Once considered an American southern tradition, competitive bass fishing has gone global.
The black bass casts a mysterious spell. The scaly, green creature has captivated mankind since humans discovered the pugnacious piscine. From pioneering bank fishermen armed with cane poles to today’s prestigious tournament anglers armed with high performance bass boats, the black bass has entranced millions of anglers.
The bass’s mysterious spell is nondiscriminatory. The magical feeling that comes with catching a bass is universal. As proof of this, look across the Pacific Ocean to Japan where Japanese anglers also identify with the special feeling of a bass tugging on the line.
What is remarkable about Japan, however, is that bass fishing has become extremely popular, despite the country’s limited bass fishing resources. Japan is slightly smaller than California and has a population density of 866 people per square mile, as compared to America’s 75 people per square mile. Considering that barely 1 percent of Japan’s land surface is fishable freshwater, bass fishing would seem to be an impossible task. Nevertheless, Japanese anglers are fascinated with bass fishing.
Takahiro Omori, a professional angler who moved from Japan to fish tournaments in the U.S., says that bass fishing is particularly popular with Japan’s young people. “The black bass is not native to Japan,” Omori explains. “It was brought from the U.S. about 20 or 30 years ago. Therefore, the new generation of anglers, the young people, fish for them.”
Randy Blaukat recently traveled to Japan to attend the Tokyo Fishing Show for his Japanese sponsor, Megabass. He says the popularity of the sport has a pop culture-like feel to it. “It is almost like bass fishing is hip in Japan,” Blaukat says. “The line of people to get catalogs and autographs was non-stop for two solid days. We signed Megabass catalogs, lures, cell phones, jackets and even driver licenses.”
Blaukat suggests that the bass fishing phenomena might be a component of Japan’s rich fishing heritage. “Japan is an island, and fishing has always been a tremendous part of their culture,” he says. “Bass fishing has become a new facet of an already deeply engrained tradition.”
Hideyuki Nomura, the Senior Editor of Basser, Japan’s most popular bass fishing magazine, says that the popularity of bass fishing is largely due to Japanese celebrities who bass fish. “In Japan, we have very famous movie stars and rock stars who bass fish in their free time,” Nomura says. “That association makes bass fishing very popular amongst the public.”
One look at Basser magazine, which has a monthly circulation of 250,000, and it becomes evident that Japan has taken bass fishing to another level. The magazine is loaded with color photographs that are rich in action and emotion, with an emphasis on the essence of pursuit, rather than just the capture of the fish. The magazine makes bass fishing look like an extreme sport, akin to skateboarding or surfing.
In fact, American anglers who flip through a copy of Basser will notice some familiar faces. The magazine features detailed reports on American tournaments and includes photos of American pros.
But American anglers might be in for a surprise if they were to go to Japan to bass fish. Bass fishing in Japan is a different experience than bass fishing in America. Fresh water lakes in Japan are very small, with the exception of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. Many lakes have completely developed shorelines with a multitude of piers, bridges and marinas. Small lakes and intense development allow a majority of bass fishermen to fish from the shore.
Nomura claims that over 70 percent of Japan’s bass anglers fish from the shore and it is common to see two or three thousand bank anglers around a lake on a weekend. “Many young people like to ride trains or bicycles to the lakes and fish. Sometimes there might be as many as 10,000 anglers around a lake on a good fishing weekend,” he adds.
A majority of bass anglers are content on the bank, but others, especially tournament fishermen, use boats. Masa Nakatari, who works for Popeye, Japan’s Ranger dealer, says that the most popular boats in Japan are 10-to 12-foot aluminum V-hulls with 10-to 20-horsepower outboards. Many boats are rigged with ample fish finding amenities: trolling motors, depth finders, temperature gauges and, in some cases, GPS units.
Along with thousands of bank anglers, a single lake might harbor 400 to 500 bass boats on a weekend afternoon. The fishing pressure on Japan’s small lakes is extreme. Seiji Kato, a famous lure designer and professional angler in Japan, says that the fishing pressure has a huge impact on lure designs and fishing techniques in Japan.
