CLEWISTON, Fla. – Sometimes it pays not to follow the crowd. In the case of Shinichi Fukae, who doesn’t even speak the crowd’s language, it has paid off big-time. Something to the tune of $100,000.
Fukae – a touring pro who originally hails from Osaka, Japan, but now calls Mineola, Texas, home – won the Wal-Mart FLW Tour season opener at Lake Okeechobee Saturday with a 10-bass weight of 28 pounds, 9 ounces, collecting the hundred-thousand-dollar top prize.
“I worked very hard, so I am happy,” Fukae said with the help of his wife and translator, Miyuki. “There was no Christmas, no Happy New Year for me this year. Just fishing. I was here.”
By “here” he means Clewiston. After winning the 2004 FLW Angler of the Year title following a torrid rookie season, Fukae suffered a sophomore-year slump last year where his best finish was 19th place. In fact, he finished 140th at Lake Okeechobee in 2005. Determined not to suffer the same fate this year, Fukae spent 18 days on the Big O practicing for this week’s opener.
“After winning Angler of the Year, he just wanted to win a tournament,” Miyuki said.
In this game, that kind of determination pays dividends. Fukae’s win came as a result of a somewhat unorthodox approach to this week’s competition. Having practiced in Moonshine Bay, the main hot spot for most anglers this week, he discovered that he just couldn’t catch the right kind of fish there. Plus, the bay was getting hammered by fellow anglers. As tournament time arrived, Fukae had also scouted out a stretch of shallows in South Bay. While his English is less than perfect, Fukae was clearly able to express the confidence he felt in his secret spot away from the crowd as the tournament wore on.
“The last two days, it was easy to catch a limit,” he said. “But I lost a couple big fish.”
Not only that, Fukae found a way to win in a decidedly un-Okeechobee fashion. Flipping thick mats with heavy braided line, big weights and jigs – black-and-blue seemed to be the prevalent color this week – tends to be the dominant pattern here. Fukae, however, fished shallow, clear water and caught the bulk of fish by casting 5-inch, green-pumpkin Yamamoto Senkos with an 1/8-ounce weight on light, 14-pound fluorocarbon line. He said he caught most of his fish in a foot of water.
He also had a trick up his sleeve. Saturday, as he amassed his limit weighing 14 pounds, 1 ounce, Fukae would first throw what he called a “small Japanese swimbait made by a friend” that would attract chasing bass. Then he’d pick up the Senko and long-cast it on top of the fish, which elicited the bite.
“I needed a long cast because it was shallow, clear water,” said Fukae, who also had a few short-strikes on his bait. “They were biting very hard, but sometimes only on the end of the worm.”
Still, Fukae’s 14-pound, 1-ounce limit Saturday coupled with the 14-8 stringer he caught Friday proved to be the steadiest pair of limits in the finals.
So, this week while everyone was talking about Moonshine Bay, flipping mats and Chatterbaits, Fukae proved it pays to tune out the crowd – whether it’s by choice or by language barrier. While probably a little of both, the truth more likely lies behind a whole lot of hard work.
Buoyed by Saturday’s heaviest limit – 19 pounds, 1 ounce – Chip Harrison of Bremen, Ind., vaulted from eighth place into the second-place finishing position with a final-round weight of 26-4. He earned $36,000
Harrison started the day throwing the Chatterbait in Moonshine Bay and landed four bass by 8 o’clock, including a big kicker in the 6- or 7-pound range. Then the wind died down and he had to go flipping.
“I got two bites flipping all day,” he said. “I missed one and got the other big one (also 6 or 7 pounds).”
Having made three cuts in the last four FLW events, Harrison said he was primed finally to win one but fell prey to some bad luck.
“I don’t know why, but I felt I had an advantage when the conditions were changing. I just love this lake,” he said. “But my biggest problem in this tournament was catching those two 7-pound sacks (Thursday and Friday). I had a great day, but the fish I caught were either small or big. I couldn’t catch any 3-pounders. One 3-pounder would have gone a long way for me yesterday.”
Friday’s leader Keith Pace of Monticello, Ark., caught an 8-pound, 6-ounce limit Saturday but couldn’t retain the top spot. He finished the finals with 25 pounds, 11 ounces and took home $25,000 for third place.
“It was a great way to get started,” said Pace, an FLW rookie pro. “I just hope I can go to (Lake) Murray and keep it up this year.”
2005 FLW Lake Okeechobee champion Kelly Jordon of Mineola, Texas, encountered a tougher bite Saturday and came up short in his bid to defend his title. He caught a limit, but it was the smallest one of the week for him – 8 pounds, 8 ounces – and finished fourth with a final weight of 24-10.
“It always comes down to the big bite here,” said Jordon, who stayed all week with the mat-flipping technique that won for him last year. “I scrambled a lot today. I was just changing up, trying to find some more fish. But it’s been a great week. It was really cold early, and then we had lots of weather changes, which sets up great for the flipping bite.”
Another former FLW Okeechobee champion, David Fritts (2001) finished in fifth place with a final-round weight of 19 pounds, 7 ounces. He also caught a limit Saturday, but it weighed just 6-11.
“Yesterday, I knew they were biting too good,” the legendary pro from Lexington, N.C., said. “I did some things differently today: pitching, lipless crankbaits, Chatterbaits. It would have been a real challenge for me to win on those baits.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro finishers at FLW Lake Okeechobee:
6th: Mark Hardin, Jasper, Ga., 18-15, $17,000
7th: Tommy Biffle, Wagoner, Okla., 17-1, $16,000
8th: Sean Hoernke, Magnolia, Texas, 15-11, $15,000
9th: Chad Grigsby, Maple Grove, Minn., 15-8, $14,000
10th: Dale Teaney, Williamsburg, Ohio, 11-15, $13,000
The next Wal-Mart FLW Tour event, the second of the season, is scheduled for Lake Murray near Columbia, S.C., Feb. 8-11.