Just in case you've been living under a rock for the past decade, Aaron Martens has finished second in the Bassmaster Classic four times since 2002. It's an enviable — but uneasy — record. No other angler in Classic history has finished second more than twice.
For whatever reason, the public seems to focus on the heartbreak of a second-place finish at the Classic, rather than on the statement it makes about Martens' skills. They point to the difference in money and endorsement opportunities, to psychological punishment and the perceived frustration that "must" come with a runner-up finish.
Truth is, Martens' status as the Classic's four-time bridesmaid is more complicated — and more favorable — than that. And the Elite's best "natural" fisherman is too good, too talented and too determined to let it get him down. During the press conference after the first round of the 2011 Bassmaster Classic, Martens was asked by a reporter if he would rather not be leading the Classic? He offered a one-word answer. "No."
He lost the lead in the second round when he came to the scales with just 12-11. It was a great example of how you can't win the Classic in one day, but you can most definitely lose it. His 1 1/4-pound lead over Kevin VanDam had turned into a 8-9 deficit, and there would be no getting it back. In the end, Martens would finish second by more than 10 pounds.
Prior to the final press conference, Martens said to a friend, "I tried, but that guy [VanDam] is just too dang good." Yes, he said "dang." VanDam has been Martens' nemesis in the Classic twice, just as he has haunted Skeet Reese in the battle for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. "I'd do a lot better if he weren't around," Martens said of VanDam at the final press conference, "but I like him too much. I would have won two Classics."
In all, Martens lost the four Classics in which he finished runner-up by a total of 20 pounds and an ounce. Only one of them — the 2005 championship which he lost to VanDam by just 6 ounces — was a nail biter. The rest may have been discouraging, but they weren't all that close.
Part of the disappointment, of course, is the missed opportunities to be crowned a world champion. They don't come around very often, and, after having been runner-up four times, you have to wonder how many more chances Martens will have. The other disappointment is the money. In his four runner-up finishes, Martens has earned a total of $200,000 while the winners have taken home $1.1 million. But finishing second isn't all bad. Along the way, Martens has picked up a reputation for excellence.
Everyone who knows him or spends time in a boat with him quickly comes to understand that Martens is a gifted angler who seems to have come by his skills instinctively. It's not that he doesn't work at them — he does — just that he doesn't seem to need the extra effort. He is a born angler. And no one is more meticulous with his equipment than Martens, who spends a full month each off-season honing and preparing his gear for the rigors of the tournament wars to come. Each hook is examined, each lure tested, each line and knot analyzed. His penchant for sweating every detail is legend even among his competition.
In 2005, he put it all together in the regular season and won the Angler of the Year title. In the past seven seasons, he's finished in the top six 5 different times and has never finished worse than 16th during that stretch. It's a testament to how good he is; even VanDam fell out of the Top 25 once during that stretch.
And no less a judge of fishing talent than KVD has said that if Martens ever puts it all together, "the rest of us won't have a chance." He's zeroing in.