How Bass Fishing Began in Japan

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The story of how one American helped start the bass fishing industry in Japan, the second largest market for bass fishing in the world.

Gary YamamotoAs a young man, after serving as a medic in the Vietnam war, Gary Yamamoto moved his young family from Los Angele to Page, Arizona where he spent many hours on Lake Powell exploring the good fishery there for smallmouth, largemouth, stripers, walleye, crappie and more. Soon Yamamoto began feeling he should enter local bass fishing tournaments there and in fact he won the very first tournament he entered. The prize was an outboard motor. To go with it, Yamamoto bought his first bass boat. As every readers knows, that’s the point of no return.

From that day, Yamamoto became a dedicated bass angler, boater and tournament contender with a love for the sport that would last for his lifetime – a love he would pass along to his family, his friends and ultimately to you, me and every bass angler worldwide.

As aspiring tournament anglers, we are always looking for an edge, an advantage, and Yamamoto quickly realized his tournament success would depend on his ability to customize the lures he had been doing so well with – single tail and skirted grubs. He found himself frustrated with commercially-available lures of the late 1970s. Conventional lures didn’t cut it.

Yamamoto sought more realistic colors, and with a friend, he experimented for hundreds of hours defining the custom colors that would bring success. He found a few vendor sources that would custom pour the colors that he wanted to fish with, but Gary was required to buy a minimum 5,000 pieces of each custom color for this privilege. His first order was for five custom colors not otherwise available on the market at that time. Of the 25,000 lures, Gary kept what he wanted and sold the rest to local fishermen. For those who tried them, the new custom baits began winning tournaments. Word soon spread about the guy who had a very keen eye for the styles and colors of lures that attracted fish. It wasn’t long before Gary was selling to tournament anglers in a five state area – Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and even California.

It wasn’t long either, before an opportunity came for Gary to acquire one of his custom bait sources (a company called Twin T’s) and as the proud new owner, he renamed it ‘Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits’.

Lake Powell

When we think of bass fishing in Japan, it’s often about how Japanese anglers have evolved finesse fishing to a fine art, but now you know, it was an American angler, Gary Yamamoto who first started finesse fishing in Japan, based on Western tactics born on lakes like Lake Powell (shown), Lake Mead and other deep, clear western waters.

It was in the early 1980’s when Gary Yamamoto acquired the assets of the small Twin T’s bait company. He founded Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits with the initial and small amount of acquired assets, including molds, raw materials for making soft plastics, order fulfillment supplies and a modest customer base. Two of those acquired customers happened to be two tackle distributors in Japan, Smith and Tiemco.

About the second or third year that Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits was in business, Gary perfected his four-inch single tail grub. Yamamoto offered the grub, then a new product, to the two distributors in Japan. One of them extended to Gary the courtesy to purchase a large quantity of the new product. Grubs were new and unfamiliar in Japan then, but the distributor was willing to take a chance with Yamamoto’s new lure.

It wasn’t long thereafter that Gary received sad notice. The distributor in Japan was regrettably unable to sell the grubs and therefore wanted to return them. The grub was a new-fangled concept to anglers in Japan. The anglers there were not aware of its ability to entice fish nor even how to rig it. So the distributor was unable to move any of the grubs at all. The distributor was asking Gary if it would be okay to return the merchandise.

Yamamoto couldn’t blame the distributor. In fact, he appreciated that the distributor had taken the risk to introduce a novel idea and had done its best to try to sell the new product for Gary. Yet Yamamoto was faced with a dilemma. As a small businessman, he couldn’t easily absorb returning the merchandise to the States. He was stuck with a large quantity of product in Japan. So Gary decided to go over there and he’d figure out what to do with it once he got there.

What Gary did, based on that trip, was to open up his own subsidiary in Japan, in association with two Japanese businessmen who loved bass fishing and who were involved in the sport fishing industry there, Mr. Kawabe and Mr. Yamashita.

