June 24, 2004

Japan's Shinichi Fukae wins Angler of te Year, makes bass-fishing history

Plattsburgh, N.Y. (June 24, 2004) - Reigning Japan Bass Angler of the Year Shinichi Fukae of Osaka, Japan, made professional bass-fishing history Thursday on New York's Lake Champlain by fending off his closest American challenger, Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., to win the Wal-Mart FLW Tour's coveted Land O'Lakes Angler of the Year title. Fukae's win marks the first time in professional bass fishingˇÕs 36-year history that someone earned angler of the year titles in two countries.

"I just canˇÕt believe it," Fukae said, speaking through an interpreter. "I know that I just won, but I'm still learning. There are a lot of great fishermen here. Winning this title is by far the greatest accomplishment of my career."

Armed with skills gleaned from years of fishing the diverse cover of JapanˇÕs Lake Biwa, Fukae made fishing history with three top-10 finishes out of six qualifying events to maintain his hard-fought lead over Yamaha pro and No. 2-ranked Hackney, who had also assembled an impressive record in 2004 with multiple top-10 finishes on both the FLW Tour and Bassmaster Tour.

Fukae, who exclusively fished the FLW Tour this year, finished fourth at the season opener on Lake Okeechobee, sixth on Beaver Lake and fifth on Kentucky Lake. His three finishes outside of the top 10 were an 11th-place showing on the Atchafalaya Basin, a 71st-place showing on Old Hickory Lake and a 24th-place showing this week at the Forrest Wood Open presented by Kellogg's on Lake Champlain. The Forrest Wood Open's final weigh-in will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Wal-Mart store located at 25 Consumer Square in Plattsburgh.

"This is a tremendous accomplishment for Shinichi," said Charlie Hoover, president and CEO of FLW Outdoors. "To come to a foreign land where you don't speak the langue and to dominate as he has is incredible. It's also speaks volumes for our sport. Professional bass fishing was born in the Southern United States and has matured into what is legitimately an international phenomenon. In the past year we've had anglers from more than 30 states, Japan, Canada, Australia and Italy fish FLW Outdoors tournaments."

Hackney, who mounted a tough challenge to Fukae all season and trailed by just 33 points coming into the year's final qualifying tournament, stumbled on Lake Champlain, finishing 64th with a two-day total catch of 10 bass weighing 28 pounds, 2 ounces. In contrast, Fukae landed 10 bass weighing 31 pounds, 8 ounces Wednesday and Thursday to finish 24th.

Hackney earned two top-10 finishes on the FLW Tour this year, finishing fourth on Old Hickory Lake and second on Kentucky Lake. He finished 15th on Lake Okeechobee, 59th on the Atchafalaya Basin and 50th on Beaver Lake.

Other FLW Tour anglers who challenged Fukae for the Angler of the Year title coming into the Forrest Wood Open were Castrol pro Mike Surman, who trailed by 50 points; Tracy Adams, who trailed by 74 points; and two-time Angler of the Year Clark Wendlandt, who trailed by 76 points. Two hundred points are awarded for a win, 199 for second, 198 for third, and so on, so any of these anglers had a legitimate shot at the title coming into the tournament. Final point standings for the season will be posted to FLWOutdoors.com Saturday following the 3 p.m. weigh-in.

As the Land O'Lakes Angler of the Year, Fukae earned $25,000 cash and a Ranger 519VS bass boat powered by Yamaha. He will also appear on special-edition boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and will enter the $1.5 million FLW Tour Championship on Alabama's Logan Martin Lake as the No. 1 seed. There he will compete in head-to-head competition Aug. 11-14 for the sportˇÕs biggest prize - $500,000 cash. Only the top 48 anglers advance to the FLW Tour Championship, which also features a world-class boat and outdoor show with free admission.

Fukae earned the 2003 Japan Bass Angler of the Year title in the popular JB World Series, which is JapanˇÕs premier tournament circuit. His stellar performance in Japan elevated the 32-year-old pro to stardom among the country's loyal fans that flock to tournament weigh-ins by the thousands. This was his first year to fish the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, which ranks as the world's top professional bass-fishing circuit with cash awards totaling $6.8 million over seven events.

Introduced to Japan from California in 1925, bass are a popular sport fish in the country, and top professional bass anglers enjoy extreme popularity among the nationˇÕs fishing fans. As a testament to the sport's popularity, top American anglers visiting Japan for fishing tackle shows, which attract extraordinary crowds, are often mobbed by autograph seekers and treated with rock-star-like reverence.

"I've been there five times, and basically every time it has been absolutely insane," said Randy Blaukat, a Fujifilm pro from Lamar, Mo., who is also sponsored by Japanese lure maker Megabass. "The last time I was there, people stood in a line that stretched at least 300 yards just to get to our booth for an autograph and to buy a catalog for $10. The fan base is really diverse, and itˇÕs mostly teenagers who are attracted to the glitz of fancy boats and equipment. They are fanatical about it. Fifteen-, 16- and 17-year-old girls come up in groups and giggle just to get autographs. You just donˇÕt see that sort of thing over here. ItˇÕs incredible."

According to Blaukat, even Japan's larger-than-life sumo wrestlers get in on the act. "Sumo is their national sport, and they treat those guys like gods," he said. "So it was an incredible honor when, on my last trip, one of the sumo champions asked to have his picture made with me. It's like Tiger Woods asking for your autograph.'

Former FLW Tour Champion Dion Hibdon of Stover, Mo., is another angler who has experienced the Japanese bass-fishing craze. "They treat you like kings and the fishing industry is huge over there," he says. "Where a sports show in states attracts maybe 10,000 or 11,000 people in a day's time, they'll have 100,000 people come through. You'll sign autographs for an hour and there might still be a thousand people standing in line. ItˇÕs pretty crazy."

Little did Fukae know when he was introduced to fishing at age 8 by his older brother that he had started down a path that would lead to international acclaim. He was instantly enamored with largemouth bass and directed his fishing endeavors exclusively toward the species. His dedication to bass fishing led him to enter his first tournament at 14 and to turn pro at 18. After winning just about everything his home country had to offer in his 13-year career as a pro, Fukae ventured to the United States in 2004 to test his mettle against AmericaˇÕs best.

Lake Biwa, where Fukae honed his skills, is the largest lake in Japan, and fortunately for Fukae, it shares many qualities with lakes on the FLW Tour, including clear, deep water and rocky shorelines in its upper stretches to shallow grassy waters in its lower reaches.

"Shin is one of those guys that comes along and does whatever it takes to win," Hibdon said. "He goes from tournament to tournament and sleeps in his van. Nobody is at the ramp before he gets there in the morning, and nobody is at the ramp when he gets back in the evening. He is definitely the hardest working guy on tour."

Named after Forrest L. Wood, the legendary founder of Ranger Boats, the Wal-Mart FLW Tour is administered by FLW Outdoors, the world's leading marketer of competitive fishing. Other FLW Outdoors-sanctioned tournament trails are the EverStart Series, the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour, the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye League and the Wal-Mart Texas Tournament Trail.

Wal-Mart and many of AmericaˇÕs most respected companies support FLW Outdoors and its six tournament trails. Wal-Mart has been the title sponsor of FLW Outdoors since 1997.

For more information on FLW Outdoors and its tournament circuits, visit FLWOutdoors.com. To plan your trip to Birmingham for the $1.5 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship Aug. 11-14, visit Birminghamal.org.

Posted by DODGE at June 24, 2004 06:02 PM in Tournament (FLW)