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TAKAHIRO OMORI MAY NOT SEEM LIKE A TYPICAL AMERICAN BASS CHAMPION-BUT HE'S FISHING LIKE ONE

DAY TWO of the four-day Bassmaster Elite 50 tournament has just ended, and a fan wants an angler to sign her babyOs belly. This particular bass fisherman is sitting on the deck of his Ranger 519VX speedboat, taking the line off one of his bait-casting rods. He is tired. He has just fished Lake Wissota in Chippewa Falls, Wis., for eight hours without a break. He has cast some 2,000 times under a hot June sun. He has not eaten. The angler looks at the fan, then at the rod across his lap. He doesnOt want to sign right now. The woman calls his name repeatedly as she holds out her infant. The man stands, steps off his boat and lifts his pen over the squirming child. Behind the woman, dozens of other fans mill along the shore. They are wearing T-shirts that say OShut Up and FishO and OKiss My Bass.O Two are wearing foam bass heads. When they see the angler signing, the fans rush over and thrust their baseball caps and programs at him. He signs every one without complaint, in Japanese and in English. When youOre the reigning king of bass fishing, you get used to this sort of attention.

Takahiro Omori is not most peopleOs picture of AmericaOs top bass fisherman, a title he earned by winning the 2004 Bassmaster Classic. His English is not great. He eats rice for dinner almost every night, with chopsticks. He rarely watches TV. He has never gone to a movie in America, and he doesnOt much care to. And yet, despite his outsider status, or maybe precisely because of it, the 34-year-old Omori is a truly American story.

He came to the U.S. in 1992, with $2,000 and dreams of catching big green fish. On his way to the top, he lived in a Ford Escort for 40 days and a Chevy Suburban for three years. He crisscrossed the country, fishing tournament after tournament, losing again and again. Everyone back home in Japan thought he was crazy. His father pleaded with him to go to college. Omori listened politely and continued fishing. OI just believed in myself,O he says, speaking quietly with a strong Japanese accent. OBass fishing is the only thing I like to do.O

As he prepares to defend his Classic title on July 29-31 in Pittsburgh, OmoriOs commitment to bass surpasses traditional definitions of obsession. He has no hobbies and almost no social life. All Omori does is fish. He likes womenNespecially Maria Sharapova, whose picture he keeps on his computerNbut he is too busy fishing to make time for a relationship. On practice days, he is often the first one on the lake and the last off. Omori admits that he might retire from pro bass fishing one day, but he refuses to even think about that now. To think about it would be to lose focus, and Omori does not lose focus on bass.

In 2001, Omori bought a three-bedroom home 75 miles east of Dallas on Lake Fork, one of the best bass-fishing spots in the world. The kitchen cabinets are filled with fishing trophies. Boxes of tackle fill up the sparsely furnished living room. Last year, Omori built a $25,000 swimming pool in his backyard, but he does not swim in it. The pool has a one-inch-wide line painted down the center, parking lot of a bar for the weigh-in. Most of the several hundred fans are now sipping beers and munching on bratwursts. A temporary stage has been set up for the weigh-in, and behind it several gray, water-filled tubs sit under a black tent. Omori puts his bag of four bass into a tub, but does not let go of the bag handles, as if he fears someone might run off with his catch.

Omori is a slim man of average height, but in his fishing uniform, a NASCAR-style shirt and hat bearing the names of his sponsors, he is imposing. As he waits under the tent for the emcee to call him to the stage, Omori is surrounded by most of the big names in pro bass fishing. Next to him is Mike Iaconelli, who made a name for himself on the tour by screaming and break-dancing each time he reeled in a fish. Across the tub from Omori is Clunn. And a few feet away, in a black leather vest, white cowboy hat and shiny bass belt buckle, is Ray Scott, the man who almost single-handedly turned bass fishing into a competitive sport by founding the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) in 1968.

Scott is a big man with a folksy Alabama drawl who seems incapable of speaking to another man without first giving him a slap on the back. HeOs been compared to an evangelist preacher, and when he preaches the gospel of professional bass fishing, itOs hard not to become a true believer. Scott came up with the idea of pro bass tournaments at a Ramada Inn in Jackson, Miss., on March 11, 1967. The then-insurance salesman had spent the day bass fishing. As he watched a basketball game that evening, he wondered why fishing hadnOt reached the prominence of all the other sports he saw on TV. Three months later, he ran his first tournament at Beaver Lake in Arkansas, with 106 anglers from 13 states. Today B.A.S.S. (now owned by ESPN) boasts 535,000 members, and the winner of the Classic gets a check for $200,000.

In making his tournaments popular, Scott was just exploiting AmericaOs ongoing love affair with the black bass. Some of the fishOs popularity can be attributed to its ubiquity. Bass can live in just about any freshwater from small, cool streams to huge desert reservoirs. But what really keeps anglers coming back is the challenge of figuring out the fish. In the right mood, a bass will eat just about anything it can fit through its jaws. The list of things found inside a largemouthOs stomach includes muskrats, ducklings, mice, even a shoehorn. OI have seen a bass that weighs three-and-a-half pounds eat a fish that weighs nearly a pound,O Scott says. OTheyOre a vicious damn fish.O

And yet bass can be maddeningly fickle. One day, an angler might be pulling in bass with every lure he throws. The next, heOll bounce a jig in front of a bass all day without a bite. OThe damn thing is worse than a woman,O says Scott. It was OmoriOs talent for reading the mood and habits of the bass, what pros call the Opattern,O that carried him to the 2004 Classic title. Going into the final day of the tournament, Omori was in second place and the day was not going well. But with 45 minutes left he sensed the fish moving from shallow to deeper water. He reeled in three keepers, the biggest with just five minutes left.

