. The media want his story. Fans want his autograph.

All Omori wants is to fish, which he didn't get to do much of before humping it to Birmingham in August for the Tour Championship. Which might be why the four fish he caught this Thursday morning aren't big. Which might be why he fishes frantically the rest of the day, hitting up maybe 50 spots before heading back to the starting dock at 3 p.m., five small bass in his boat.

He doesn't advance to the Championship's semifinal round. The rest of the weekend, he stays busy, though. Omori signs autographs for fans at the Tour Championship boat show and listens on Friday when Mike Iaconelli pulls him aside to talk about the business plan he should develop for winning the Classic, because after Ike won his Classic, man, he did his business plan right, and it paid off, bro--mad money.

After Ike, there are the guys from Yamaha, who talk about Omori's upcoming two-week trip to Japan, where he'll indulge the Japanese media and tour a Yamaha plant and maybe even see his family.

Suffice it to say Omori doesn't get to take his boat and follow around anglers on the final day of the Tour Championship. But that's all right. He's TiVo-ing the Championship, since he has the money for TiVo now.

And sure, he might not have time in Japan, and Joe Axton wants to throw Omori a party once he gets back in the States, but you can be damn sure Takahiro Omori will watch all the coverage of the FLW Tour Championship sometime before next season. Maybe even watch it twice.

And dissect every move, every lure, every cast--until he figures out why he lost.


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