Drinking the A-Mart Kool-Aid

I recently wrote a column about days I’ve spent in the boat with various B.A.S.S. pros where I learned valuable lessons about the right way to compete (see “Bass fishing lessons for the ages”). This time around, I want to discuss the day that really launched my career as an outdoor writer. I was incredibly fortunate very early in my career to stumble onto a great angler on a meaningful day.

In the early 2000s, I helped a friend who created our local Federation’s website; he wanted to fill it with bass fishing content, and I volunteered to write an article a month to help out. As you might expect, the pay was meager – zero, to be exact.

After a while, he still didn’t have any money to pay me so I sought other ways to receive compensation. The first thing that came to mind was to request media credentials for the 2004 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Wylie. Someone at B.A.S.S. must not have been checking carefully because the online application came back “approved” and I was off to Charlotte, N.C., for my first event as a member of the working media.

I rode with Chad Brauer on the practice day. (Note to self: Don’t ride with anyone on practice day unless you’re getting paid to do so. They don’t accomplish much and typically do their best to avoid setting the hook.)  On the first day of competition, I was given a choice of a dozen or so competitors. I narrowed it down to two: Aaron Martens and an older, veteran pro. I based my decision not so much on fishing style, but rather on the idea that the older pro would bristle at having a novice writer in his boat and would therefore be gruff with me. In hindsight, I was probably right. In hindsight, it was probably also the best move I could have made.

As you may remember, Martens burned about a thimbleful of gas that tournament and but for a last-minute balsa bait clinic from Takahiro Omori, he would have won. His chosen fishing location is important because it defies the idea that everyone in the Classic field can and will find the winning fish. Remember Beeswax Creek? How about Cataouatche? Those were wars of attrition – lots of competitors found the winning fish and camped on them. By contrast, even though most of the field passed over Aaron’s fish, or at the very least came within 100 yards of them, no one fished them like he did.

Sure, a few stopped at the bridge next to the ramp for a few casts in passing but only Martens really seemed to understand the area’s potential and how to unlock it. On top of that, he used baits that I’m pretty sure no other competitor had in their boats – horsey heads and hair jigs, in addition to a wide assortment of Left Coast finesse gear.

When the tournament was over, I figured that I’d been a witness to a story that needed to be widely disseminated, so I wrote a minute-by-minute account of the day that was purchased by a western-based magazine. That led to more assignments, more connections, and eventually to this column with B.A.S.S. It also led to my fascination with Aaron Martens.

Here’s the first thing you need to know about riding with Aaron Martens: Somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of what he says in the boat is not directed at his rider. He’s having an internal dialogue; and if you’re smart, you’ll get the notepad out to record his thought process as he analyzes where to stop, which hook to use and what color worm to thread on it.

He operates largely without a filter so sometimes the listening process is like drinking from a fire hose; but if you learn to separate the signal from the noise, it’s incredibly illuminating. It’s also not something you should try at home, because Aaron Martens is in a league of his own.

That’s what makes Aaron Martens simultaneously inspirational and confounding to me. He’s everything a fishing role model should be – independent, innovative and meticulous – but there’s no way to fully emulate what makes him great. While he’s certainly worked to hone his skills and his instincts, there are certain aspects of his performance that don’t seem repeatable or subject to meaningful analysis.

It’s Ike’s “fishing the moment” taken off on a tangent where AMart fishes through his thought process. You and I likely can’t dissect it enough to make sense of it.

For this same reason, I think that Rick Clunn’s success isn’t a good template to work from. You can certainly try some of the mental exercises that he’s developed, and you can copy his mechanics, but Rick has developed a system designed to work for him. Any universal applicability is almost incidental.

Same with Steve Kennedy – his strategies and instincts are a story for another day, or perhaps a PhD dissertation, but you and I can’t fully implement them. For a fishing fan, that’s maddening. You’ve got three of the best who’ve ever lived, and it’s impossible to fully internalize what makes them great.

Getting back to Aaron, there are other things you should know about him. He’s far more complex than most of us give him credit for. The fishing media, myself included, have often implied that he’s something of an angling “Rain Man,” focused entirely on minutiae of the sport, like the value of 5-pound test fluorocarbon over 6-pound test fluorocarbon, or an Aaron’s Magic worm with red flake versus plain old Aaron’s Magic.

It appears that way, for sure, as he talks to himself in the boat. No doubt the same obsessiveness spilled over when he decided to run a marathon last year. But if you think that blind devotion to narrow tasks is what defines Aaron Martens, and that his relationship with his tackle trumps his relationships with people, you’d be wrong. On multiple occasions, I’ve called him for an interview only to hear him lament that he should’ve focused on fishing that morning but instead decided to roughhouse with his kids. And what other pro angler openly and proudly credits his partnership with his mother for helping to develop his angling prowess?

I’m going to steal a line from Mark Zona here, simply because it’s so good and so telling. I hope that Z doesn’t get too upset that I’m airing it in public. While discussing A-Mart, he said that not only is Aaron one of his favorite fishing partners, but also that “He taught me more about being nice than any other person.” Note that he didn’t say “any other angler” – it’s “any other person.”

That’s a view that most of us don’t see but it’s true. At the end of the day, regardless of how he did on the water or what the weather may be, Aaron is signing autographs for kids. When that’s done, he’s spending time with his wife and children. Fans want to talk about fishing? He’ll talk to them like he’s known them for a lifetime. It’s a complicated thing to digest – how one person can be so incredibly single-minded to the point of genius and then also so innocently giving.

From that one article I wrote about Martens at the 2004 Classic, he received a little bit of press. I received a second career, one that I treasure. At times I resent him, because he’s like one of those “Do Not Copy” keys. I’d love to be able to do what he does on the water but I know that he provides a template that can’t be replicated.

You can copy Denny Brauer’s flipping mechanics or KVD’s spinnerbait retrieve or learn to skip a frog like Dean Rojas. Even if you’ll never be quite as good as any of them, you can pursue part of the essence of what makes them good on the water. You might not be able to pick spots like Brauer, or embrace KVD’s eye of the tiger, or eke out that last extra bounce like Dean’s Kermit, but you have a sense of what you’re aiming at and you can strive to get there.

With AMart, the mechanics are a lesser part of the whole deal. If you want to be like him, you’re shooting at a moving target in the dark. That’s what continues to fascinate me. 

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