Aaron Martens was getting his tail kicked by an elf on Michigan’s Mullett Lake the week before he slept late and went home early with the 2015 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title at Lake St. Clair.
A small business owner from tiny Dawson, Ga., Scott Gilley, who is as unfamiliar with smallmouth bass waters as you’d expect a south Georgia boy to be, was whipping both Martens and another south Georgia (Albany) elf named Joe Durham. Gilley was enjoying every second of it, particularly the smallmouth bass blitz he was dropping on Martens.
“We talk a lot of trash to Aaron,” Gilley said of himself and Durham, who are not tiny men. Elf explanation to come. “We give him a ton of grief. We tell him we’re his mental coaches.
“I’d caught eight or 10 bass before they’d caught one. I said (to Martens), ‘I’m beating your ass, worm-to-worm.’ We were throwing within 5 to 10 feet of each other.”
That’s when a tiny detail caught Martens’ eye, and he said to Gilley, “Bro, who taught you to rig your worm like that?”
If you know Martens, you know he said it exactly in those words: “Bro, who taught you to rig your worm like that?”
All three anglers were drop-shotting wacky-rigged Roboworms in the same color pattern.
“Same worm, same rod, same everything,” Martens said. “He was rigging the worm funny. I’m like, ‘That’s a funny way to rig it.’”
“‘It’s a wacky rig,’” Gilley said.
“Uh, no, not really,” Martens said. “That’s something different. He had me and Joe like 5-to-1. I’d never had a guy do that to me smallmouth fishing.”
(Note: Yes, this writer noticed the discrepancy between how bad Gilley said he was kicking Martens’ and Durham’s tails, and how much less severely Martens said their tails were being kicked. This issue shall remain unresolved. Choose the “facts” you like best. It’s a fishing story.)
Martens’ runaway success this year while clinching the Angler of the Year title before the AOY Championship event would indicate that little escapes his sharp eyes and inquisitive mind. This fishing trip among friends serves as one more interesting example.
Martens noticed that instead of the traditional wacky style, where the hook is placed near the balance point of the worm, below the egg sack, Gilley was inserting his hook above the egg sack, nearer the head of the worm. In essence, Gilley was sticking the middle ground between a nose-hooked bait and a wacky-hooked bait.
“Aaron changed and immediately started catching fish. Joe did too,” Gilley recalled.
We’re talking about the difference in maybe a half-inch in the hook insertion point on a soft-plastic finesse bait, and Martens noticed it. Even more impressive, instead of dismissing it as blind luck with a mistake-rigged lure by a self-described “weekend angler,” Martens kept his brain engaged, looking for clues as if it were Kevin VanDam, not Scott Gilley, out-fishing him.
“That’s what is amazing to me,” said Gilley, who fished as an FLW co-angler one season and still competes in local events. “I bet a thousand other high-level fishermen wouldn’t have noticed that.
“And he learned something. He always learns something when he’s on the water. He loves fishing more than any other human being I’ve ever seen. I think that’s what separates him from the rest. He’s not fishing for a check. He’s fishing for the love of fishing.”
Now, about the reference to both Gilley and Durham as elves: Properly addressed, they are “ELF,” an acronym for Esquire Legal Funding. Durham is an attorney who does some legal work for Martens. Here’s Gilley’s explanation of ELF: “Venture capitalists in unconventional financing.”
When anyone asks about the small blue “ELF” logo on Martens’ Phoenix Bass Boat, “We told Aaron he’s supposed to say, ‘People helping people,’” Gilley explained, sort of. ELF is one of Martens’ sponsors.
How this whole ELF thing got started is another testament to Aaron Martens being, well, Aaron Martens. The friendship between Durham, Gilley and Martens began with Durham and Gilley buying a fishing trip with Martens in a charity fundraiser.
“Joe asked me one day what I’d pay to fish with Aaron Martens,” Gilley recalled. “I said I’d pay a thousand dollars. Joe said we’re going to do it then. I figured it would be about a four- or five-hour deal. But that’s the thing about Aaron – he always fishes like he’s never going to fish again.
“What started as a way to advance our fishing skills became a genuine friendship.”
It’s a relatively recent friendship. That first fishing trip occurred in May 2012. A year later, Martens won his second career AOY title with a final-tournament, come-from-behind rally. With the 2015 victory, Martens has now won three AOY titles – two in the 3 1/2 years the three men have known each other.“
We tell him his career really turned around the year he met us,” laughed Gilley.
Yeah, turned around to the extent that Martens could sleep through his alarm clock on the final day at Lake St. Clair, spot the other 11 finalists 45 minutes of fishing time and still finish sixth to salt away the AOY title, three weeks before the AOY Championship event at Sturgeon Bay, Wis. That’s a slight but significant change for Martens, who is in the process of shredding that always-the-best-man-never-the-groom image he had after accumulating four runner-up finishes in the Bassmaster Classic and nine other second-place trophies in B.A.S.S. major tournaments.
It’s amazing what two “mental coaches” from south Georgia can do for a pro angler’s career.
Also, it’s worth noting that some of the bass Martens weighed while finishing sixth at Lake St. Clair, a week after their smallmouth trip to Mullett Lake, were caught on a “Gilley-rigged” Roboworm. Martens believes the Gilley rig is legit.
“It doesn’t twist your line,” Martens said. “A wacky rig will twist it. A wacky rig falls slow. A nose hook falls fast. A Gilley rig falls (at a rate) somewhere in-between.”
Sometimes the smallmouth simply want it that way, like Goldilocks prefers her porridge – not too hot and not too cold. The Gilley rig falls just right.
This story can’t end without sharing a couple more Aaron Martens stories from Gilley, who has quickly grown to love Martens like a brother and admire him like a Hall of Fame athlete in any major sport. Durham, Gilley and Martens have been fishing together “about two or three times a year” since they met.
“Joe and I call him ‘The Fish Whisperer,’” Gilley said. “He tells us that’s his favorite nickname.
“Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in his mind. He’ll call me when he’s on the road, and he’ll talk for 30 minutes. Talk about everything. Joe will ask me what he said, and I’ll go, ‘Man, I couldn’t tell you.’”
On their first day at Mullett Lake in August, the day before the Gilley rig was born, the wind howled and the three anglers caught a total of seven smallmouth bass on a miserable outing.
“Joe and I are like, ‘Call (Mark) Zona and find out where we can catch some fish,” Gilley recalled.
“Aaron says, ‘Bro, I’m Aaron freakin’ Martens. I don’t need to call anybody.”
Spoken like a true champion.
Editor’s Note: This Thursday, watch Aaron Martens fish live on Bassmaster.com. Bassmaster LIVE on the Lake with Aaron Martens presented by Carhartt will be on Lake Guntersville from 10:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. CT.