The face of bass fishing changed forever Aug. 1, 2004, at the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer. It's now official: The sport is international and the passion for bass is universal.
It's no surprise to those of us at BASS who have watched the bass phenomenon go global over the past 36 years. But Takahiro Omori's world championship win just brings it home in the most dramatic fashion.
I was personally thrilled because although Takahiro Omori is Japanese, his is an all-American success story. I'm thrilled too that our sport as well as our country welcomed a "visitor" and gave him the opportunity to reach the absolute pinnacle of the sport — the Classic title and the championship ring he now proudly wears.
This proves once again the passion for bass fishing simply transcends all cultural and ethnic boundaries, not to mention geographic lines. For those who think bass fishing is a southern-fried sport that belongs to bubbas, think again. ESPN and Omori have laid that myth to rest once and for all.
Some 25 years ago, I paused for a moment in my BASS-building business and asked for a computer printout of our international membership. I was astounded. They were everywhere, and in the most unlikely places. I was especially intrigued with the number from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to pay a visit to Zimbabwe, where I found a hotbed of fishing fanatics and a wonderful group of individuals as well. They were, and are today, great fishermen and are passionate about bass fishing. So much so that a Federation formed there and remains intact today.
In 1982, with the help of then-Zimbabwe Federation president Gerry Leach, I arranged for the overseas transport of Florida fingerling bass to a small hatchery in the town of Bulawayo. The transplants were lovingly raised and eventually multiplied and were dispersed into lakes around the country. Their offspring thrive today, with some surpassing the double-digit weight.
Zimbabwe has been remarkably well represented at the Classic, most notably by Gerry Jooste, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean on three occasions to represent the Federation's Central Division. In 1997, he came within striking distance of the world championship title. Just like Omori, Jooste led the first day of the Classic, held on Alabama's Lake Logan Martin, with five bass weighing 14 pounds, 9 ounces.
Today, BASS Federations are located elsewhere and specifically in South Africa, Canada, Mexico and Japan. Bass are found in each nation, with the anglers pursuing our favorite gamefish with equal passion and fervor.
Among those anglers is Takahiro Omori, who truly represents the rags-to-riches success story Americans love. He's called "Hero" for short by his peers and it's an apt name. His struggle to the top of the bass fishing world has been nothing short of heroic.
Omori caught his first bass at the age of nine and went on to compete in bass tournaments while in high school. His parents thought he was crazy: Their son worked as a waiter and dishwasher in a restaurant to save money to come to the United States. At the age of 21 he did just that.
The young Japanese man arrived from Tokyo in 1992 with $2,000 in his pocket. He spoke virtually no English. He struggled. And then he conquered. By the 2000 season, Omori was ranked among the top five bass pros in the nation. Today he's not only the world champion of bass fishing but a pro angler respected by his peers as a true gentleman.
I'm excited about Takahiro Omori for another reason. And that is he will enable us to brand bass fishing as a true "global" sport. As BASS members, with every bass taken and replaced, we give back in outstanding sportsmanship and stewardship of the fishing resource. Without BASS as a community of fishermen — and without Federations as the very foundation of the community — we would just be another magazine and another tournament trail.
As the 2004 Classic champion, Omori represents BASS to the world. I believe he will be an outstanding ambassador. With the trophy hoisted over his head, backlit by dramatic fireworks and standing beneath a shower of streamers and confetti, Omori's victory speech was one of genuine humility and heartfelt pride.
Like many of the tough, weather-beaten anglers in that particular spot, he cried. That's a big man in my book.