The Mind Of Martens
The decisions that sealed the Bassmaster AOY titleBy Pete Robbins
Aaron Martens started slow but came on strong to win his second Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. (James Overstreet photo)
The Bassmaster Angler of the Year race is an eight-event, multistate game of musical chairs spread over six months. Like the childhood party game, the AOY race doesn’t award the title to the pro who leads after one event, or two, or three. You can lead it up until that the last day of the season, but when the scales close that afternoon, it’s the angler who’s on top who takes home the $100,000 top prize and trophy – and, more meaningfully, the title.
That’s fine with Aaron Martens. After all, when the music stopped in 2013, he was the sitting in the hot seat.
Looking back to the start of the year, it seemed like the only music that would fit Martens’ season would be the blues or “Taps” or some sort of morose funeral dirge. He opened the season with an 85th-place clunker at the Sabine River in east Texas. Since the advent of the Elite Series, no AOY had ever notched a finish lower than 68th during his title season. Martens wasn’t mathematically eliminated, but the odds were clearly against him. Even if he was exceptional the rest of the year, that one poor result might doom him before he had a chance to get back in the hunt.
The fishing world knows that Martens is a master technician – obsessive about hooks and line and every piece of equipment and also a workhorse who spends countless hours refining his craft. Those who only see him on TV, or on the internet, tend not to understand the extent to which he’s improved his mental game over the past dozen or so years, including the large leap he’s made since first winning AOY in 2005.
Martens really only used a handful of lures all year – Megabass jerkbaits, various Roboworm plastics, a Davis X-Vibe spinnerbait and football jig, to name a few, all of which are products that everyone else could obtain – so while it’s easy to revert to believing that equipment and technical skill made the difference, the truth is that it’s the decisions he made that helped put him over the top.
Of course, being a gear geek and perfectionist, Martens believes that his psychological improvement is inextricably tied to his physical abilities: “It’s all about knowledge,” he said, “I feel like I’ve mastered just about everything. People know that I can dropshot, but they don’t think I can use a big spoon or a squarebill or a shakey head or a buzzbait. I’m just as good with any of them.
“Back when I first started I had fished so many West Coast lakes and then I came out here and it’s different – the clarity, the latitudes, the different kinds of fish. I used to get spun out because I didn’t quite know what to do, but I pay attention to everything that can help me, and now I’m much more comfortable no matter what I have to do.”
Martens is known as a master technician. (James Overstreet photo)
With his overall comfort level at a high-water mark, the subpar finish at the Sabine didn’t spin him out the way it might have earlier in his career. At each subsequent stop there were one or two key decisions that helped him dig his way out of the early season hole. The tournament reports might have listed the techniques he used, but it was these largely unreported choices that won this high stakes adult version of musical chairs.
Tournament #2: Falcon Lake (25th Place)
When the Elites converged on Falcon for a record-setting slugfest in 2008, Martens finished fourth. He’d led the field by over 7 pounds heading into the last day of competition but ended up falling three spots the last day when he and another competitor shared what he considered his best spot and ended up in a televised verbal dispute over who had a right to fish it.
In part, the fact that he didn’t get spun out much by the near misses in 2013 shows how far he’s come mentally, but the less obvious development is in how he approached this year’s Falcon event on the water.
The disputed spot in 2008 was a series of deep old house foundations, and while the water level was substantially different this time around, it was roughly the same time of year. For most anglers, the natural inclination would be to start with similar areas and techniques. Many would have trouble switching even if they didn’t produce. For Martens, the key decision was not to fish history.
“I started off trying fishing out deep,” he said. “I couldn’t really get anything except small fish out there, so then I went up shallow and immediately started catching 5- and 6-pounders. I had an 8-pounder and a 9-pounder, too, so I focused shallow the whole practice, generally in 3 to 5 feet of water.”
Whereas the fish in 2008 had been postspawn, this time around Martens was convinced he was catching nesting bass. “You couldn’t see them, but you could tell by the way that they bit that they were on a bed,” he explained.
Ultimately, his shallow water strategy was good, but not good enough to overcome dropping water levels. Accordingly, other than the Sabine, this was his worst finish of the season.
