November 16, 2021
Veteran bass pro Aaron Martens, a three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year, three-time winner of the U.S. Open and four-time Bassmaster Classic runner-up, died of brain cancer in early November at age 49. While this would have been tragic in any instance, it’s particularly notable because of the key role Martens played. He was one of the earliest adopters of tackle from the Japanese domestic market, a finesse guru, and one of the first West Coast pros to move eastward and make a significant impression on the national scene.
A-Mart completes my Top Five.
For nearly 20 years, I’ve been trying to add a fifth member to my fictional “Mount Bassmore,” a sculped ode to the most influential anglers in the history of competitive American bass tournament fishing.
I settled on the first three pretty easily: Roland Martin, the angler who introduced the concept of “pattern fishing”; Rick Clunn, the angler who first made note of the psychological component of fishing; and Mike Iaconelli, the competitor who most emphatically made recognition and branding an essential part of being a pro.
When I first came up with the construct, I left KVD out in place of Dean Rojas. Rojas, I argued, with his record-setting win on Lake Toho in 2001, marked the end of hyper-specialization. No longer could an angler just fish a jig, or say “I don’t sight fish,” and expect to be consistently competitive. I still believe that to be true, but two decades after Rojas made that mark, I can’t stomach leaving KVD off the list. He’s just too good at everything – including, yes, sight fishing and flipping – to ignore. His machinelike efficiency over an extended period of time is Tom Brady-like, and too significant to ignore.
But now I want to add a fifth member of the band. It’s tough to leave off luminaries like Jimmy Houston, Bill Dance and Gary Klein. Jacob Wheeler, Jordan Lee and Ott DeFoe might eventually get there. But in what he meant to the sport, unifying eastern and western anglers, bringing certain techniques to the forefront and tinkering with gear to make it better, no one surpasses the recently-deceased Martens. He was an angler’s angler, a well-liked competitor, and someone who moved the needle on how we all fish today.
I should have known it when I first rode with him on the first day of the 2004 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Wylie. As other boats raced off to far-flung locations, we idled 50 yards to the Buster Boyd Bridge and camped there all day. It wasn’t just where he fished, but how he did it. He employed scroungers and “horsey heads” (underspins), as well as little-known and discontinued swimbaits – even if anyone else knew that the fish were there, and they all idled over them at some point, there’s no guarantee that the rest of the best in the world could have caught them.
That’s really the crux of what made him special and vaults him into the pantheon: No one was a better technician than A-Mart. No one else knew when dropshotting with 5-pound test fluorocarbon would provide a meaningful number of extra bites over 6-pound, and likewise when 7 could be warranted because of bigger fish or heavier cover. Everything he did was purpose-driven and hyper-specific.
Likewise, while techniques like dropshotting would have eventually become ubiquitous even without his influence, Aaron’s passion and talent brought them into the mainstream sooner. I distinctly recall one old-school pro derisively referring to it as the “upside down catfish rig” in the early aughts, and another saying that he didn’t own anything below 10-pound test. A few years later, they were both experiencing substantial success with a spinning rod. Aaron didn’t care if you called it a “California sissy stick,” as some did. He was going to use what worked. When he won an Elite Series event on the California Delta in 2007, he caught his two best fish of the event – both double digits – while flipping with 65-pound braid and dropshotting with 6-pound test fluorocarbon, respectively.
Despite his reputation as a master of finesse, which indeed he was, he bristled at that characterization because it was an incomplete profile. He was just as good with braid, or a cranking rod or a flipping stick. Three Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year awards, as do his nine Bassmaster wins. Add in his love of fitness and dedication to eating properly and it’s obvious that he saw his body as another tool, too, and by hacking its output he could improve his overall performance. The fact that the same body ultimately betrayed him is cruel indeed.
Aaron’s position in my top five is fully deserved because just when it seemed the sport had reached a level playing field, with all anglers having access to the same tackle, electronics, boats and internet information, he once again found market inequalities that provided him with an advantage.
Yes, he was blessed with a natural sense of the outdoors and an ability to think like a fish, but so too are the other 99 best guys on tour. Where Martens separated himself was with his gear, his attention to detail, and by not being afraid to let others think that he was in some way limited or using inferior products. Everyone had access to the same checker board, but at times it seemed like he was the only one playing chess
Epilogue: While many fans and pundits considered Martens to be a savant, his work ethic and devotion to his craft far exceeded his considerable natural talents. He often slept just a few hours because he couldn’t stop tinkering with tackle. Moreover, he was generous with his knowledge and with his time, and in a sport that is often cutthroat it was notable to see how many heartfelt tributes flowed in honor of this devoted family man and friend to everyone he knew.