When it became clear that he had won, Omori raised his fists in the air and fell to his knees.

AT AROUND 8 p.m., Omori walks onto the weigh-in stage. Shouts of OTak!O and OTO!O ring through the sticky Wisconsin evening, and OKung Fu FightingO is blaring out of big speakers. The song is played for Omori at every B.A.S.S. tournament, presumably because heOs Asian. Omori says he doesnOt mind that the song has nothing to do with Japan. His catch is weighed at 7 pounds 7 ounces, moving him into third place. Omori smiles, pulls two largemouth out of the bag by their lower lips, and lifts them into the air like scaly green dumbbells.

ItOs hard to explain why Omori is so fixated on bass, but he seems to have caught a particularly virulent strain of a bass bug that spread through Japan over the past few decades. Omori grew up on the outskirts of Tokyo, taking fishing trips with his father. He began fishing with his friends, but when his friends stopped fishing in high school, Omori went on fishing alone. He read Japanese bass magazines and snapped photos of American anglers at fishing shows. (Fishing and boating shows in Japan draw upward of 100,000 enthusiasts.) Clunn became one of his heroes.

Omori tried fishing in Japanese bass tournaments, but the competition in Japan was weak and the bass small. Omori wanted to go after the big, nasty fish he read about in the magazines, and when it was time for college, he made a decision: the only additional education he wanted was on catching bass. He quit his studies and worked odd jobs until heOd saved enough money to fly to America. OmoriOs father was furious. OHe didnOt think fishing was a job,O Omori says. OHe thought fishing was just a hobby.O

On his first trip to the U.S., in 1992, Omori fished two tournaments and slept in his rented Ford Escort. In his first tournament, he finished 304th out of 325 competitors; in his second, 256th out of 326. He flew home to Japan disappointed and out of money but already thinking about what he would do differently in future tournaments. The next year, he made it back to the U.S. as a boat hauler for Masaki Shimono, a Japanese veteran of the B.A.S.S. circuit. Omori spent the next three yearsNexcept for the summers, when he returned to JapanNchauffeuring ShimonoOs boat around the country and living in a 1985 Chevy Suburban. His payment? He was allowed to fish most of the same tournaments as Shimono.

OmoriOs first big break came in 1996, when he won the Missouri Invitational. The prize was a bass boat and $14,000. He continued to improve, and by 1997 heOd won enough money to buy his own camper van and a trailer on Lake Fork. By 2001 he was an established pro ready to compete in his first Classic, and, more important, ready to show his father that heOd made a life for himself in bass fishing. A few days before the Classic, the Omoris came to America and stayed at TakahiroOs new home. Then the whole family went to New Orleans to watch Omori compete. He fished respectably, coming in 26th out of 45, and when he watched his father get on a plane home, Omori felt good. OHe finally started thinking, OOh, I guess my son did well,O O he says. OIt was a great moment.O

Three days later Omori got a call from Japan. His 62-year-old father had died of a heart attack. For once, Omori lost his focus. OIt was the only emotion IOve seen out of him,O says Joe Axton, a marina owner on Lake Fork and a good friend of OmoriOs. OHe tried to fish a tournament after that, and he couldnOt do it.O

While Omori mourned his father, his performance dropped off dramatically and he failed to qualify for the 2002 Classic. Eventually, though, he returned to the bass with even more dedication. OAfter my dad passed away I realized how much I liked fishing,O Omori says. OBecause once I lost interest in fishing, I had nothing left.O

AT MOST tournaments, 7 pounds 7 ounces wouldnOt be a great showing, but Lake Wissota hasnOt had much to offer the anglers, and the weight is enough to move Omori into third place and keep him in the tournament. After the weigh-in, Omori returns to the place he calls home for more than half the yearNan RV with a bed in the middle and about two steps of walking space and drives it and his boat to a nearby campground.

ItOs hard to imagine a man at the top of his profession living in such a small space, especially one who, like Omori, has earned more than a million dollars. But Omori seems genuinely pleased as he opens the RVOs back door to give a tour. OMy one room mansion,O he says. A laptop rests on the small table against the side of the bed. A few feet away, in his kitchen, a rice cooker sits in the sink next to a pair of chopsticks. Omori, who has decided that itOs too hard to clean the RVOs bathroom, uses campground facilities instead. The shower is filled with tackle. Next to the toilet is an enormous bag of rice.

Omori is one of a handful of pro anglers who regularly stay at campgrounds. Most choose to do so for economic reasons. But for some, like Clunn, who has earned more than $2.5 million on the two major tours, it isnOt about money. It is about keeping your body in tune with natureOs rhythms, so you are better able to understand how the weather is affecting the fish. Clunn thinks Omori stays at the campgrounds for strategic reasons, but Omori puts it in simpler terms. OIt helps me to be myself,O he says. OAt the campgrounds, I have everything I need, and I donOt want to change it.O

ItOs after 9:30 p.m. on the tourneyOs second day, and Omori still has two hours of tackle work to do. He took 14 rods onto the lake today, and heOll change the line on any he uses for more than five minutes. If things donOt go well tomorrow, and he doesnOt qualify for the fourth day, Omori will drive to Washington to begin practicing for the next tournament. Sitting on his boat in the darkness of the campground, flashlight aimed on his tackle box, Omori says he is proud to be Japanese and that bringing the Classic trophy home to Japan last August for a victory tour was the greatest moment of his life. But he has no plans to move back to Japan anytime soon.

OI first have to catch all the fish in the United States,O he says.

OMORI DEFENDS HIS BASSMASTER CLASSIC TITLE ESPN JULY 29, 7 PM ET; JULY 20-21 5:30 PM ET