BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Aaron Martens might not agree, but perhaps it is a blessing in disguise that he has not yet been able to win a Bassmaster Classic in 10 attempts despite three runner-up heartbreaks.
Asked if he'd cleared a space on his mantle for the Classic trophy after enduring three near misses, one of them on Lay Lake, Martens replied in the negative: "I don't even have a mantle to put it on," he said.
There are lots of things that Martens wants: A garage for his boat, which currently sits outside, exposed to the elements; a barn and workshop to build lures; and a larger yard for his children to play in. He'll be able to take care of all of those needs in one fell swoop if he wins this week's Classic in Alabama, his adopted home state.
To some of his fellow competitors, it's likely a surprise that Martens has much sense of the attributes or deficiencies inherent in his home at all. Every time they came to Lay last fall for some pre-tournament scouting, they saw the California transplant on the water, scouting, graphing and developing new techniques aimed at unlocking the February quirks of Lay Lake's pressured bass. He thought he'd found some top-notch places, the types of spots even the locals wouldn't know about, but once practice began several of his best places had at least one boat on them each day. "It was all of the typical guys on them," he reported. "Skeet and Alton Jones. I really didn't think anybody would find them."
Martens' last Classic memory of Lay was one that he'd just as soon forget, but which could prove instructive nonetheless. In 2002, he finished second to Jay Yelas (the first of his three runner-ups — the other two were in 2004 at Lake Wylie and 2005 at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers) and despite the fact that Yelas led wire-to-wire, Martens believes that had it not been for boat traffic, he would've won.
"I should've smoked him," he recalled, grimacing. "The boat traffic was really harsh." He believes that Lay Lake's largemouth and spotted bass are particularly educated and thus the slightest negative cue is enough to shut down fish that bit readily the day before. "There are guys on them all the time," he added. "Certain schools, every time I came out this fall there were guys on them all the time. When I get out there tomorrow and get lined up I'm going to turn my electronics off and put my Power Poles down in a place where I can cast to the whole shoal. Then I'm going to cast way past them and bring it back through them."
While Martens can limit his own impacts on the fish, he's particularly sensitive to the impacts of others, and on a relatively small playing field like Lay Lake, he's wary of spectators and other competitors. He's had multiple final-day run-ins that have left him shaken. The 2002 Classic on Lay was one. Last year's regular season event at Falcon Lake was another. Even when he won on Guntersville in 2009, overzealous locals blanketed his best spots as he fished for a hundred grand. It was touch and go up until the end — both the tournament result and Martens' sanity.
"I'm sick of all of those bad things happening on the last day," he said. "It's a frustrating sport. We all work hard. I work as hard as anybody. But they can't get on the field with you in any other sport. Most of (the fans) are great, but there's always one bad apple. It's like 'Happy Gilmore,' with the guy out there yelling 'You suck' at him. If only they knew how hard I worked. I wish they knew that I don't get any help."
If the bite turns tough for everyone — due to bad weather or bad apples — then Martens believes he may have an advantage over the rest of the field, and it comes in the form of his spinning rod mastery. He believes that when the bite changes, it often doesn't shut down completely. "They might slap at the bait instead of eating it," he explained. In those cases, sometimes downsizing can produce outsized catches and that's when he has the potential to shine over his power-fishing brethren. During last week's three days of official practice and yesterday's stand alone day on the water, Martens saw indications that things are setting up in his favor.
"I can't tell you how many times my heart rate went up with what I saw in practice," he said "Anyone can throw a Rat-L-Trap, but I'm using something different. It's something that everybody's got in their room but it comes down to the modifications I make and the way you use it."
"I don't think I would have won practice," he continued. "But I never touched my best stuff."
First place, last place or otherwise, practice is over now, and Martens heads out tomorrow ready to ready if not anxious to rid himself of the "Deuce" title that haunts his brain on 20 degree December nights as he sits outside in his boat, tinkering with his tackle.