Once the gentlemen got the new Yamamoto subsidiary started in Japan, Gary identified not sales, not advertising but grass roots promotion (to educate and enthuse anglers how to succeed using Yamamoto products) as the most important company goal to be met.

With his associates, Gary Yamamoto was instrumental in founding bass tournaments in Japan. Bass tournaments in Japan really did not exist before Gary got there and got involved fishing them and involved with the organizers.

Gary was one of if not the first one to bring a modern high-powered bass boat to Japan. Yamamoto put a twenty-foot 200 horsepower Champion bass boat on a plane and had it flown to Japan. That boat was just about the ultimate bass performance machine of the time in the USA. The main purpose was for promotion, but also for Gary to fish out of it in tournaments that were just starting and really, it was Yamamoto’s presence and the sensation of his drop dead gorgeous boat that were instrumental in kick-starting tournament bass fishing in Japan with a bang.

Yamamoto paraded his bass boat to all the fishing events and to popular weekend fishing locations.

Bass fishing in Japan was done at that time from the shore and the few boats in use were Japanese-built twelve to thirteen foot boats of a spartan utilitarian nature. Practically no Japanese angler had seen a modern bass boat before Gary Yamamoto single-handedly set out to show an entire country what bass fishing was all about.

That was almost thirty years ago. There was virtually no one else from the US in Japan promoting bass fishing at that time, just Gary.

What’s fascinating is when we think of Japan and the many fine baits made in Japan today, we tend to credit the country with refining bass fishing lures to a fine art, which is certainly true today in Japan. Lure manufacturers in Japan today are highly-advanced.

Yet when Gary Yamamoto first decided to visit Japan to figure out what to do with the large unsold order of single tail grubs he had sent there, very few bass baits were available there, and soft plastic baits did not exist in Japan at all at that time. There was really only a sparse and scattered supply, drips and drabs you can say, of any bass baits in shops across Japan. There were some imported hard baits, meaning crankbaits and topwaters for instance. And there were some limited supplies of soft bait brands from the USA in tackle shops here and there, but they weren’t selling well, anglers didn’t use them.

Gary YamamotoBased on Yamamoto’s tournament success fishing his lures in the USA, particularly his finesse baits in the West, Gary personally and through example taught Japanese anglers to fish with his bass baits. Of course, once anglers started to connect with their first few fish on these new lures, they couldn’t put them down. Their confidence, enthusiasm and ability to learn and to discover new fishing tactics exploded.

Yamamoto realized then, due to his own promotion and fishing experiences in Japan, that a huge unmet demand for bass baits was imminent. One of the most important business decisions ever made by Yamamoto was to heavily inventory his entire product line in warehouses not only in the USA, but also in Japan. Yamamoto’s factory crew worked around the clock to build up to an ample supply of inventory dedicated solely to supplying the Japanese market. He timed the inventory peak to perfectly match the Japanese fishing seasons and buying cycle that Yamamoto understood so well via his direct experience and through his valued business associates, Kawabe and Yamashita.

As bass fishing grew in Japan, most all other sources and brands of bass baits remained in poorly limited supply. Often, US or other suppliers simply were not meeting the demand for products there. Only Yamamoto’s foresight and his ample nest egg of allocated inventory let his company meet Japan’s enthusiastic, escalating desire for bass baits. In Japan at that time, Yamamoto dominated the market. Soft bass baits became synonymous with Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits.

Fast forward to today, and Japan is the second largest market for bass fishing in the world. When we think of bass fishing in Japan, it’s often about how Japanese anglers have evolved finesse fishing to a fine art, but now you know, it was an American angler, Gary Yamamoto who first started finesse fishing in Japan, based on Western tactics born on lakes like Powell and Mead.

