Fishing with Roland Martin

Remember ESPN's Greatest Angler Debate in 2005?

Looking back, I'm sure it was no surprise to those of us watching who the two finalists would be. Rick Clunn and Roland Martin were the strongest contenders of those nominated — their lists of accomplishments pretty much determined the outcome before the votes were ever cast.

Many thought that Martin, with his TV persona, was an absolute lock. His nine Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles and 19 career victories made him seem almost invincible.

What catapulted Clunn were his 28 consecutive qualifications to the Bassmaster Classic and four victories (unprecedented at the time). And there's no doubt that Clunn's mystique added to his popularity. He had immersed himself in various aspects of eastern philosophy and traditional Native American beliefs, which triggered considerable intrigue.

Essentially, you had an introspective, self-taught angler versus one of the most publicly celebrated figures in the sport — both of whom, at that point, had basically written the B.A.S.S. record book.

When it was all said and done, Clunn was crowned the greatest angler of all time. And though many still dispute the claim, there's no denying the numbers — at least among bass fishermen.

Saltwater and fly fishing enthusiasts would probably have a different opinion. I'm sure, if given the chance, they would have denied awarding a mere bass fishermen that claim. Many of them believe their aspect of the sport is far more demanding and challenging, but that's another debate for another time.

Can You Say, "Awkward?"

Prior to the announcement, I recall an occasion when I was meeting with several B.A.S.S. staff members and the topic of the debate came up. At some point in the conversation I was asked who I thought should win the title. Sitting directly across from me and waiting on my reply was none other than Rick Clunn.

I thought for a moment then replied with, "Roland's the greatest, Rick's the best!"

I'm not sure how that statement sat with Rick at the time, but it was the only way I knew to be honest and somewhat tactful. Rick's a friend, and I have the deepest respect for him, but I truly believed what I said.

Rick Clunn had amassed so many incredible accomplishments, and at the time of the debate he was still on fire. Besides, his countless B.A.S.S. achievements, he also won the U.S. Open and an FLW major. Those established him as "The Best" in my book.

Roland Martin — Marathon Man

Roland's major angling achievements were tied strictly to B.A.S.S. — at least that's what most believed. I knew better!

Roland's skills as an angler reach far beyond bass fishing. He's very accomplished in other aspects of the sport — particularly saltwater. He's knowledgeable on just about every sport fish that swims, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Upper Atlantic. And he's won saltwater tournaments, beating seasoned charter captains at their own game.

Have you ever tried to build a fishing reel from scratch? Roland has!

I remember when he purchased a commercial lathe so he could build his own saltwater fly reels, forming the components from raw, bar stock aluminum.

Although he knows electronics inside out, Roland can navigate by the stars, literally!

He's also an accomplished big-game fly fisherman. I've been with him on numerous tarpon trips to legendary flats destinations like Homosassa, Boca Grande and Islamorada — each time we jumped or caught trophy-size tarpon using 10- and 12-weight fly gear.

The trip I remember most is the time we stayed at his home on Little Gasparilla Island, near Boca Grande. The only access to the island is by boat. Roland's beach house was a geodesic design, powered by solar energy.

Our trip started at a mainland boat ramp, where we packed a skiff with provisions and fishing gear before shuttling everything to the island. Upon arrival, I recall a brief tour of the place, then it was back to the skiff for a late-morning tarpon bite. What happened next, I was not prepared for.

We jumped from spot to spot, gauging the tide and each movement of the fish. All this was predetermined by Roland using his tide charts and angling intellect. What was so impressive was the way he approached each locale, presenting the bait to the fish's precise location. We never missed!

We spent the rest of the day and most of that evening chasing the tide, scoring on fish from multiple locations. By 10:00 p.m. I was starving. After asking several times, Roland finally took me to a bayside restaurant where we grabbed something to eat. Afterward, I figured we would head back to the beach house to crash, but Roland had other plans.

Back in the skiff, he suggested we stop at a lighted dock on the way — that it was sometimes good for snook. I said, sure, and off we went. When we got there, the feeding frenzy was on. The snook were smacking shrimp and baitfish directly under the lights. Roland positioned the boat a comfortable cast from the platform and we caught fish until well after 2:00 a.m.

By now we had been fishing more than 16 hours. Adding that to the six hours I drove to get there, I was beat. But getting Roland to quit was like asking Obama to give up a second term in the White House — it wasn't happening. At daylight we were back on the tarpon, and catching them, too. I don’t recall if we ever slept.

And there were other similar outings, like those in the Keys. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, or if the tide was promising, he was out there trying. And for Roland, marathon outings were frequent.

So when it comes to the overall "Greatest Angler," Roland Martin gets my vote. He's proven himself in multiple areas of angling, inside and out of bass fishing. And he's inexhaustible.

One final thought: If there's ever another Greatest Angler Debate, I suggest the balloting be more specific. There's a whole world of angling interests outside the bass fishing arena. Just ask Roland, he knows.