The reign of CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion Takahiro Omori is nearly half over, but the defense of his 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Classic crown could be said to start this week at the $618,000 CITGO Bassmaster Tour season-opener on Lake Tohopekaliga. At least one expert believes we’re witnessing the beginning of a great career.

That expert is none other than four-time Classic winner Rick Clunn, one of the sport’s elder and most eloquent statesmen. He’s been an admirer of Omori since long before Tak won last summer’s Classic on Lake Wylie.

“I met Takahiro in the first years that he fished the circuit. We shared some campgrounds together,” Clunn recalled. “I knew he was all by himself. He didn’t speak much English, so I went over and introduced myself to try and make him feel more comfortable. Over the years, we gradually got to know each other at the campgrounds where we had our tournaments, and we slowly cultivated a relationship.

“One of the things I admire about Takahiro is that he doesn’t let his ego get in the way of learning. In our sport, anglers are afraid to learn from other anglers – or at least well-known anglers seem to be afraid to learn from others. I don’t understand that because even Tiger Woods has a coach. Fortunately for Takahiro, that’s not a problem.

“I think Takahiro is a great model for young fishermen because he doesn’t let his ego get in the way of learning.”

In Clunn’s opinion, the personable Omori will likely be visiting the victory stand quite often in the future.

“If you look at the evolution of our sport, you can see that in the beginning we were a real mixed bag,” Clunn said. “We all had other jobs, and pro fishing was just a part-time deal. Gary Klein was probably the first person who came straight out of high school to become a professional angler. Amazingly, Takahiro is probably more dedicated to it than even Klein was back then. At that time I would have said there was no one more dedicated than Klein, but he’s like the rest of us — he got married and started having kids. He also got very involved in the business. Takahiro reminds me a little of me in that he doesn’t really want to be involved in the business. He just wants to fish.

“The fact that he was from a foreign country, didn’t speak the language and found it hard to get help forced him to figure things out by himself. He didn’t have the option of talking to someone else about things, so – whether by design or by accident – he learned to do things the right way. He had a better opportunity than a lot of young anglers do.

“In that sense, I think he’s an incredible model of commitment that will be needed in the future because the bar of excellence is always rising, and if you’re going to compete as a young angler, you’re going to have to become more and more like Takahiro. His whole life is fishing.”

Clunn is a big believer in the positive and deep impact that Omori’s Classic victory will have on the sport.

“I think he’ll have a huge impact on the world stage,” Clunn said. “Much like Bryan Kerchal and even Mike Iaconelli, he showed that you don’t have to be a good old Southern boy who has fished his whole life in the South to be a world champion.

“Kevin [VanDam] did that a little bit by coming out of Michigan. Iaconelli did that coming out of New Jersey. Those were geographically good wins for our sport, and I think Takahiro presents the same situation. First of all, it’s called the Bassmaster Classic world champion. It’s not the Bassmaster Classic United States champion, and he’s given credence to that world champion distinction for the first time.”

WIERD CATCH. While teaching a class at last week’s CITGO Bassmaster University in Orlando, Kentucky pro Mike Auten regaled his students with a tale about the “weirdest thing I ever caught.”

It seems Auten was fishing Kentucky Lake a few years ago with a couple of Bassmaster University on-site coordinators when his Carolina rig hooked a pair of men’s pants. “I reeled in a pair of pants that had 37 cents in them,” he said. “I’m glad there was nothing else attached to those pants.”

GREATEST ANGLER DEBATE. Former Classic champion Denny Brauer was one of the 35 pros nominated for ESPN Outdoors’ Greatest Angler Debate and last week was announced as one of the 10 finalists for the honor. Inside BASS asked BASS’ all-time leading money-winner who he would vote for as the best of the best.

“That’s a tough question,” Brauer replied. ‘“I think there are probably a handful of anglers who are on that top 10 list because they have the confidence to believe in themselves. They might even vote for themselves, but that’s never been a politically correct way to go.

“When this top-35 deal came about, I think it forced some people to analyze who really is the top angler. Of course, it’s strictly an opinion. I asked myself if the fact that I’m the all-time money-winner qualifies me to be that guy or whether it’s somebody like Rick Clunn who’s won four Classics, or somebody like Kevin VanDam who’s been very, very consistent or somebody like Larry Nixon who’s won four MegaBucks.

“So I analyzed the careers of a few of us that I really thought had the potential to be that guy, and I divided the number of wins by the number of tournaments entered. I think I had a pretty huge margin over the next guy. That’s why, if I was voting, I would vote for myself – not because I’m egotistical, but because statistically I can prove it.

“People talk about the different eras in professional bass fishing. In 10 years, Kevin may have the statistics to be that guy. If we had done it 15 years ago, Rick may have been that guy. Doing it now, I think I can make a case for myself. Even if you just look at the period of time when Kevin started until now, I’ve won more tournaments and I’ve won more dollars. I can’t vote for him because of that.

“That would be the justification for my vote.”

Beginning on January 20th and running through March, fans will have the opportunity to cast their votes for the top angler on Bassmaster.com/vote.

In April, Greatest Angler Debate programming will begin on ESPN2 as part of BASS Saturday. The programming will feature biographical shows on the top 10 anglers as well as debate programs featuring fans, the media and professional anglers. Fans will find stats and stories in the pages of Bassmaster Magazine, BASS Times, Bassmaster.com and on the weekly ESPN Outdoors radio show.

In June and July, the debate will heat up again as the fans choose between the top two anglers during a second round of voting on Bassmaster.com.

The debate will conclude in Pittsburgh – at the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic – when two champions are crowned. One will be given the Classic trophy and the other will be hailed as the greatest angler of all time.

DID YOU KNOW? With last week’s announcement of the expansive revamping of the CITGO Bassmaster Tour and the new Major events, 51 Tour-level pros will be able to compete in a record 14 tournaments in a single season.

PRO BIRTHDAYS Missouri’s Mark Tucker will blow out 44 candles on Jan. 31st. A pair of former Classic champions (Ken Cook, 58, and Denny Brauer, 56) will celebrate their birthdays on Feb. 2 and 3, respectively.

IF I HADN’T BECOME A BASS PRO… Oklahoma pro Ray Sedgwick would likely be working as a metal fabricator.

THEY SAID IT. “I was on the Tour for five years before I made the Classic, so I wouldn’t really call that early success. I never saw myself in the role of failing. I would always come close enough that I could at least see a glimpse of hope on the horizon. I never said to myself ‘Well if it doesn’t work this year, I’m going to do such and such.’ I was always going to fish, so I always kept those options out of my mind.” BASS winner Alton Jones.

BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail, which includes the Bassmaster Elite 50 series, is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.

For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.