Omori's last minute victory

If you're wondering how long it takes to win the Bassmaster Classic, the answer is 27 minutes.

That is, of course, if you're in good water, have the correct lure, and are presenting it properly — all of which Takahiro Omori began doing at exactly 1:45 Sunday afternoon, the final day of this year's Classic at Lake Wylie. Just 27 minutes later, the popular Tokyo-born angler had added three bass totaling nearly 10 pounds to his livewell, giving him a total of 13 pounds, 8 ounces and the most coveted and prestigious fishing title in the world.

Omori, who first came to the United States in 1992 understanding hardly a word of English, finished with 39 pounds, 2 ounces. That was not quite 3 pounds more than runner-up Aaron Martens of Castaic, Calif., who finished with 36-6. Kevin VanDam, 2001 Classic winner, finished third with 35-11; Dean Rojas, the leader heading into the last day, fell to fourth with 35-5; and Texan Kelly Jordon claimed fifth with 34-7. Jason Quinn, a guide on Lake Wylie and the overwhelming local favorite, had to settle for sixth with 33-14, after being followed across the water each day by as many as 60 boats.

Omori's 27 minute life-changing drama began when he put down the Zoom and Yamamoto creature baits and Lunker Lure jig that had been sustaining him the previous two days and picked up a shallow running Balsa Bagley B-II crankbait. He'd been fishing extremely shallow laydowns and stumps in the muddy water up the Catawba River, but erratic water levels the last day — first up, then down — apparently pulled his bass to the slightly deeper outer edges of this cover.

At 1:45, with only two small keepers to show for nearly seven hours of effort, Omori moved his boat out to about 8 feet and began working the chartreuse/black back crankbait along the very ends of the laydowns. In three minutes he nailed a 3-pounder — a sure indication to him the fish had changed location.

At 2:10, just as the crankbait wobbled by the end of another laydown, a tree Omori had fished several times during the tournament, a 4-13 slammed it. Two minutes later, at 2:12, a 2-pounder hit — Omori's fifth keeper of the day and final fish of the Classic.

In just 27 minutes, the 33-year-old pro's life had been transformed forever.

Indeed, this 34th edition of bass fishing's biggest show seemed fraught with drama as early as June, when the 53 contenders descended on the 12,455-acre Catawba River impoundment near Charlotte for their official week of early practice. Some, like BASS Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle and Texas pro Zell Rowland, had enjoyed very good practices; Rowland, in fact, reported catching as much as 15 pounds on four out of five days on a Pop R. At the same time, however, others did poorly. Oklahoma pro Edwin Evers admitted he was totally confused after catching bass both shallow (1 foot) and deep (25 feet).

Aaron Martens had perhaps the most fortuitous practice of all. Martens was simply idling away from the launch ramp at the Buster Boyd Access Area when, as he neared the Highway 49 bridge pilings, he saw on his depthfinder what appeared to be an ocean full of bass suspended 15 to 25 feet down. He stopped, dropped a lure, and caught 12 to 13 pounds of bass in five consecutive casts. He stayed there the rest of the day and caught about 30 more, then basically spent the rest of his tournament practice sight-seeing on the lake.

Omori also had a good practice, finding bass about 10 miles up the river in extremely shallow but muddy water. Recent heavy rains had turned portions of the Catawba chocolate brown, and Omori knew that as long as the water remained off-color the fish would stay shallow. He always tries to find bass shallow first, and the fact that others were catching fish in deep water (the lower lake was clear) made him even more comfortable, since he thought it would help spread out the competition.

What Omori did not count on was just who might find the same shallow fish he did. That realization struck about midmorning on the first day of competition when he looked across the river at a spot he wanted to fish and saw it occupied by Dean Rojas. A little farther down, with a group of spectators around him, Omori also could see Denny Brauer, and not far from Brauer sat Tommy Biffle. If Omori had to pick a Murderer's Row of competition to face, he could hardly have chosen a more skilled trio of shallow water flippers.

