I’ve Always Wanted to be #1

As published on BassFan.com
by Todd Ceisner

Aaron Martens likes to run.

Some days, he’d probably much rather run than fish. He runs in the offseason to prepare for the Elite Series season. Half marathons, long-distance relays, he’ll compete in pretty much anything where running’s involved. He runs during the season to stay healthy and clear his mind after a day on the water.

This season, he ran away from literally every one of his Elite Series competitors. It. Wasn’t. Even. Close.

With victories at Lake Havasu and Chesapeake Bay along with five other Top-15 finishes, he compiled the most impressive statistical season in the 10 years the Elite Series has served as B.A.S.S.’s top tournament circuit. There were 35 Elite Series competition days this season. Martens competed on 31 of them, an 88 percent participation rate, en route to his third career Angler of the Year Championship. On 13 of those days, he either was in the lead or was within 5 pounds of the leader.

He went to the season-ending AOY Championship at Sturgeon Bay last week knowing he could’ve stayed on shore for the whole event and still won AOY, but he finished 28th and tacked on 10 more points to the gap between himself and his closest challenger. His 112-point margin of victory over Justin Lucas is, by far, the most lopsided AOY win in the four seasons B.A.S.S. has used its current points system. Each of the previous three AOY races was decided by fewer than 15 points.

Martens went over the $3 million mark in career B.A.S.S. winnings this season and is now one of eight pros with at least three AOY titles to his credit. The others are: Roland Martin (9 – all B.A.S.S.), Kevin VanDam (8 – 7 B.A.S.S., 1 FLW), Bill Dance (3 – all B.A.S.S.), Mark Davis (3 – all B.A.S.S.), David Dudley (3 – all FLW), Clark Wendlandt (3 – all FLW), Jay Yelas (3 – 2 FLW, 1 B.A.S.S.).

“I’ve always wanted to be No. 1 in the sport,” he said. “It’s why I’ve worked so hard at this sport and why I started fishing. I wanted to be the best at it. Watching Kevin and Gary Klein and those guys over the years, I wanted to be at the top. I don’t fish to make a living. I fish to be the best at it. I’ve been fortunate that it’s going that way, but it’s hard work. It never ends.”

He feels that his physical fitness allows him to be sharper on the water and that’s why he’s made such a commitment to eating right and staying fit.

“Every year, I feel like I’m in better shape than the year before,” he said. “That’s my secret. That’s what helps me do what I’m doing. I do several races in the offseason and by the time the Classic or season starts, I’m in crazy good shape and I’m ready to go mentally and physically and my abilities are stronger than ever.”

He called this season the most consistent of his career and that avoiding the mishaps, be it mechanical or otherwise, that can derail a day or tournament was a big reason for that.

“That’s happened throughout the years,” he said. “I’ve had a couple bad things happen and it doesn’t take much to knock you out whether it’s a breakdown or you lose a big fish or even a small keeper. This year wasn’t like that. I had a handful of strong finishes where I gained so many points.”

’He’d Have Been Real Proud’

Martens’ season started with a surprising sponsor move and a crushing personal loss, but he seemed to navigate it all with ease.

In January, Japanese tackle company Megabass announced its 17-year run as one of Martens’ core sponsors was ending as Martens had signed on with start-up rod company Enigma Fishing, headed by friend Jesse Tacorante. It was a bold move that wound up paying off in a big way.

Then, on the eve of the Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell, Martens’ father, Jerry, passed away at the age of 75 after a long battle with peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disease. Despite catching a 6-11 brute on day 2 – it was big fish of the event – Martens finished 30th at Hartwell, his worst Classic result since the Louisiana Delta in 2001.

Asked how his father’s death impacted his focus heading into the season, he said, “I don’t know. I think of him quite a bit. I don’t know how it helped me, but I don’t think it hurt me obviously.

“My dad was a hard worker and taught me a good work ethic. I remember helping him clean pools when I was a kid. That’s how I made money. He was a good dad. Maybe I made sure I performed well this year for him. I think he may have been an inspiration.”

Asked what he thinks his dad would’ve said about his dynamic season, Martens said, “He’d have been real proud of this one. I know the last one I won, he was excited, but this one would’ve gotten him excited, too.”

Sabine Prep Pays Off

During his run to the 2013 AOY title, Martens had to overcome an 85th-place finish at the Sabine River. It was a venue very few in the Elite Series field had been to or even heard of. When it showed up again on this year’s schedule, Martens vowed that history would not repeat itself.

He spent 3 days in east Texas last December trying to learn more about it so he was better prepared when the season kicked off there in early March.

