Before Steph Curry, there was Denny Brauer—a wide, smiling face in the cereal aisle. Brauer, before Curry, had his face on the Wheaties box. But he was no point guard. Denny Brauer was a bass fisherman—the first professional angler to earn the most edible honor in sports.
At the height of his career, in 1998, the former building contractor traveled the country raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars hoisting bass into his boat and trophies over his head. Brauer is widely regarded as one of the greatest anglers of all time. But a funny thing happened to the living legend in 2015. Now, at age 68, he mostly fishes for fun near his south Texas home on Lake Amistad. And it was there, under the towering Texas cliffs on the U.S.-Mexico border, that the former face of fishing found its future: a talent that could redefine the sport and bring it the kind of national prominence that has always eluded it.
The star landed under his nose.
“I was on top of a mess of bass,” Brauer said, “and I see this water kicking up about 300 yards away. So I stop. I crank the motor up to see what’s going on. At first, I thought it was some monster bass busting on top of the water, but when I got there, I saw it was a guy.”
The guy was a small, wiry man about 30 years old with a three day beard and sun-scorched skin. He was swimming across the 200-foot deep lake as part of a morning fitness routine. Though Brauer didn’t know it, this stranger was about to dazzle the veteran angler who thought he had “seen it all.” The swimming stranger was about to reveal himself as a fisherman so talented that his abilities could make him an overnight millionaire.
“I wanted to know what this guy was doing swimming across the lake,” recounts Brauer. “So I asked him to hop in my boat.”
The man crawled to the aft of Brauer’s 21-foot fiberglass bass boat. It was just the two of them. Then, without even asking, he picked up one of the living legend’s rods and let fly.
The cast went soaring farther than Brauer had ever seen a lure go.
“He did something to my bait,” Brauer said. “Then, he chunked it a mile! I mean, he had never cast that rod before in his life, and I’m telling you I’d have to run the trolling motor for over a minute to get in range of where this guy hit … from the back of my boat! I was dumbstruck.”
The strike happened immediately, and when the line was reeled in, a gleaming, 6 pound bass was on the other end. “It hit instantly. Right where he put it … at least 100 yards out. That’s when I asked the guy’s name,” recalls Brauer. “He told me—Kenichi Gomez.”
That’s the part of the “Ken” Gomez story that most savvy fishermen know by now. The unlikely pair fished for the rest of the day, with Gomez leading Brauer by a final count of 41 to 7. And from that first day at Lake Amistad, a rumor spread throughout the bass fishing world of an angler who couldn’t be matched.
Every cast he made was long and accurate. Every fish he caught was big—and there were a lot of them. Put him in a professional tournament and he would destroy any field.
A multibillion dollar industry waiting for a new superstar seemed his for the taking.
But professional bass fishing doesn’t work like that. You can’t just rise from a morning swim and walk straight into the big leagues. It takes years of competition and preparation to make it from local tournaments to the Bassmaster Elite Series. That’s where the big boys play. That’s where millions can be earned: $300,000 for winning the Bassmaster Classic alone, and hundreds of thousands more throughout the nine-event season. If you factor in tournaments in the rival FLW Series (some anglers compete in both), a first class competitor could make as much as a million dollars in a single year. If he were to win every event—a feat that’s never even been considered, much less accomplished—he could bring home over $2 million.
Few have risen from bass fishing anonymity to the upper echelon in under five years. You don’t debut at the top. You pay your dues, put in the early mornings on the water and late nights in the garage, and you slowly gather sponsors with deep pockets. Pro bass fishing is expensive, starting with a $75,000 boat, a $50,000 tow vehicle and tens of thousands of dollars in rods, reels, line, lures, gas, food and motel bills. You need corporate support to help with the financial burden, and it doesn’t come quickly or easily.
In the 40-plus year history of professional bass fishing, no angler has ever received a seven figure sponsorship offer without first winning several major championships.
Nobody until Ken Gomez.
“We brought him out to see,” said Strike King Lure Co. Media Relations Manager Mark Copley. “Strike King obviously has an interest in the future of our sport. We’ve won more Bassmaster Classics than any other lure company, and we take a lot of pride in picking the right guys for our pro staff. We want the best of the best to represent us.”
Strike King heard about Gomez the day after Brauer’s Amistad adventure. “Denny called us almost immediately,” Copley said. “To be honest, I thought it was a joke. But he’s been a member of our fishing family for decades. If it had been anybody else, we wouldn’t have believed them. But for Denny, we said, ‘Sure … bring him on up.’” So Brauer brought the young angler to Strike King’s Tennessee headquarters.
“Once we saw him, we knew he could change bass fishing forever. We knew we were going to owe Denny Brauer big time,” Copley laughed.
A roaming enigma
Ken Gomez wasn’t always on his way to stardom. Born the eldest son of a Japanese school teacher and a Mexican fishing guide, the young man had a history of lashing out against authority and running away from his father’s home.
“Él se desaparecía, [He would disappear],” recounts his childhood friend Sofía Olvera, who lived beside Gomez in the small village of El Chillilo, on the outskirts of Mazatlán. “Sometimes he would go to the streets in Culiacán. Sometimes they would lose him for weeks and hear that he was by the lake at San Marcos. When he came back, his father would scream at him. He would say, ‘You don’t want to grow up like me.’ I think not having his mother was hard on Kenichi. I always felt like he was looking for something.”
The young Gomez was an enigma. He was rumored to be one of the best soccer players in state of Sinaloa, but he never joined a club. He was known to be one of the most dedicated fishermen, too—often rising before dawn, guided only by a small flashlight, to trek the 15 miles from home to Lake Picachos—but he never offered to guide tourists. And if Gomez was looking for something, he apparently didn’t find it in Mexico.
“He would sit by the ocean sometimes and just stare for hours,” recalled Olvera. “Then one day, he disappeared for good. Nobody in Chillilo has seen him in about 10 years.”
She still keeps his old flashlight for good luck.
“Ken didn’t really want to talk about Mexico when we interviewed him,” recalls Copley. “But he did mention his mother.”
Atori Nakamura. The mother he missed growing up.
The relationship between Ken Gomez and his parents is an overseas, digital love affair. His father and mother were never legally married. They met across the Sea of Cortez in La Paz, where his father Eduardo was guiding local fishing charters, and Atori was visiting Baja on vacation. “He said they kept in touch with her via email,” acknowledged Copley. “I guess it was a sort of summer romance kind of deal.”
When Gomez vanished from Mexico, he headed west to his mother in Japan, but attempts to follow his trail there have failed. Though he told both Copley and Brauer that he had reunited with his mother, he never said where or for how long.
It is speculated that Gomez lingered near Kyoto for about five years, where Atori taught at the Nihongo Center Language School. There, rumors swirled about a Mexican man with an enormous spinning reel sitting beside Lake Biwa. But if it was Gomez, nobody can be sure. Though he is presumed to have been in the area and the man at Lake Biwa could reportedly cast great distances, he was never actually seen landing a single fish, and none of the tackle store owners in Kyoto knew his name.
Attempts to contact Atori Nakamura via phone and email have also failed, and the mystery man at Lake Biwa has not been seen in two years.
In reality, there is a chronological gap between the last time Gomez was spotted in Sinaloa in 2007 until Brauer caught him swimming across Lake Amistad in 2015. But somewhere in between, Gomez learned a skill thought to be unique in the fishing world: one that had one of the best anglers of all time, a major sponsor and a school of Elite Series pros in absolute awe.