Fukae earned the 2003 Japan Bass Angler of the Year title in the popular JB World Series, which is Japan's premier tournament circuit. His stellar performance in Japan elevated the 31-year-old pro to stardom among the country's loyal fans that flock to tournament weigh-ins by the thousands. Fukae has been featured on numerous television shows in his home country and in the pages of Japanese bass-fishing publications such as Basser, Lure, Bass World and Tackle Box.
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 nation's 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 it's 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 don't see that sort of thing over here. It's 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 sport 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. It's 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, unlike his brother, he directed his fishing endeavors exclusively toward that particular 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 America's best in the world's most lucrative bass-tournament series - the $6.8 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour.
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.
Armed with knowledge and skills gleaned from years of fishing the diverse cover of Japan's Lake Biwa, Fukae could make fishing history by maintaining his hard-fought lead over Yamaha pro and No. 2-ranked Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., who has assembled what is arguably the sport's most impressive record in 2004, with multiple top-10 finishes on both the FLW Tour and Bassmaster Tour. With five of six FLW Tour qualifiers complete, Fukae has earned three top-10 finishes, including a fourth-place finish on Lake Okeechobee, a sixth on Beaver Lake and a fifth on Kentucky Lake. He finished 11th on the Atchafalaya Basin and 71st on Old Hickory.
Hackney, who is mounting a tough challenge to Fukae, has earned two top-10 finishes on the FLW Tour, including a fourth-place finish on Old Hickory and a second-place finish on Kentucky Lake. He finished 15th at the season opener on Lake Okeechobee, 59th on the Atchafalaya Basin and 50th on Beaver Lake.
Other FLW Tour anglers challenging Fukae for the Angler of the Year title are Castrol pro Mike Surman, who trails by 50 points; Tracy Adams, who trails by 74 points; and Kellogg's pro Clark Wendlandt, who trails by 76 points. Two hundred points are awarded for a win, 199 for second, 198 for third, and so on, so the title could come down to the wire on Lake Champlain.
"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. Somebody else may win angler of the year, and they are the best, no doubt about it, but Shin is the hardest working guy on tour. And he might just hold on for the win."
The Land O'Lakes Angler of the Year earns $25,000 cash and a Ranger 519VS bass boat powered by Evinrude or Yamaha. The winner also appears 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 sport's 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.
At the Forrest Wood Open presented by Kellogg's on Lake Champlain June 23-26, anglers will take off from Mooney Bay Marina in Plattsburgh at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and at 8 a.m. Friday. Wednesday and Thursday's weigh-ins will also be held at Mooney Bay Marina beginning at 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday's weigh-ins will be held at the Wal-Mart store located at 25 Consumer Square in Plattsburgh beginning at 5 p.m. and 3 p.m., respectively.
The community is invited to attend the Family Fun Zone Friday and Saturday outside the weigh-in tent in the Wal-Mart parking lot. The Family Fun Zone features interactive displays, product samples and games for the entire family to enjoy. The Fun Zone will open Friday at 3 p.m. and Saturday at 11 a.m.
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 America's 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.