CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The 34th CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer got off to an intriguing start Friday on Lake Wylie as a Japanese pro grabbed the opening-round lead and the defending champion broke out of the gate with an intimidating performance.
Thirty-four-year-old Takahiro Omori, a two-time Classic contender now living in Emory, Texas, became the first Japanese angler to lead the prestigious three-day world championship. He opened with a limit of five Lake Wylie bass weighing 16 pounds, 2 ounces. That catch staked him to a narrow lead in the battle for the $200,000 top prize and the most important title in professional fishing.
Omori came to America in 1992 from Tokyo to pursue his dream of tournament fishing despite knowing no one and speaking few words of English. Omori, who suffered through the 2002 season of the CITGO Bassmaster Tour presented by Busch Beer only to win the 2003 BASS Horizon Award for most improvement in season point standings, understands the significance of his leadoff Classic heroics.
On Friday, he became just the second non-American angler to lead the opening round of the Classic, an achievement first marked by South Africa's Gary Jooste in 1997.
"Since I was 15, I dreamed about fishing the Classic," Omori said. "This is only the first day, but this is kind of like a dream come true for me.
"I'm just happy to be here. I didn't expect to be (in first place) after the first day. I just hope I can catch five more tomorrow."
But 2003 Classic champion Michael Iaconelli is hard on his heels. Iaconelli served notice Friday that he may have the stuff to become only the second angler to win back-to-back Classics since legendary angler Rick Clunn in 1976-77.
The 32-year-old New Jersey pro weighed four bass totaling 15-15 and thrilled the audience in the Charlotte Coliseum during a video replay of his boat-bellowing, fist-waving celebration after catching what would be Friday's $1,000 Purolator Big Bass - a 7-pound, 4-ounce largemouth.
In contrast to Omori, Iaconelli, who won last year's Classic with a clutch, last-minute catch on the final day, is about where he expected to be after a solid practice round on Wednesday.
"I don't feel any pressure except for the pressure I put on myself to succeed in every tournament I fish," said the brash, tattooed Iaconelli, who has become famous for his rousing celebrations in the boat. "I'm taking a two-pronged approach and fishing both deep and shallow. And I'm doing a technique that I love to do, which is power fishing.
"Catching a 7-pound fish in the Bassmaster Classic at 7:30 on the first day had a big impact on me. But it's not just that fish. Anytime I figure out the puzzle and beat the fish, I'm going to celebrate."
BASS record-holder Dean Rojas of Texas is third with 15½ pounds, followed by Missouri's Denny Brauer (15-7) and Tommy Biffle of Oklahoma (15-2). All fished within sight of each other Friday as they moved around the upper third of the 12,455-acre lake.
"I'm real happy with what I caught," said Rojas, who set the BASS Tour standard for single-day weight of 45-2 at Florida's Lake Tohopekaliga in 2001. "I feel like I'm on a pattern that is going to hold up for two more days."
"I'm tickled to death to be in this position," said Brauer, 55, who won the 1998 Classic on High Rock Lake, the last world championship held in North Carolina. "This is about where I hoped to be after the first day of the Classic."
The local favorites enjoyed contrasting results on Friday.
Jason Quinn, a guide on Lake Wylie from the namesake town in South Carolina, is in sixth place with 13-4, while Chris Baumgardner of Gastonia, N.C., struggled to catch a single bass weighing 12-2. He is in 43rd place.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer, which includes the all-new Bassmaster Elite 50 series, is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.
Local Sponsors include the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission, Visit Charlotte, the Auditorium-Coliseum-Convention Center Authority, the Rock Hill Sports and Tourism Council and Time Warner Cable.