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Search for big bass

Anglers who pursue America's bad-boy fish in Japan risk sneers. So bassers come here for what they can't get there: big dawgs, a wide-open bite and, as Gary Polakovic reports, their peers' respect.

August 10, 2004|Gary Polakovic

Hajime SUZUKI is betting it all on the whim of a cold-blooded animal. His girlfriend, Yoshie Ishii, sits beside him aboard a yellow Ranger boat, hands clasped at the tip of her nose, praying he hooks a big one. The promise? If he gets a 10-pound fish, he'll propose marriage on the spot.

The couple spent $2,500 to travel from Japan to Diamond Valley Lake near Hemet to catch the fish that could change their lives.

"For me it is bass or die," says Suzuki. "I have bet my life for bass."

This is not as singular a passion as it might seem. Each year hundreds of anglers like Suzuki head for the other side of the Pacific to Bass Central. They know U.S. fishing hot spots as well as they know Disneyland and the Grand Canyon: Lake Fork, Texas; Lake Okeechobee, Fla.; and Lake Casitas, northwest of Ventura. They come alone or in groups, sometimes with family or on a honeymoon, always with big dreams and pricey tackle.

Suzuki's obsession began long ago at a small pond near his home in Kawasaki. Stooped old men fished for carp with long poles and spewed contempt for upstarts who used aggressive tactics to catch largemouth bass.

Suzuki, then 13, would sneak into the pond before it opened. Crankbaits, jerkbaits, topwater lures, it didn't matter what he threw, bass mauled everything. The police chased him away, but it was too late. The fish gods had claimed his soul.

Yoshie just laughs, says Suzuki. "She thinks I'm stupid, crazy for bass."

It's 6:40 a.m. Dawn breaks cold and mist floats on green water. Guide Art Berry presses the throttle and the boat blasts across the glassy reservoir in a roar of cheek-stinging horsepower. Within minutes, he cuts the motor and the boat glides to a halt over a sloping, submerged point. Bass have been chasing shad and spawning. Suzuki grabs his $750 combo: a Megabass Destroyer rod and a Shimano Conquest 100 reel.

The first fish, a 3-pound chunk, falls to Berry on his first cast. "Yeah, baby, yeah!" he hollers while reeling.

The guide is boisterous, jovial and stocky. Suzuki, 35, is slight, stoic and determined. He heaves a 9-inch Osprey lure akin to a deformed rubber trout across the point. But another bass boat cuts by, spooks the fish and kills the bite.

Nowadays the restaurateur doesn't tell customers about his consuming passion. In Japan, bass are a nuisance, alien invaders targeted in some places for eradication. Anglers must choose: fish or friends.

"Japanese bass fishing has an image problem," Suzuki explains. "Japanese people think bass are a very bad fish. I feel guilty when I fish in a Japanese lake. I don't like to talk about my hobby."

Rogue invaders

Largemouth bass are the street brawlers of lakes. They have thick, muscular bodies, gaping maws and the charm of a pit bull. They're green on top, with white beer bellies, and thrive in trashy neighborhoods of slack water, dark crevices and flooded brush. Bass don't nibble lures; they try to kill them. They're tough to hook and they fight like chain saws.

This rogue slipped into Japan when businessman Tetsuma Akaboshi collected a reported 400 fish on a trip to California in the 1920s and released them in Lake Ashinoko near Tokyo. Others later smuggled bass in coolers and dumped them into lakes, ponds, even the moat surrounding the emperor's Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Anyone caught transplanting bass today faces six months in jail and a hefty fine.

But sportsmen in the island nation that popularized sashimi embraced bass fishing, one more export of American culture absorbed into Japanese society. Satoshi Ito, now of Long Beach, was a 7-year-old koi fisherman when he encountered a bass while visiting his grandmother's house at Lake Ashinoko. He cast a gold Rapala minnow and twitched it.

"I remember it was floating there black and gold in water," says Ito, 28. "The fish just came out from nowhere, and he took it and jumped a few times. It was unbelievable compared to other fish. My knees were shaking, my heart was pounding so fast. I took the fish to my parents to show it off. It was a huge thing in my life." He worked in a tackle store, then moved to California and now guides for Japanese bass anglers throughout North America.

Largemouths whipsawed not only the staid social order of fishing in Japan but also its native species. Authorities say bass threatens ayu, chub and crucian carp. Though anglers can bass fish at Tokyo-area lakes Ashinoko, Kawaguchi, Yamanaka and Saiko, authorities in some regions require them to keep, rather than catch and release, bass to reduce its numbers. In others, they try to contain the fish to specific water bodies or eradicate them.

Some also vilify anglers who pursue bass.

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