While the U.S. remains the world focal point for bass fishing, Japanese anglers and manufacturers have launched revolutionary innovations in tackle design, presentation, and technique. Consider the contributions from companies like Shimano, Daiwa, Okuma, Gamakatsu, Owner, Daiichi, Fuji, Lucky Craft, Jackall, Yamamoto, Sunline, Seaguar, Deps and Kanji, among others. Or innovations like the dropshot, Flick Shake, Senko, weight-transfer system, wakebaits, tungsten weights, and fluorocarbon line.
And don't forget that this Far East nation, which received its first transplanted largemouth bass in 1925, is now home to one of the two world-record bass—Manabu Kurita's 22-pound 4.97-ounce Lake Biwa behemoth that under IGFA rules tied George Perry's long-standing 22-pound 4-ounce record.
Japan remains a focal point for anglers who want to stay on the cutting edge. Following research and a trip to that country, I've assembled some baits, rigs, and techniques that have yet to gain a foothold here. First though, a few observations about the Japanese bass scene.
Japan Bass Snapshot
>> Japanese culture is rich in fish and fishing tradition, but bass fishing isn't central in that culture. It's a subculture, as most anglers target saltwater species, trout, and ayu.
>> The Japanese government considers black bass a nuisance species. On Lake Biwa, which could be called Japan's Lake Champlain (165,000 acres, max depth 340 feet), anglers aren't permitted to release largemouth bass. All must be kept and killed. And authorities began an extirpation and hazing program in known spawning areas last spring. Some guides, pros, and manufacturers have permission to catch and release bass on Biwa, however. And most fish caught by bass fans receive a boatside release.
>> Many Japanese bass anglers don't deny that bass have affected native fish and pond shrimp populations, but they argue that shoreline development and siltation have a much more profound impact, and thus plead for wiser watershed management instead of eradication.
>> There are plenty of bass-oriented tackle shops in Japan. Popeye is the most famous, a full-service Ranger dealer with several locations and a vast tackle selection.
>> The most popular softbait brand is Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits. Zoom probably ranks second. In hardbaits, Japanese giants like Megabass, Jackall, Lucky Craft, and Evergreen have a loyal following, but there's reverence for brands like Rapala, Cotton Cordell, and Heddon.
>> The dream of nearly every Japanese bass angler is to fish in the U.S. And while Japanese pros are heroes to their people, legends like Kevin VanDam, Rick Clunn, and Larry Nixon are given honorable status.
>> While most U.S. anglers imagine Japanese lakes as clear, heavily-fished waters, that's not always true. Biwa, for example, can be turbid. And several mountain lakes, although clear, aren't nearly as pressured as Beaver Lake or Norman or Wheeler. That said, there's considerable fishing pressure on a limited number of water bodies in Japan, which has encouraged technique advances in that nation. After all, 127 million Japanese live in an area similar in size to Montana.
Taku—Osaka's "Rig Meister"
Hata Takuma, known as Taku, is one of Japan's most popular bass pros. His blend of comedy and innovation appeals to the younger generation and he's instantly recognizable by his crazy Mohawk hairdo that seems to change color by the day.
He's the creator of the Flick Shake technique, which landed on these shores about 3 years ago and is winning tournaments coast to coast. In Japan, the Flick Shake's called the Inchi Wacky. But U.S. angler's haven't seen most of Taku's other rigs.
A secret of Taku's is the "Octopus Flick Shake," an outrageous-looking presentation that uses 3 Jackall Flick Shake worms, wacky-rigged on a Zappu Inchi Wacky head. This was the same rig lure designer Seiji Kato used to win the co-angler division of the 2007 Amistad Bassmaster Elite Series. To rig it, string 3 Flick Shake worms on the jighead, then turn the first worm back over the hook point.
Another rig Taku created is the Sasuteki. The name's a play on words. It's a reverse Texas-rig, hence the syllable "tek" preceded by "sas." In simple terms, it's a mat-punching rig with the weight strung below a punch craw (he uses a Jackall Sasuteki Craw). This setup penetrates dense vegetation more easily than standard rigs. The weight has a metal loop on the wide end. To rig, push the loop into the butt end of a craw, then set the hookpoint through it to create a streamlined package. With a standard Texas rig, the weight must push through the fish's lips on a hook-set. Not so with the Sasuteki rig. One U.S. company, Sizmic (now part of Uncle Josh), adopted the Sasuteki theory several years ago and markets it in the U.S. as the Okeechobee Rig.