But the muddy water held a lot of fish, and just before 8 a.m., Omori boated his first keeper, a 3 1/2-pounder that hit a Zoom Brush Hog creature bait. An hour later, he landed his fifth keeper, giving him a total of about 13 pounds. All had come on creature baits (both Zoom and Yamamoto) he pitched to shallow cover, hopped once, and let glide back to the bottom. If a bass did not hit that quickly, he reeled in for another presentation. All the fish came from less than 2 feet of water around brush, stumps and laydowns.

While Brauer and Biffle were flipping and pitching jigs at the same types of targets, Rojas was enjoying a successful day skipping a black floating frog underneath overhanging limbs and trees, then "walking" it back out. The best spots, he noted, were trees heavy with mayflies that were hatching by the thousands. He alternated the frog with a black/blue Wave Worm Tiki Tube that he hopped around more open cover.

Despite his nearby competitors, Omori was able to cull several times during the day, finishing finally at 16-2 and taking the first day's lead. Rojas held third with 15-8; Brauer fourth with 15-7; Biffle fifth with 15-2; and Rowland sixth with 13-7.

Holding down second just 3 ounces behind Omori was defending Classic champion Michael Iaconelli, who admitted fishing both shallow and deep patterns. Nearly half of his 15-15 catch, however, consisted of just one fish, a 7-4 lunker that hit about 8:30 a.m.

Jason Quinn settled into seventh with 13-4, and said he felt happy to have that, considering he'd "fished the whole lake twice" and that when the flotilla of spectator boats following him finally started thinning out at 11 a.m., he still had 42 of them around him.

Aaron Martens sat just an ounce behind Quinn in eighth, and stunned the Charlotte Coliseum weigh-in crowd when he mentioned he'd probably had a hundred strikes that day. Martens had not even looked at his bridge fish during the official practice day for fear of being seen, but then again, he felt certain those bass would still be in the same spot.

They were, and Martens had wasted little time getting two in the livewell. Alas, when he next checked them an hour later, both had died. Martens blamed himself for pushing the wrong livewell button on the Classic Triton boat's dash panel, and he felt the resulting loss of weight penalty would probably hurt him in the final standings.

In what has come to be somewhat typical Martens fashion, not only had he located more bass than anyone else in the tournament, he was catching them in a somewhat unorthodox manner; using a handcrafted spinner/jig combination (similar to but slightly larger than a Blakemore Road Runner), and dressing it with a Zoom Super Fluke Jr. trailer. Martens was casting the shad-imitation lure 60 feet upstream, counting it down to between 15 and 20 feet, then slowly swimming it beside the concrete pilings. The trick, he explained, was bumping the pilings with the lure but not letting his line touch for fear of getting it frayed.

While Martens and the others seemed to be able to catch fish at will the first day, many in the field struggled. Louisiana pro Greg Hackney, the BASS Rookie of the Year, sat in 27th place with three bass weighing 6-9; Mark Davis and Alton Jones occupied 36th and 37th, respectively; and Gary Klein, runner-up in last year's Classic, sat in 40th. For whatever reason, be it the unsettled weather, the changing water levels, or just the fishing pressure, the bass were biting light, and many pros reported losing fish.

That trend continued the next day as the bite became even more sporadic and changed the standings accordingly. At 9 a.m. Omori broke his 50-pound-test braided line as he tried to swing a 5-pounder onboard, then broke it again 10 minutes later on another big fish. Losing those two bass left him both mad and frustrated, since he'd spooled on fresh line the evening before. He finally managed five keepers weighing 9-8. Martens lost a 4-pounder right at the boat; his five for the day weighed 10-9. Biffle came in with just three fish, and Brauer weighed only one.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, however, came just before check-in when Tournament Director Trip Weldon disqualified defending champ Mike Iaconelli's catch for the day after the New Jersey pro was reported fishing in an off-limits area. Iaconelli had called Weldon for clarification of the no-fishing zone near the check-in ramp, but he still apparently misinterpreted the boundaries. He only had a single fish for the day, but its weight was not allowed and

Iaconelli fell from second to 22nd, effectively eliminating any chances he had for a repeat victory.