Japanese lures have become renowned for their intricate detail and design. Kato is credited with designing the Team Daiwa Minnow and the Lucky Craft Pointer, two hugely successful lures in Japan and America.
“The drop shot, the weightless style worm (wacky worm), and jerkbaits are the best techniques in Japan because of the fishing pressure,” relates Kato. Kato now owns his own lure company, Jackall Bros. Lures, which specializes in finesse baits.
Given the small lakes and intense fishing pressure, catching a bass is a rare experience for the average angler in Japan. Therefore, every bass caught is a very treasured experience. Blaukat recalls anglers in Tokyo showing him personal journals and scrapbooks that contained information about every bass that the angler had caught. “They will take a picture of a bass and meticulously record every detail of the catch, from the fishing conditions to the rod, reel, lure and line size,” Blaukat says. “Catching a bass is a very precious experience to Japanese anglers.”
Japanese anglers also take great pride in their fishing equipment. Whereas American anglers view rods, reels and lures as disposable tools, Japanese anglers see them as precious pieces of gear that require great care. Acquiring, maintaining and handling the gear is as much a part of the sport as fishing.
Nomura says that lure collecting has become popular in Japan, as well. “Japanese lure producers will make limited edition colors for certain lures. They will make only 1000 lures in a special color and those lures become very valuable. I have seen Japanese fishing lures on the Internet for as much as $1,000 per lure.”
But what really excites bass fishing industry leaders like Nomura, Kato and Nakatari is tournament bass fishing, which is growing in Japan. Japan Bass Pro Association, JB, is Japan’s version of Operation Bass. JB has a three-tier system, similar to Wal-Mart FLW Tour, EverStart Series and Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, that allows anglers to work their way up to more accomplished levels.
The top level of JB contains Japan’s top 60 professional bass anglers. The next level consists of 2,000 anglers. The bottom level, like the BFL, is the biggest segment with about 10,000 anglers. JB also has a bank fishing division, which is similar to Operation Bass’s co-angler division, designed to allow anglers without boats to compete and work their way up into JB’s higher ranks.
JB tournament rules only allow one man per boat. There are penalties for being late and weighing in dead fish. JB tournaments will have as many as 500 boats in an event. The size limit is 12 inches and the bag limit is five bass.
An average five-fish limit from Lake Biwa weighs 6 to 7 pounds, with 13 to 14 pounds being a tremendous catch during the best fishing conditions. The largest weight ever weighed in at a JB tournament was 30 pounds for two days of fishing. The top prize payout for first place in a top level JB tournament is $10,000 to $20,000.
According to Masa Nakatari, American bass fishing tournaments have more publicity and media exposure than bass tournaments in Japan. “The public in America is more interested in fishing tournaments than the public in Japan,” Nakatari says. “Here (America), there are people who are not in the tournament who come to watch the weigh-in. Plus there are magazines, newspapers, and television cameras to cover the tournament. In Japan only those who fish in the tournament come to watch the weigh-in.”
Nakatari also notes that American tournaments have out of industry sponsors like Wal-Mart, Kellogg’s, Timex, and Fuji. In Japan, only industry sponsors support the tournaments. “We would like to have corporate sponsorships like American tournaments,” Nakatari says.
But the growing bass fishing industry recently encountered a major setback in Japan. According to Basser editor, Hideyuki Nomura, the black bass has met resistance by groups claiming that the predatory instincts of the bass is wreaking havoc on other fish populations in Japanese lakes. “Big newspapers in Japan are saying that the bass is a bad fish. They are calling the bass a `gangster fish,'” Nomura says. “Some government officials even want to make laws that do away with bass in lakes. That is bad for bass fishing in Japan. We want people to know that the bass is a good fish. Scientists in Japan have sampled lakes with bass and have said that the natural balance is normal.”
In March, four of Japan’s best bass anglers traveled to America to compete in the Lake Martin Wal-Mart FLW Tour event as co-anglers. During the week, American and Japanese pros exchanged bass fishing ideas, philosophies and techniques. Cultural differences and language barriers were dissolved when two anglers from opposite ends of the globe stepped into a boat to work towards a common goal. The magical tug of a bass on the end of a line is a universal language that people around the world can all understand.