Yet another rig from Taku is a variation of the swim jig. Taku takes it a step further with Zappu's PD Chopper jighead with a unique shoe-shape head design. On the retrieve, it constantly hunts for center and chops from side to side.
The jig has a 2-tone skirt, which Taku says is critical. He slides a Jackall Ammonite Shad swimbait onto the hook and inserts a Zappu one-knocker-style rattle through the eyes. He feels it works best when ticked right along the bottom, down to a maximum depth of about 10 feet. And it's effective from October through early summer.
Jackall's Ammonite Shad is similar to the Japanese Sawamura One'up swimbait, which Shinichi Fukae used to win the 2006 Okeechobee FLW Tournament. Gambler also has released a close approximation of the One'up, named the Big EZ.
Evergreen is Coming
The Japanese lure companies with the largest U.S. presence are Lucky Craft and Jackall. Megabass has made strides and sponsors tour pros like Randy Blaukat and Aaron Martens, but product availability remains problematic. Other companies, like Ima, Deps, Zappu, and Reins rely more on word of mouth, with U.S. sales handled by Optimum Baits.
One company, Evergreen, wants to aggressively pursue a bigger U.S. market share. Its longtime spokesman in the U.S. has been pro Morizo Shimizu, but last spring Evergreen opted to sponsor Brett Hite of Arizona. In Japan, Evergreen is noted for rods and hardbaits. Its Combat Crank is the company's flagship hardbait, a lure hardly known in the U.S.
Shimizu has designed a new crank, the Wild Hunch, that saw considerable use on pro tours this year, but it remains in the "keep it quiet" stage. The Wild Hunch is a deep finesse crank. In true Japanese fashion, it's meant to catch fish that see lure after lure. It has yet to break out from the desert fisheries of the western U.S., but it could become a killer on Alabama, Ozark-region, and Tennessee River impoundments.
The notion of using a sinker to weight a crankbait isn't new; it's common in walleye fishing. But in bass fishing, the idea seems alien—there shouldn't be anything to dampen the natural action of the lure. To increase running depth, anglers kneel and reel.
But in Japan, where experimentation trumps tradition, guide and tour pro Shigenori Nakajima (Shegay for short) regularly Texas-rigs crankbaits. And dampened action isn't a concern because he imparts his own action to lures, which is the key to the technique.
In Japan, the motion is called "jacking," and refers to the roll and flash of a bottom-feeding baitfish. Shegay jacks a crankbait with fierce but short upward jerks of the rod, which impart a unique roll to a weighted crank. It's a cold-water technique that challenges traditional cold-water or cold-front thinking. Instead of downsizing and slowing the presentation, his technique brings a large crankbait down to neutral or negative fish and provokes strikes.
Shegay's rig, which he calls the Hyper Muscle Deep, includes a bullet-shaped tungsten weight and bead in front of the crank's split ring. Both are held in place by a conical bobber-stop. His favorite bait's a Jackall Muscle Deep and he bangs it along rocks down to 40 feet.
"My introduction to this method came in late October 2009, as I guided a client on Lake Biwa," Shegay explains. "The water was 55° to 60°F and we were fishing deep—40 feet in the rocks on bottom. My client started to use a crankbait on a Texas-rig with a 1/2-ounce weight—most unusual."
The client caught a 5-pounder on his first cast, which Shegay considered a fluke. "I was amazed," Shegay admits. But then the client caught a 6-pounder on his third cast, and continued to catch more. "I then realized it wasn't luck—there was something to it.
"I think it's effective because bass never see a crankbait that deep. It's a way to get the fish to react in cold water. I've since learned that big crankbaits are deadly in extremely deep water, especially when it gets cold. You can cover so much water this way.
"I tested this rig one day in our aquarium to see how the lure acts with a weight ahead of it. When it hits bottom, the lure gets extremely erratic. This type of random movement seems to tempt bites from non-aggressive bass."
From watching Shegay fish it, it's clear there are several keys to the presentation. One is the retrieve. First, he casts as far as he can. And with a weight ahead of a big crank, distance is incredible. He lets the rig sink toward bottom and reels quickly with a 5.4:1 reel.
Each time the crank ticks bottom, he snaps the rod upward. It's not an over-the-head snap, but more like a hook-set when you detect a flip bite. He retrieves with the rod tip pointed directly at the lure. When it ticks bottom, he snaps the rod from about the 5 o'clock to the 3 o'clock position. That sort of snap imparts the random side-swipe or jacking action. The components—conical bobber stop and tungsten weight — don't dampen the action.
