Monday, December 4, 2006

Bassmaster and the American Dream

It started with an aside, a few sentences in a New York Times Book Review piece. The subject was bass, as in fish. The reviewer was listing colorful characters in the world of competitive bass fishing, including:

...Takahiro Omori, winner of the 2004 Bassmaster Classic, who came to America from Japan in 1992. (There seems to be a Japanese craze for American bass fishing.) Omori arrives here virtually penniless and without any English, and lives out of a 1965 Chevy Suburban for three years while trying to break into the pro angling circuit. When he finally has some pro success, he buys a house in Lake Fork, Tex., where he installs a swimming pool, not for swimming but for testing lures.

As American Dream stories go, this one had me hook, line, and sinker.

The inevitable Google search revealed Omori’s Angler Profile in ESPN’s Angler/Tournament Database. His logo-clad outfit testified to competitive bass fishing’s oft-quoted goal of becoming “the next NASCAR.” Copious statistics detailed Omori’s performance in the real world, as well as in Bass Fantasy Fishing. How far he had come.

A 2004 feature article in The Dallas Observer recounted Omori’s journey, from nine-year-old pond fisher to 18-year-old Japanese pro to competitive bass fisherman in America. From his start in the United States at age 21, it took twelve years—of initial failure, then slow but methodical progress, and finally Bassmaster Classic victory.

On the Omori work ethic:

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?

Omori’s singular pursuit of a U.S. bass-fishing career left him estranged from his father, who only saw dishonor in the enterprise. But by 2001, when Omori started to win enough money to buy a house (which, of course, was on a famous bass-fishing lake), father’s attitude was thawing, to the point that father and family came to the United States to see Omori compete.

But two weeks later, father was dead, sending Omori into 16 months of grief and contemplation. He came out the other side a renewed man on a mission, regaining form in 2003 and aiming for the ultimate goal: a win in the Bassmaster Classic, “the Super Bowl of bass fishing.”

In preparation for the 2004 season, Omori installed the swimming pool mentioned in The New York Times Book Review quote. The Dallas Observer piece adds the following color:

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.

Omori went on to win the 2004 Bassmaster Classic. For a dramatic retelling, see the Dallas Observer article, near the end.

It was August 1, 2004, twelve years after Omori arrived in the United States with hardly any money or English vocabulary. Omori called it the greatest day of his life.

It’s the greatest story—fish or otherwise—that I’ve heard in a long time.

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