DETROIT — With Aaron Martens, it seems like it's always this way: the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. It's a big part of what has made his career so fascinating.
But those extremes don’t usually occur so close in time, like they did over the past weekend. This was 48 hours of the biggest rollercoaster ride in bass fishing history.
The high: Rising from 85th place in the first Bassmaster Elite Series event of 2013 to win the Toyota Angler of the Year award on the next-to-last day of the season, in Detroit on Saturday.
The low: Catching the fish to win the Plano Championship Chase on Sunday before a series of waves left him dead in the water. Done. No weigh-in, no trophy, no $100,000 first-place check.
"It was the perfect storm," Martens said. "Monster waves. Monster, monster, monster waves."
The monsters came from opposite sides of Lake Erie as Martens entered the Detroit River channel that would lead him back to the Metro Park weigh-in site at Lake St. Clair. Martens' check-in time Sunday was 3:15. He and cameraman Rick Mason left the water about 6:30 p.m., and they weren't anywhere near Metro Park when Aaron's wife, Lesley, arrived with the boat trailer.
In short, two of the four bolts that connect the motor and jackplate to the boat transom snapped after hitting "the perfect storm."
First of all, don't jump to any false conclusions about equipment failure. If you've seen any of the photo galleries from today's competition, you know that Sunday's competition put equipment of every make and model to the ultimate test. Both Martens and Mason said, once the boat was finally trailered out of the water Sunday, they checked for cracks in the transom and found none.
In 2007 in the Elite Series event at Lake Erie, I saw an outboard motor laid on the back deck of one angler's boat. It snapped a cracked transom and hit the concrete boat ramp as it was trailered out of the water that day. Boats – especially bass boats – are made better today than ever before. This is bass fishing's version of NASCAR – the extreme equipment test.
Here's the rest of the story, as briefly as possible, according to Martens and verified by Mason:
"The area I was fishing got calmer than it had been all day the last two hours I was there," Martens said. "I didn't think it was going to be rough going back, but I still left myself plenty of time. After about 20 miles, I started running into 4-footers. I knew then it was going to be bad.
"I didn't expect that at all. But I was still OK on time. Then about a mile from the gas dock, just before you get to the river, the boat wakes were huge."
Martens had planned to gas up at a dock that was about 36 or 37 miles from the weigh-in site. As Lake Erie narrowed into the Detroit River, Martens took the middle between three big boats that were cruising by – two in one direction, one in the other – a 50-footer on one side, two 30- to 35-foot boats on the other. The wind and three big boats combined to create the perfect storm.
"You want to back off plane in that situation," Martens said. "I just caught a wave wrong. It was like a perfect drop-kick into the corner (of a football field). It wasn't that we hit it so hard, we just kind of twisted (upon landing)."
This is one part of Martens' story where Mason disagrees, slightly. He has been operating a video camera for JM Associates-produced TV shows – both in freshwater and saltwater – for over a decade. He's seen some stuff.
"That was the worst shot I've ever taken on a lake," Mason said. "I've probably taken worse in a flats boat in the Gulf."
Martens was dead in the water at that point. You can't operate a 250-horsepower outboard motor that is only halfway attached to a 21-foot bass boat.
"I tried to call Randy Howell, but I couldn't get him," Martens said. "I knew he was the only person that might have been close enough to help me."
At that point, calling anyone on-shore was out of the question. He knew his day was done. So he released the smallmouth bass in his livewells and went into damage control.
"It was such a bummer when I had to release those fish," Martens said. "I had 20 1/2 pounds, according to my scales."
Mason agreed with Martens' unofficial estimate.
If that estimate had been borne out by the official weigh-in scales, it would have been enough to surpass Chris Lane's winning four-day total of 82-4.
Martens, however, did go home with something much bigger than any consolation prize – the AOY title he clinched Saturday. It couldn't be undone by anything that happened Sunday.
"Well, yeah," an inconsolable Martens finally agreed. "It was better than if this had happened Saturday."
Martens said Sunday morning that he'd had only 20 hours sleep since last Sunday, in his effort to win this tournament. That was his goal all week – win the tournament, let the AOY race take care of itself. He couldn't plan on Edwin Evers having a bad event for the first time all season. Evers' bad fortune Thursday and Friday and Martens hard work all week put the big prize in his pocket, the day before the perfect storm.
"I'm exhausted," Martens said, in closing a phone conversation Sunday night. "I'm done."