Floridas in Japan

The global bass fishing community is abuzz over the catch of what many believe should be the next world record largemouth. The fish, caught July 2 by Manabu Kurita in Japan's Lake Biwa, was 29 inches long and weighed a shade under 22 pounds, 5 ounces.

 Hiro Naito heard the news as he was boarding a plane in Japan to return to his home in Winter Haven, Fla., and he was ecstatic. A PRADCO employee handling exports to Japan and South Korea, Naito was sorely tempted to skip the flight and go to Biwa to see the fish.

 His dream had come true.

 A few years ago, Bassmaster Magazine published an article suggesting that the next world record bass would be caught in California, and it quoted biologists debating whether Georgia (home of the longstanding record), Florida, Mexico or Texas also had a shot at the title.

 Naito told anyone who would listen: "People are forgetting about Japan. It's going to take many more years, but if the Japanese people take care of the Florida-strain bass, the world's record will come from Japan."

 He should know. Naito deserves much of the credit for the fact that Florida bass exist in his native land.

 The story began in 1978, when Naito, a recent graduate in aeronautical engineering, was unable to find a job in his field. (His sister, by the way, is a space shuttle astronaut who has flown on two missions.) He convinced his parents to let him move to the United States to look for work. While a college student at Livingston, Ala., he began to develop a passion for bass fishing.

 In 1982, television fishing show host Tetsu Nishiyama asked Naito to cover the Bassmaster Classic in Montgomery, Ala., for him, and in 1983, Naito and Nishiyama met in Florida to attend the inaugural Super BASS tournament on the St. Johns River. While in Florida, Nishiyama, whom Naito describes as "like a big brother to me," convinced Jim Bagley, the lure manufacturer, to hire Naito.

 When Naito wrote to thank him for the favor, Nishiyama replied, "I'm glad your dream has come true. Now, I want your help in bringing better fishing to Japan. Let's bring some big, exciting new things to Japan."

 Nishiyama, who had become fascinated with catching giant bass, asked Naito to help him import Florida-strain largemouth to Japan. While northern largemouth had been in Japan since the 1920s, those fish would never rival the giant bass he had seen in Florida.

 Naito agreed, on one condition — that the stocking be done legally, with the blessings of a government agency. Nishiyama found willing partners in community leaders at Lake Ikehara, and the plan was soon underway.

 Naito persuaded Jim Bagley to buy 10,000 fingerling Floridas, and OFT (Osaka Fishing Tackle Co., which imported Bagley lures into Japan) to pay the freight. In 1988, Naito shipped 100 boxes of fingerlings to Osaka International Airport, where members of a Japanese fishing club picked them up and transported them to Ikehara. As Naito expected, the fingerlings thrived there.

 In 2003, Ikehara produced a 19.15-pound bass that ranks No. 20 on the Bassmaster Top 25 list of the world's heaviest largemouth, and the Florida imports were spread to other lakes, including Biwa, where DNA tests have found a perfect match with bass from Ikehara, Naito said.

 Unfortunately, Nishiyama didn't get to see his dream fulfilled. He died in 2001, having spent his last years battling the growing anti-bass movement in Japan and trying to convince his countrymen that black bass aren't "evil fish."

 Although Nishiyama and Naito did not advertise their involvement in the introduction of Floridas to Japan, word got out. "Local people [at Ikehara] came to me and, out of the blue sky, said, 'Thank you for bringing the Florida fish to Japan.'

 "But I was just a small gear in the machine. A lot of other people deserve to be appreciated for it," he told them.

 Still, Naito is relishing the moment.

 "I am very grateful that the dream became a reality," he said. "If there is one fish that weighs that much, there has to be another one that weighs even more."