Shinichi “Shin” Fukae is the only man to win Angler of the Year awards in Japan and the USA. But catching fish has been the easy part of his angling odyssey.
Fukae caught the fishing bug at age six, capturing crawfish while his big brother fished. By his junior-high years, he was a tournament force. He turned professional at age 19, guiding on Lake Biwa between events. He competed for 13 years in Japan, winning the Angler of the Year title at the elite level of Japan Bass: the JB Top 50.
But all that proved a prelude to his bigger ambition.
“Fishing in the U.S. was one of my dreams,” Shin remembers. “I saw a chance to make it come true.”
Coming to America was a daring gamble for Shin and perhaps more so for his wife Miyu, whom he married in 2004. They are an inseparable pair, with Shin doing the fishing and Miyu guiding the business and day-to-day operations.
In a way, 2004 was a “dream” season even before it began. Miyu and Shin were living largely in a state of incomprehension on the tournament trail, seeing America through the windows of the converted van they called “home.”
“That first year, we had no clue,” laughs Miyu, by mutual admission the more accomplished English student of the two. “We didn’t expect anything because we didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know what people were saying!”
Helping hands reached out during that time of perpetual uncertainty.
“Dion and Guido Hibdon and his wife and friends…people at the campground tried to help us that season,” says Miyu, still grateful.
Though Shin needed an interpreter to communicate with the cameraman, he had a hotline going with American bass. The water was his sanctuary, a place where he could find clarity.
He notched a Top 10 finish in his first tournament on Okeechobee en route to a history-making season in which he took home both FLW’s Rookie of the Year and Angler of the Year awards.
“At that time, I was very concentrated to catch fish,” says Shin. “I didn’t understand much English, so I didn’t have to listen to anybody. I just focused on catching bass.”
Then just as suddenly, the magic disappeared. Shin ended 99th in AOY rankings in 2005, still the worst finish of his entire career.
“We don’t know why,” Miyu says.
“That’s fishing!” Shin says.
The charm returned the next season when Fukae became one of the few anglers in history to win two FLW tour events in one season (Lake Okeechobee and Beaver Lake). Momentum continued through the 2007 season, when he finished second in FLW’s AOY race, only 20 points behind Jay Yelas.
As he enters his first year of Major League Fishing competition, more than a few pundits predict that Shin will shine in MLF’s “every fish counts” format. But he expects his underrated versatility more than his finesse expertise to carry him through.
He is meeting the language challenge, too. Miyu teases that Shin no longer needs “cheating papers,” the notes that she composed to get him through interviews his first five years on the FLW tour.
Both laugh about the tough years with what seems like fond remembrance.
“It was hard to understand what people were saying,” says Miyu, recalling those early nights at the campgrounds. “Especially when all our friends are southern!”
“They use ‘y’all,’” grins Shin, demonstrating his newfound language acumen. “Like ‘How y’all doing?’”
Indeed, they’ve come a long way.