BUFFALO, N.Y. — As he stood backstage Sunday afternoon, all Kotaro Kiriyama could think about was his terminally ill father as he waited to weigh-in on the final day of the Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase presented by Farmer's Insurance.
It was 18 years ago Takashi Kiriyama told his then 18-year-old son he needed to leave Japan, because Kotaro was just going to stay in trouble, should he remain in his native country.
"He told me to go to America and see what you want to do with your life," Kiriyama recalled, after his four-day total of smallmouth bass from Lake Erie totaled 93 pounds, 6 ounces — and made him the Empire Chase champion.
"This is what I want to do."
Kiriyama proved to be amazingly good at catching Lake Erie's smallmouth this week. After a runner-up finish to Edwin Evers a year ago here, the 37-year-old Moody, Ala., resident came back, determined to expand on what he did last year.
And, most important, to do it before time ran out on his father. Kiriyama's father, Takashi, now 65, is terminally ill in Narita, Japan, with stage four kidney cancer.
"This means everything," Kiriyama said of Sunday's victory, his first in eight years on the BASS tour, where he has recorded four second-place finishes.
Kiriyama turned what had been a close race Friday into a runaway Sunday by winning the $100,000 first-place check. On Day Two, he was fourth among five anglers bunched within 1 pound, 10 ounces at the top of the leaderboard.
He began to separate himself from the field Saturday with a five-bass limit weighing 25 pounds. It was the heaviest limit over the last two years of Bassmaster Elite Series competition on Lake Erie.
Sunday, even with the pressure on him, Kiriyama proved to be even better than the day before, earning Berkley Heavyweight Bag honors for the event with five smallmouths weighing 25-9.
"I knew I had to find bigger fish (than last year)," Kiriyama said. "That's why I put the pressure on myself."
Kiriyama's victory margin was 8 pounds, 5 ounces over runner-up Aaron Martens, who finished with 85-1. Evers took third with 84-8. No one else in the 12-man final had 80 pounds.
To find those bigger fish, Kiriyama motored almost to the Pennsylvania line, about 70 miles from the launch site. Like almost everyone else in this event, Kiriyama used spinning tackle and light line to drop-shot fish that he could see on his sonar screen. And in some cases, like everyone else, Kiriyama located smallmouths schooled around various rock structure on the lake bottom.
But he also exploited something no one else found.
"I had about four areas," Kiriyama said. "In one of them, I found a lot of baitfish suspended in 80 to 90 feet of water."
The non-native gobies are a favorite smallmouth food in Lake Erie. But they are bottom-dwelling fish. Kiriyama never did figure out exactly what species of baitfish were suspended 40 to 65 feet deep in that 80 to 90 feet of water, but he was still able to successfully catch them drop-shotting.
"I'd see the fish on the graph, drop the line and just watch the fish (on the graph) come up and eat," Kiriyama said. "That's all I did."
Kiriyama caught all his fish on a 4-inch soft plastic Jackall Crazy Ninja, which looks like a small baitfish. He was using 7-pound test Gama Drop Shot line and a No. 1 size Owner hook, which he would put through the nose of the lure. If the weather was relatively calm, Kiriyama used a 5/16ths-ounce X-Metal tungsten drop-shot weight; he'd go up to a 3/4ths-ounce weight when Lake Erie got rough.
And, like almost everyone else in this tournament, Kiriyama did make use of Berkley Gulp! Most other anglers were using the Gulp! and Gulp! Alive! baits, which come suspended in a liquid that is especially attractive to smallmouths. Kiriyama was soaking his soft plastics in that liquid.
Kiriyama has always loved fishing. In fact, part of the "trouble" he was getting into in Japan was skipping school to go fishing, he said.
Takashi Kiriyama will undoubtedly rest easier tonight, knowing he gave good advice to his son 18 years ago.
"This is wonderful," Kotaro said.