“It was flooded, so it wasn’t real good fishing,” he said. “I wanted to idle around and look at things because it’s impossible to see it all in 3 days of practice. It helped quite a bit.”

Did it ever. He was in 2nd after day 3 and wound up finishing 3rd while fishing the same stretch as winner Chris Lane and 7th-place finisher Shaw Grigsby.

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

photo B.A.S.S. Seigo Saito

Martens said having his mom, Carol, with him at Lake Havasu was like “a fantasy tournament.”

Three weeks later, he took 66th at Guntersville, a surprisingly low finish for the Alabama resident who won at the prolific Tennessee River impoundment in 2009.

“I just missed them,” he said. “I got on them good in practice. I wasn’t getting a lot of bites, but they were quality bites. It all died, though, in the tournament. The fish moved up and I couldn’t find the females. I was around some of them and I probably needed to upsize my bait. I caught a lot of 2 1/2-pound males.

“On day 2, I figured it out more and did something different and ended up with almost 20 (pounds) which kept me from doing really bad. I just missed it.”

Western Surge

Martens’ season really started to take shape on the West Coast swing, the Elite Series’ first trip to the Pacific time zone since 2010.

He was the day-2 leader at the Sacramento River and eventually took 2nd to Justin Lucas before capturing the victory at Lake Havasu the following week. It was a special trip for Martens, whose mom, Carol, a prolific angler herself and the one credited with teaching Aaron how to fish, tagged along for both tournaments.

The win at Havasu came at a time when Martens was starting to wonder if he’d ever win again. The Sacramento River was his sixth career runner-up finish in an Elite Series tournament (that’s not counting his four Classic runner-up finishes). Havasu ranks as one of Martens’ favorite places to fish and he overcame a 2 1/2-pound deficit on the final day to win by 2 pounds on Mother’s Day with his mom in the crowd.

“It was like a fantasy tournament,” he said. “It was definitely a blessing for my mom to be there. She hadn’t been able to go to tournaments for the last 6 or 7 years because she was taking care of my dad. My parents always went to the Classic and made tournaments that they could, but they hadn’t been able to do that.”

The win pulled Martens into 3rd place in the AOY standings, 23 points behind leader Dean Rojas, at the midway point of the season.

Pulling Away

Martens kicked off the second half of the season with a 15th-place finish at BASSFest at Kentucky Lake, then followed up with a 13th at the St. Lawrence River to take over the points lead from Rojas. From there, he shifted into hyper drive and left everyone else in his dust.

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

photo B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

PHOTO: B.A.S.S./SEIGO SAITO
Martens called this fish catch – 7-02 giant – at Chesapeake Bay one of the best catches of his career.

The highlight of a season full of them came on the final day at the Chesapeake Bay, when he caught a 7-02 kicker from under a snag-infested dock with a spinnerbait. The hook came loose just as Martens lipped the fish, adding to the intensity. The fish catch was captured during B.A.S.S.’ live streaming coverage online and featured Martens apologizing to Bill Lowen for likely spoiling his first Elite Series win.

“The first big one out of the reeds at Havasu on the final day was an enjoyable fish for me,” he said, “but it’s not going to top that 7-pounder. It wasn’t hooked in the skin. I had it hooked in the mouth and when it came up I could see the whole bend of the hook. That’s the first thing I look for when I see a fish. I knew it was bad. I expected it it to come off at that point. I tried to keep the rod straight up and the tip bent as much as I could.

“It stopped flopping for a second and that’s when I went down to get her. I took advantage of that and everything went so smooth. It was pretty intense. That was one of the top fish catches of my career.”

It propelled him to the victory and he then sealed the AOY title with a 6th-place finish at Lake St. Clair two weeks later.

“The more you get (to the final day), the more you want to stay there because that’s where the excitement is at,” he said. “I like to be around where the excitement is. Just being in the Top 12 and having a chance to win is more fun.”

What’s Next?

With all he’s already accomplished in his career, Martens is fast climbing the list of best bass anglers of his generation. Still, there’s one hole on his résumé he’d like to fill – and soon.

“My ultimate goal is to win AOYs and the Classic,” he said. “The next Classic would be good. I need to win one soon. I’m going to work on that really hard, but it’s going to be tricky being the first week of March.”

He said he’ll go into the 2016 Classic at Grand Lake with as much confidence as he’s ever had, a scary proposition for his competitors. He finished 28th at the 2013 Classic at Grand Lake.

“It could happen,” he said. “We’ll see. That’s going to be a tough one. I’m definitely going to have earn it.”