The Neko Rig
For at least the past decade, Japanese anglers have been wacky-rigging every bait imaginable. In Japan, wacky-rigging doesn't necessarily mean hooking a bait in the middle, it simply means hooking it in any way other than how the manufacturer intended.
A wacky-rigged soft jerkbait, for example, swims sideways and somewhat parallel to the boat and underneath overhanging cover. And a reverse-rigged tube can be made to glide backward.
The Neko rig, of Japanese origin, is known within hardcore bass circles but has yet to earn a spot in the national consciousness on this side of the Pacific despite several major wins by Brent Ehrler, who used it at the 2010 Shasta Western FLW Series and Ouachita FLW Tour events.
Essentially, the Neko Rig's a wacky-rigged Senko or finesse worm with a nail weight in the head. It works with a craw, soft jerkbait, or other softbait. The weight helps keep the lure in contact with bottom and creates a unique shimmy when dragged. At the same time, it's an efficient way to finesse in deep water because it sinks fast and maintains bottom contact.
A popular method for Neko-rigging worms is to slip a rubber O-ring over the worm, then slide the hookpoint between the O-ring and the body of the worm. But Gran's Neko Rig Master is a niftier setup, and the product allows you to wacky-rig any softbait. The Neko Rig Master is simple, nothing more than a soft-rubber cap atop a copper corkscrew. Screw it into a bait, run the hook through the rubber, and fish wacky.
Gran also offers a dimpled tungsten drop-shot weight. Several football-head jigs have adopted this theory—that dimpling better transmits vibration and hence enhances bottom feel—but this is the first weight I've seen with such features.
A New Level Of Finesse
Here in the U.S., the finesse trend continues. Some of that's a result of tour schedules, as competitions often are staged at hard-fished waters like Norman, Beaver, Ouachita, Smith Mountain, Pickwick, the Coosa Chain, and the Tennessee River. And of course, the West remains the land of finesse.
But even our best attempts at subtlety fall short of a Japanese technique called i-Motion that aims to design action out of a bait. I-Motion has found success in Japanese tournaments, and the first baits in Jackall's I-Motion line to hit U.S. shelves this year is the Seira Minnow, a hardbait, and iShad.
According to Jackall president Ty Ono, "It's an unusual technique. All baits have innate action—crankbaits, paddletail worms, even the Flick Shake moves a lot. But in i-Motion, the lure comes straight through the water with no wiggling or swimming.
"Fisherman should watch baitfish in water and see how they swim. You cannot see the tail move—they swim in a straight line. We tried to duplicate that action. When you cast an i-Motion bait, reel slowly and steadily and it comes straight to you. Bass bite if they're looking for food."
Ono notes that the best way to fish an i-Motion bait is near or just under the surface in clear to slightly stained water. The Japanese pro uses 4-pound fluorocarbon for the technique, or 6- to 8-pound braided line with a fluorocarbon leader.
The obvious places where i-Motion could gain a foothold here would be the pressured, clear lakes of the West, especially southern California, Arizona, and Utah. But i-Motion might find success in national competitions as a day-3 or day-4 fall-back technique for fish that have been fished with more active lures for days. One more bite off a dock or community hole that's been thrashed is often the difference between a win and 2nd place.
Japan Bass Background
The Japanese tackle revolution started about 18 years ago. In the 1990s, several Japanese pros flew to the U. S. to compete in the U.S. Open on Lake Mead and select events, mostly in the West. Norio Tanabe garnered the greatest initial fame, winning the 1993 Kentucky Lake Bassmaster Invitational, and he launched a career on the U.S. tours. At the same time, California tackle retailers connected with Japanese pros and began to import Japanese baits
The lure that arguably started the Japanese tackle craze was the Daiwa TD Minnow, designed by Seiji Kato in 1991. The Balsa Pro Minnow, also known as the Fat Sum from Sum Lures, is said to have predated the TD Minnow by several years. But the two lures are related. In 1994 Kato left Daiwa to join Lucky Craft. Kato used the Fat Sum concept when he created the Sammy that year.
Lucky Craft rose to U.S. prominence when Kato introduced the Pointer jerkbait at the 1998 Elephant Butte Bassmaster Open. Local pro Dennis Hoy won using a Pointer after he drew Kato on day-2, and word of this bait quickly spread. Thirst for Lucky Craft products reached a fevered pitch at the same time that drop-shotting supplanted shaking and stitching as the hottest worm technique. Kato left the company in 1999 to form Jackall Bros. with Japanese pro Ty Ono.
Jon Storm, Fredonia, New York, is a veteran bass angler and outdoor writer, now editor of BassFan.com.