Has Martens found the key?

LA CROSSE, Wis. — Aaron Martens thinks it would be "cooler" if he won the Bassmaster Elite Series Mississippi River Rumble, rather than his friend Todd Faircloth. Going into Sunday's final, Faircloth and Martens are atop the leaderboard, with only 7 ounces separating them.

"That's funny because Todd is the only person I talk to at these tournaments, as far as sharing patterns and what we're doing," Martens said. "It's ironic we're going to be first and second.

"He knows exactly what I'm doing. He's going to be doing the complete opposite. I think it would be cooler if I won because I'm doing something so different.

"I'll shock a lot of people if I win it doing what I'm doing."

First of all, it should be explained that Martens said those things with what is an almost ever-present smile on his face.  Martens may live in Alabama now (Leeds), but his California upbringing is unmistakable. He's the "surfer dude" of the Elite Series tour.

That's why it was so painful to watch Martens spin out, for lack of a better term, earlier this season. There's no malice in Martens, but it didn't seem that way at times during the tournaments on Bull Shoals Lake and Douglas Lake. He got uncharacteristically flustered, or as one former University of Arkansas basketball coach used to say, "flustrated." It's not a word, but the combination of "flustered" and "frustrated" deserves a place in Webster's Dictionary.

Secondly, it caught many long-time Elite Series followers by surprise to hear Martens say that he and Faircloth swap information. That's perfectly legal on the Elite Series tour, but birds of a feather tend to flock together in these deals. For example, it's been well-publicized that Gerald Swindle, Terry Scroggins and Britt Myers have formed a partnership over the last year or so. Their personalities vary widely, but you can at least picture the relationship, if you've been around them a bit.

Martens and Faircloth? Not so much.

Faircloth, of Jasper, Texas, is a man of few words. Ask him a question and he'll politely give you an answer. Every time. An unemotional Texas drawl disguises an angler who has teared up at times after tournaments, both in victory and narrow defeat.

Maybe what the Californian and the Texan have in common is something so simple yet invaluable as a good heart. If you know them, you would never root against either one.

And maybe the Mississippi River Rumble won't even come down to that. Faircloth's three-day total of 47-11 is only 7 ounces better than Martens' 47-4. But rookie Cliff Prince of Palatka, Fla., is only 3 pounds out of the lead in seventh place with 44-11. And the veteran of all veterans, 65-year-old Rick Clunn of Ava, Mo., is only 6 ounces behind Prince, in eighth place with 44-5.

As in most of these Elite Series finales, you can make a victorious case for almost anyone in the Top 12, especially this one, where only 5 pounds, 15 ounces separates first through 12th.

But it's that contrast in both personalities and fishing methods that makes the Faircloth-Martens match-up so intriguing.

"(Faircloth) knows exactly what I'm doing," Martens said. "He's going to be doing the complete opposite."

So why would it be "cooler" if Martens won?

"I'm not fishing grass," Martens said. "I'll shock a lot of people if I win it doing what I'm doing."

Martens is known as the ultimate finesse fisherman, and someone who approaches a situation from an angle most wouldn't consider. It took him some time Saturday to figure out a way to catch bass in this section of the Mississippi River that has changed a bit every day, with fluctuating water levels and evolving water clarity. He had a "Eureka!" moment about 1 p.m.

"I'd been thinking about it all day," Martens said. "It's unbelievable. I'm catching them every cast, at times."

Martens admitted laying off his hot spot at 9 a.m. Friday. He had 14-13 in the livewell and didn't want to keep catching the 2 1/2-pounders he might need another day. He was in second place Thursday after bagging 16-5, then dropped to fourth Friday.

But Martens worked those fish pretty hard Saturday morning. He came out of it with the big bass of the day – a 4-14 – but only about 14 pounds total. So he moved to another area. When he found a new solution to the puzzle Saturday afternoon, he was able to upgrade to 16-2 for the day.

Faircloth finished with 14-13 Saturday. But the 17-14 he totaled Friday, which moved him from eighth place to the lead, was enough to keep him in first place for another day.

"I feel like I'm around the winning fish," the 36-year-old Faircloth said. "But to beat these guys, everything has to fall into place exactly as planned. Hopefully, it's my turn."

Faircloth finished second by 18 ounces to fellow Texan Alton Jones in the first Elite Series tournament of the year at the St. Johns River. He's got two Elite Series wins on his resume, but the last one came in 2008 at Lake Amistad. He has finished second four times.

If Faircloth could get his weather preference Sunday, it would be overcast early, then bright sunshine. It stayed overcast Saturday and Faircloth struggled to catch the bass that had been positioned under thick mats of aquatic vegetation the previous two days.

"In these big expansive grass flats, you have to get dialed in to a target," Faircloth said. "You can't just cast anywhere and catch fish."

Martens may not be so dependent on the weather. He caught 16-5 in the sunshine Thursday and 16-2 on the overcast Saturday.

Faircloth thinks being in the right area plays a bigger role in winning an Elite Series tournament than anything else.

"I think it's more area than anything," he said. "I think that's usually what it boils down to with the a guy winning the tournament. It's more area than technique."

Martens, of course, leans the other way. And that's what could make Sunday so interesting. To be clear, it's not like Faircloth or Martens has to win to make for a noteworthy day. Terry Butcher of Talala, Okla., is only 15 ounces out of the lead; he has finished third in five Elite Series events, but no higher. If he breaks through with a win Sunday, it's a good story.

Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., was considered a favorite coming into this event because of all the shallow vegetation that set up perfectly for catching bass on his signature bait – the Spro Bronzeye Frog. Rojas is only 2 pounds, 4 ounces behind Faircloth. It would make for another good story if "the godfather of frogging" could come back to win Sunday.

Then there's Jamie Horton of Centreville, Ala., who, at the age of 44, is in his rookie season on the Elite Series. Horton qualified for the tour after winning the Cabela's Bassmaster Federation Nation Championship. Horton is the only angler to weigh an 18-pound bag in this event; it vaulted him from 39th place to third Friday. And Horton is only an ounce behind Rojas.

There's no ending Sunday that won't have a storybook feel to it.

But none will match the contrast of the trusted friends, yet polar opposites, that are Aaron Martens and Todd Faircloth.

One final example: Saturday Martens was observed snatching pesky insects out of the air, eating them and remarking on their "sweet" taste. No one can picture Faircloth doing that, even on a hundred-thousand-dollar bet.

And that's what's on the line Sunday - $100,000.

May the best angler win.

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