In 2000, just weeks after enjoying one of his biggest career highlights, Norio Tanabe returned to his native Japan, where he spent the next three years.

But one of the most the celebrated of the Japanese contingent of pros has returned to the United States to compete on the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Tour presented by Busch Beer.

Tanabe became the first Japanese angler to post a BASS victory when he won the 1993 Invitational on Kentucky Lake and awakened the fishing world to the allure of suspending jerkbaits. In 2000, he became the second Japanese pro (after Toshinari Namiki) to qualify for the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer, competing in Chicago where he finished sixth.

Along the way, the 45-year-old angler scored six top-10 finishes in his 38 BASS appearances and earned over $100,000.

"I've been great, just great," Tanabe said. "I missed being here a lot.

"I've been in Japan for three years (since) the 2000 Classic. I went back for business, and I've been busy with work, making good Japanese fishing lures."

Tanabe, a trained marine biologist, owns Ecogear, one of Japan's top lure companies.

His return to the Tour hasn't been smooth, however. After catching just 9 pounds, 2 ounces and placing 135th in the season opener at Florida's Harris Chain, he did not weigh in a keeper at Alabama's Smith Lake. He hopes to get on track this week in the third Tour event, which will be held on Alabama's Lake Guntersville.

BUTLER AILING. Don Butler, the first member of BASS and an instrumental financial investor in Ray Scott's fledgling tournament circuit, is battling bone cancer. Butler is the winner of the 1973 Classic and a member of the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.

The Oklahoma angler qualified for two other Classics and won the 1973 BASS Arkansas Invitational. Scott, who counts Butler as the "number one angel" for BASS, keeps in close touch with Butler, who is undergoing chemotherapy.

"He's just a great hero. Everybody who does anything in life of consequence has somebody else to thank and Don Butler is that man (for me)," Scott said. "He's a number one angel to me. He walks quietly, he's gentle, he's a strong man. He's just an incredible man. You'll never get a complaint out of him.

BASS MEMBERS. It's not just the Japanese that value their BASS memberships. BASS has members in 53 countries outside the United States: Argentina, Australia, Austria, West Indies, Bahamas, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, French West Indies, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Guadeloupe, Holland, Honduras, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, Madeira, Mexico, Namibia, Netherlands, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, St. Lucia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe.

DID YOU KNOW? The worst-performing pro in the Bassmaster Elite 50 series is guaranteed to earn a handsome $20,000.

PRO BIRTHDAYS. Florida's Charlie Younger turns 52 on Feb. 25. Nine-time CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Roland Martin, the grand old man of bass fishing, will be 64 on March 1.

IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO ... Seven-time Classic qualifier Mike Wurm worked for nearly 20 years as a medical technologist in a lab. "It's a job I never plan to go back to," he said.

THEY SAID IT. "I'm a big believer in the Elite 50s. That is definitely the direction that the sport needs to go into...I think it's part of the evolution of our sport. What we're doing is trying to help this sport really grow and get up to a caliber of other professional sports. One way to do that - and you use other sports like baseball, golf, NASCAR as models - is to make it more of an entertainment sport by bringing the fans in and making it more of a sport where the fans can get their hands around the pros. So I think this is a natural progression." Michael Iaconelli on the new Bassmaster Elite 50 series.