Tournament #3: Bull Shoals (15th Place)
Martens finished 58th when the Elites visited Bull Shoals in 2012, which is a bit surprising because a multi-species challenge (Bull Shoals has largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass) which requires a deft combination of finesse and power techniques would seem to favor his skill set.
“Last year I felt like my biggest mistake was that I spent too much time fishing for smallmouths,” he said. “They burned me and I was determined not to let that happen again.” He started off practice focused on largemouths and gradually the other species came to play. He also didn’t commit to a single lure or depth range and he allowed himself to be open to fish in all stages of the spawn. When the wind picked up, he turned to a Megabass Vision 110 jerkbait in either the Pro Blue or Pro Green Vision patterns. When the water slicked off, he went out deeper and dropshotted Roboworm straight-tailed worms in either Aaron’s Magic, Cinnamon Blue Crawler or Bold Bluegill.
“I just read the water really well,” he explained. “Everything I did was right and I switched at the right times. I’m sure I’m better at that now.”
While his finishes over the first three events got sequentially better, this was still his third worst result of the season. Once the tour left Arkansas, he’d never miss another cut to Sunday again.
Tournament #4: West Point Lake (2nd Place)
In 2011 Martens finished a good-but-not-great 35th at West Point. Another finish like that would’ve set him far back in his AOY quest, but his runner-up finish this year to mark the midway of the season put the title within his sights. On paper, his strategy during the competition days – “just pitching and casting at any piece of cover” – seems remarkably elementary, but dig beneath the surface and you’ll see that there was more to it than that.
First, he eliminated the river section of the lake, which he deemed too dirty to be fishable. With substantial acreage eliminated, he consistently watched the ever-changing water levels to determine how the fish would be positioned. That consisted of calling for the recorded generation schedule each morning, but then not relying completely on those promises.
“There were a couple of times when they were supposed to be pulling water and it wasn’t moving,” he said. “You can tell by the drift of the boat. I probably waited too long for the current to come on sometimes and it never did. When it wasn’t flowing, I would fish for the ones on beds, because it doesn’t affect how you fish for them as much.”
He lost a good fish the last day that might’ve allowed him to pass winner Skeet Reese and the result was one of the second-place finishes for which he has become notorious. It wouldn’t be his last one of the year, either, but it marked another turning point. Now he could truly focus not just on a Classic berth or a spot in the postseason, but also on hunting down his second AOY.
Mixed in with five top 12 finishes, Martens was runner-up twice in the eight-event season. (James Overstreet photo)
Tournament #5: Alabama River (8th Place)
Edwin Evers won this tournament, to pad his lead in the AOY race, but Martens didn’t fall back as much as some others. He’d fished two Bassmaster All-Star week events on the river, finishing in the bottom half of the reduced field each time, but said he felt comfortable on this waterway.
The highlight footage from this tournament showed anglers bursting through rapids, bouncing off boulders and taking risks to get up into the less-traveled upper reaches of the river. Martens avoided making that scary run and had good reason to do so – he’d caught a 25-pound bag of spotted bass downriver and figured he could repeat that feat and win without risking his life or his equipment. The only complication was that he’d likely have to fight it out in a crowd. This is where his skills as a technician came into play. Martens’ precise presentations with a shakey head kept him in the game, and at the end of Day Two he made a switch that enabled him to vault up the leaderboard.
“I brought out a 1 ¼ ounce Davis spinnerbait,” he recalled. “I had it in the rod locker the whole time, but I waited for the right time to get it out. Lots of guys were using something similar, but I’m not sure they were bouncing it off the bottom like I was.”
The result was an 18-12 bag on Day Three that pushed him from 19th to eighth and into the cut. That meant that his previously-crowded areas would be much less crowded on that last day. The current slowed that last day, so the spinnerbait didn’t produce the caliber of fish it had the day before, but he had made the right switch at the right time to move forward.
Tournament #6: Mississippi River (2nd Place)
Martens didn’t have much room to improve on his fifth-place finish from 2012, but nevertheless managed to accomplish the feat. Once again, he ended with a bittersweet result – a near-win in a string of seconds – but clearly he was fishing with an exceptional level of consistency.
