STOCKTON, Calif. — Aaron Martens was standing backstage, sunburned and shellshocked, cradling his first-ever Bassmaster Elite Series trophy in his arms, answering reporters' questions about what was working for him this week.
His mother, Carol, appeared and put a cell phone to his ear. On the other end was Martens' wife, Lesley, who on Tuesday gave birth to the couple's first son, Spencer. A mainstay at his tournaments, the young mother was back home in Alabama, calling to congratulate her husband at one of apexes of his career, if not his life.
"Did you see?" he asked her. "Thank you. I wish you were here." He told her that thinking of fishing was the only thing that kept him distracted enough to keep from missing her terribly.
He said winning the tournament — and its $100,000 payday that made him the 18th millionaire in BASS history — was the only thing that made it worth the trip. He said some other tender things as well, and after a few seconds, even the reporters lowered their tape recorders, to give the couple a modicum of privacy.
Then, thank goodness, Skeet Reese swooped in and pinched Martens' chest.
"I have to go," Martens said. "Skeet Reese is nipple-twisting me."
That was about the only time anything went even mildly wrong for Martens at the Elite Series Duel in the Delta presented by Mahindra Tractors.
The California-born angler who had become nearly synonymous with second place surged to within 3 ounces of the lead on Friday with the fish of the tournament: an 11-pound, 2-ounce lunker that anchored the only 30-pound bag in a fishery that was expected to generate several that size.
Saturday he claimed the lead for good, roving the flats of the Delta, finesse fishing in heavy cover while angler after angler saw their spots go dry.
The only one with a realistic shot of overtaking Martens on Sunday was rookie Derek Remitz, who began the day 3-2 back. The two were the final anglers to weigh their stringers. With Stephen Browning perched atop the leaderboard, Remitz was towed in front of the weigh-in stage under the canopy at downtown Weber Point.
He pulled a mesh bag out of the livewell. It sagged but did not balloon. Browning knew his day was done. Martens, sitting in his boat across the pavilion, knew from 50 yards that he was safe. A smile broke out on his face, and he flashed someone a thumbs-up.
Remitz managed only 11-11. Weighing Martens' 15-15 bag felt like a formality. His winning weight of 85-12 surpassed the rookie by 7-2.
"If I could pick one place on Earth to win a tournament," Martens told the screaming throng, "this would be it."
His mother, who prefished with him in the rain Tuesday and who competed as a co-angler, was on hand to hand her son the trophy. He held it aloft one-handed, torchlike, while hugging her around the shoulders with his free arm.
The 34-year-old had won the BASS Angler of the Year title in 2005 and finished second in three of four Bassmaster Classics during one agonizing stretch, but his resume did not yet include an Elite Series win.
By contrast, the soft-spoken Remitz won the first Elite Series event he ever fished, last month. He looked like a threat to go two-for-two after gaining the tournament lead on Day Two.
That he was catching them so well was a feat in itself. The Minnesotan-turned Texan-turned Alabamian was fishing for the first time in tidal waters, and on top of that, lost his tide book earlier in the week. "OK," he recalled thinking, "if it's going to be like that, I'm not even going to pay attention."
Had Remitz won, he would have been a preposterous two-for-two in his rookie season on the Elite Series. Instead, he merely leads the BASS Angler of the Year points race. He pockets a check of $30,000 to go with that $100,000 he garnered by winning the Battle on the Border in Texas earlier this month.
On Sunday, he went back to the lake, Frank's Tract, that had treated him well all week. But it was not to be. Every time he made up his mind to leave, he said, he'd catch a small fish on the cast. Nothing was stacking up, though. When he finally bailed, at 1:30, he had to catch another pair of keepers just to maintain his hold on second place.
Right behind him on the body of water was Browning, who began the day in 10th place. With Remitz and Martens out of reach, he resigned himself to fishing for third place. He fished near Remitz for a couple of biteless hours early in the day, but ditched out of respect for the contender and in concern for his own standing. In running, he managed the day's big bag of 24-4.
"When I saw him this morning," Browning said, "it was one of those deals where he's fishing for first, I'm fishing for third." Ditching for more fertile waters "was probably the best decision I made all day," he added.
The rest of the field shook out as follows: Reese (4th, 74-6); Brent Chapman (5th, 73-12), including Sunday's big bass, a 9-9 crowd-pleaser; Kevin VanDam (6th, 72-5); Jared Lintner (7th, 69-15); Jeff Reynolds (8th, 68-14); Chris Lane (9th, 67-12); Greg Hackney (10th, 65-15); James Niggemeyer (11th, 65-14) and James Charlesworth (12th, 62-14) who arrived with six fish to weigh, and thus had to forfeit his biggest.
After much of the traffic had cleared out backstage, Remitz approached Martens to extend his congratulations.
"I'm glad you won it," Remitz told him. "If anyone needed it, it was you."
"I needed it," Martens concurred. "I've had some weird luck."
This week was good — downright amazing — for a change.