Only Rojas seemed immune to problems — he did not lose a fish the entire tournament — and with his 10-2 catch he moved into the lead with 26 pounds, 4 ounces. Omori dropped to second with 25-10; Quinn climbed to third with 24-1; and Martens held fourth with 23-12.

The field was cut to the top 25 anglers after Saturday's weigh-in, with Kevin Wirth coming in as the last man standing with 15 pounds, 8 ounces. Even though he had little chance of winning, the former Kentucky Derby rider reported enthusiastic fans following him along the shoreline in their golf carts and cheering at every cast.

Omori did not sleep well Saturday night. The 33-year-old pro woke up mad at 2 a.m., thinking about the two big fish he'd lost the previous day. Martens did sleep well, but now he had an even stronger foreboding that his two mistakes — the dead bass the first day and the lost fish the second day — would cost him dearly. He had finished second in the 2002 Classic and knew these kinds of opportunities did not come around often.

By 9:30 a.m., however, it looked as if his anxiety may have been for naught, for he'd already caught five keepers and a catfish, despite the strongest current and the largest spectator crowds of the week. The fast moving water whipped his lure through the strike zone so quickly that, by his own estimation, only about one in five casts was actually worthwhile.

Instead of concentrating solely at one end of the bridge, he made four or five laps up and down the entire length, looking for the one big bite he had to have. When that big bite did come — Martens believes he actually hooked the same fish on two successive casts — he simply could not control it. When he finally reeled in his lure, the hooks had been bent completely out of shape. The huge crowd that had congregated, both on the water as well as from atop the bridge itself, watched in stunned disbelief.

Far upriver, both Omori and Rojas also had their fleet of spectator boats, but instead of current, for them the water was falling. Omori managed to put two small, early morning keepers in the boat with his jig, but the bites simply were not there. Rojas struggled, too. At last he put away his frog and moved slightly deeper, where he began bouncing a Luhr-Jensen Speed Trap crankbait off the laydowns. Throughout the course of the day he caught five fish — the crowd cheering every catch — weighing 9-1, his lowest catch of the tournament. With a total of 35-5, he dropped to fourth overall.

As Rojas, Omori, and Martens thus dueled, it was former Classic winner Kevin VanDam who quietly climbed the leader board to grab third. The Michigan pro had found fish on an upper lake point where the 10- to 14-foot depths fell quickly to deeper water. Initially, he'd combed the hard bottom with a Strike King Series 6 crankbait that produced as many as 20 bass on each of the first two days.

His opening round catch of 10-13 (13th place) was far enough behind to keep him out of the spotlight, and even after he added 11-8 the second day and climbed into seventh with 22-5, he managed to continue his low profile. But on this final day of competition, his anonymity ended. VanDam culled four crankbait fish with a 10-inch plum-colored worm that he fished in slightly deeper water. His catch of 13-6 gave him 35-11 for the tournament and vaulted him into third, just ahead of Rojas.

Kelly Jordon, another angler who had remained in the shadows all week, also brought 13-6 to the scales to finish with 34-7 and grab fifth. Jordon had been Carolina rigging a Lake Fork Tackle Big Ring Fry — after he'd run out of Baby Creature baits — in a muddy creek channel just 30 yards long and 15 yards wide. Jordon had landed keeper fish on his first three casts on the opening morning, but could never duplicate such quick success again; during one four hour stretch the second day, he never had a bite, despite throwing every lure in his arsenal.

Jason Quinn likewise struggled the final day, as the huge crowds following him forced him to fish his water differently than he would have preferred. At Snug Harbor, one irate landowner even came roaring through the spectators and started racing his boat in tight circles around Quinn while at the same time screaming about the wakes knocking his dog off the dock. Fortunately, others in the crowd subdued the man until water patrol officials arrived.

Despite the disturbance, Quinn managed to catch five bass weighing 9-13, and finished sixth with 33 pounds, 14 ounces.

Omori, of course, was unaware of any of these events affecting his competitors during the final hours of the Classic. He had to deal with his own problems of what had become seriously uncooperative fish.

Uncooperative, that is, except for 27 minutes when they did bite, and he won the world championship of bass fishing.

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