He found a key school of fish during practice, but so did many other members of the field, including multiple others in the top twelve. For Martens, this tournament was all about timing and instinct.
“That big school would come and go,” he recalled. “Most of the time there was nothing there, and when they weren’t there I wouldn’t stay. But you also had to guess if they were going to turn on. When they did, they would hit as soon as your dropshot or jig hit the bottom. You’d get those little flurries and you had to be in the right place in the right time.”
On Day Four, which produced his lightest limit (13-15) of the week, he felt that his grass bed had been beaten to death and abandoned it early. He switched to football jigs and flipping jigs to try to upgrade elsewhere, to little avail. With less traffic on the water, he returned to his primary area and experienced a 10-minute flurry. It wasn’t enough to overcome Tommy Biffle, but it probably moved him up a few slots, and at this point in the season it looked like every AOY point was going to matter dearly.
Tournament #7: St. Lawrence River (5th Place)
Martens had experience fishing the areas in Lake Ontario where Brandon Palaniuk decisively won the event. He’d filmed a television program there with Mark Zona and knew their potential, but he said that his decision to stay in the river “wasn’t playing it safe.”
“I caught a 7 ½ pound smallmouth there during practice and three or four in the 5- to 6-pound class,” he said. “They also got lucky because the weather never got bad. We had phenomenal conditions. I figured that at least one day the wind would blow over 20 miles per hour.”
This was a tournament where his tackle-tinkering and his innate knowledge of how best to ride those changes came into play. Through three days, he had ridden a dropshot into another Top 12 cut, but on Day Four he moved from finesse tactics to power fishing and that allowed him to cull up and not only hold onto his position, but also move up two spots into fifth.
“It got cloudy and dark and the wind picked up,” he said. “I’d had a spinnerbait and a swimbait and a jerkbait on my deck the whole time, but I hadn’t really fished them since practice. When I switched to the Megabass Vision 110 in Elegy Bone, on my first cast I caught my best fish of the day. At that point I put all of my other tackle away and committed to the jerkbait. I culled three times and ended up with a decent limit. It was a fun couple of hours.”
That switch left him a very distant second to Evers in the AOY race, but the disparity was smaller than it had been all season.
Tournament #8: Lake Erie (12th Place)
In order to have any chance of passing Evers, Martens knew he likely had to earn a fifth straight top 12 finish, and possibly even a win. That meant that the final decision was a no-brainer – he’d avoid the safe route of staying in St. Clair and make the longer and more treacherous run to Lake Erie.
“If I’d stayed in St. Clair, I probably wouldn’t be the Angler of the Year,” he said. He spent a miniscule portion of practice in the river and close to the launch, just in case extreme winds made the run impossible, but he was clear that “if it blew 20 or less, I was going.” No doubts, no concerns.
Meanwhile, Evers struggled through a painful event, anchored down by a miserable Day One catch which meant that even a valiant charge in the latter half of Day Two was not enough to make the cut to Saturday.
Martens’ decision to go to Erie, combined with his mastery of the dropshot, put him on the fish to win the tournament. Of course the decision was also what prevented him from winning the tournament -- on the way back on Day Four, with what was likely a winning limit in the livewell, exceptionally rough water sheared a jackplate bolt, leaving him dead in the water. His catch was zeroed out for the day. Had it happened the day before, he wouldn’t have won AOY. At that point, though, he was playing with house money, unable to fall out of the top 12. Evers, watching from the sidelines, was powerless to make a charge.
Fishing rough Lake Erie helped Martens gain the AOY title, but he broke down on the last day. (Steve Bowman photo)
As with his decisions in prior tournaments, timing was everything at Erie. All season long so much depended on each little move, each tackle change, and each modest adjustment to weather and water conditions.
At times, particularly in the latter half of the season, it seemed that Martens was playing chess while much of the field was still struggling with checkers. He never lost his fascination with childhood games, though. Musical chairs remains a favorite, and when the AOY merry go round stopped, Martens once again showed his mastery of the timing game.