Still to this day, almost thirty years later, Gary Yamamoto is a well-known and highly respected person in Japan. They say you can walk down any street in Japan, stop any person to ask if they may know who is Gary Yamamoto? In the island nation of Japan, with strong ties to the sea and to fishing, most persons there today, young or old, know who Gary Yamamoto is. They say he’s the fisherman who was instrumental in starting bass tournaments, bass boating and the sport of bass fishing in Japan.

Once Yamamoto had accomplished all that in Japan, he and his company next turned to the US market, which was about the year 2000, when he introduced the world to the incredible Senko, considered by many to be the best bass bait of all time…but that’s another story!

Yamamoto’s Legend in Japan

“There are so many soft baits in the Japanese market today, yet Yamamoto plastics have always been the best sellers,” says Hirokazu Kawabe, head of Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits division in Japan. Kawabe is one of the winning-est and most popular pro anglers in Japan, with his own fishing TV show there.

“I was surprised to see the Gary Yamamoto grub for the first time in tackle shops in Japan in the early eighties. The sight of the grub, a lure we had never seen before, in the Yamamoto bag excited me and made me want to go fishing with them. I bought a bag of the grubs and I tried them that weekend. I rigged the salty Yamamoto grub on an 1/8th oz jig head. It just looked alive in the water, like a baitfish with the vibration of its tail. It was the first time I had seen anything like this grub’s rippling tail. Well, I caught so many bass like nobody’s business, and I felt like I could catch all the fish in the lake.”

“When Gary came to Japan a few months after that, he said ‘Once bass bite my grub, they never let go of it,’ and that was the truth,” states Kawabe.

“In time, the news of this marvelous new lure by Gary Yamamoto spread all over Japan. Soon, we could see long queues of people in front of the tackle shops before they opened. They all wanted to buy the Yamamoto grubs. This was the beginning of Gary Yamamoto’s legend in Japan.”

Gary Yamamoto“After that, many other grubs appeared on the Japanese market. but everyone noticed there was a big difference in the numbers of bites between the Yamamoto grubs and the others. However close the other grubs looked to the fisherman, there was a difference in the Yamamoto baits that the fish could detect.”

“I was convinced that one of the differences (between GY and others) was in the specific gravity of the GY material. It was hard to say what, but something was in there that captured fish. After I announced my ideas of what made Yamamoto baits so great in a fishing magazine, many other lure vendors tried to study what it was about the specific gravity of Gary’s grubs, and they released many imitative bait models, but they could never quite capture what it was in those grubs. It’s still going on today, with the many imitations of the Senko. They can never quite capture the eye of the fish like only the Yamamoto original can.”

“At that time, back then, GY baits were not as famous in the U.S. as they were in Japan. So many other vendors who tried to make a market in Japan, they could say that their baits were number one in the U.S., but they could never say the same in Japan. GY baits were already the most famous ones in Japan.”

“In time, I opened Gary Yamamoto’s offices in Japan, and we succeeded in releasing many great baits here – the Kut Tail worm, the Senko and many others.”

“I think that the studious anglers in Japan can tell why GY baits get so many bites. It depends on the material, the colors which are second to none, the saltiness, the texture, the shapes, the action – but it all manifests in the material itself, it has some kind of power, some illusion of life and it creates an attraction that’s irresistible to many fish. Part of why I say this is, because whatever changes in shape or new models have been made over the years, they still get many bites.”

“It may be a result of good luck, fortune, serendipity or coincidence, but the GY material is perfect in specific gravity, softness, the way it waves and undulates in the water like live baitfish and so on.”

“Lure Magazine, which is the best-selling fishing magazine in Japan. takes a reader poll once a year on what are the most popular baits in Japan. Since voting began in 1999, Yamamoto baits have gotten the top places in the soft bait category in Japan. So you can see from the voting that Gary Yamamoto’s legend in Japan is not just part of the past. It’s very much today. GY baits are number one here. The favorites of many anglers and bass, they are the baits that account for many memorable fishing moments of glory!”

Russ Bassdozer

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