KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Carol Martens vividly remembers driving home from Lake Mead over two decades ago, after her son Aaron had finished in second place at the U.S. Open.
“He cried all the way home,” she said. “He was bawling. He kept saying ‘I’ll never get another chance.’”
Her son remembers it differently. He claims that he did not cry, but even all these years later the hurt is apparent. He remembers his faulty last day execution at Mead, along with what he weighed in and how far short of the title he fell. Clearly, the near miss is distinctly etched into his memory. He gets animated talking about it.
Despite his fear that he’d never get “another chance,” A-Mart’s career has been filled with them. He went on the win the U.S. Open three times. He likewise won the Bassmaster Angler of the Year award three times. He’s earned the top prize in nine B.A.S.S. events, on diverse fisheries from coast to coast, and he’s been dubbed “The Natural.”
Nevertheless, he’s yet to win the Bassmaster Classic and this may indeed be his last chance.
If he never wins one, that will put him in elite company. Roland Martin, Bill Dance and Gary Klein, all members of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, likewise failed to capture the title. Plenty of others have seen their last best chance evaporate in a heartbeat. Jim Bitter fumbled the winning fish back into the drink as he tried to measure it in 1989. Dalton Bobo, who’d quit his secure job to be able to fish the 1997 Classic, saw his victory go up in smoke by the margin of a dead fish penalty.
Still, no one has suffered more, or more often, than Aaron Martens. He’s been the bridesmaid four times. He’s done it in consecutive years. He’s done it three times in four years, and four times overall, by as little as 6 ounces and as much as 10 pounds 11 ounces. They all sting the same. At Pittsburgh in 2005, when he finished second to Kevin VanDam by a miniscule margin, he released a fish that might not have measured, and saw a 2-pounder bounce off the side of his boat and escape back into the river when he tried to boat flip it. That might’ve been the most painful of the four. The lasting image is one of him crumpling backwards on the deck of his boat after losing that fish, calling out in agony.
“We all cried,” his mother remembered. “And despite the fact that he was the most devastated he’d ever been, he spent all of his time trying to cheer the rest of us up.”
Different anglers deal with those types of frustrations differently. Jason Christie, who has had two Classic victories slip out of his grasp on the final day, finishing 2nd in 2016 and 3rd in 2018, said, “It’s not fun. You end up having to replace a lot of instruments in your truck when you get home. I can say that from experience.” Christie added that some of the most self-critical “what ifs” took place in the fall of those years, when he sat alone in a deer stand, replaying missed opportunities in his head. “Those are some hard times.”
Skeet Reese, who won the 2007 Angler of the Year award as well as the 2009 Classic, said that highly-competitive professional anglers are never resting on their laurels nor playing with house money. While they remember every near miss, the only tournament or title that they really care about is the next one. On two occasions after his Classic win, Reese led the Angler of the Year race through the end of the regular season, only to lose it to someone else in the postseason.
“Those two years absolutely crushed me, I went into a deep depression after that. I struggled. The tipping point for me was a lot of therapy. I had to go through it so I could understand who I am and why I am thinking certain things.” He advised that it is a deeply personal process, and refused to play Armchair Analyst for any of his peers, least of all Martens. “I could never understand Aaron.”
Reese’s admission might’ve been unexpected, because although he’s shown emotion on stage before, like most of the competitors at the highest levels of competition, he bottles up his feelings the majority of the time. So does Brent Ehrler, who despite winning the Forrest Wood Cup, remembers some of the near misses just as much. He finished in the top five of FLW’s AOY race on five occasions, including two third place finishes and two runner ups, once by a single point.
“You just get an ache in your stomach when you think about it,” he said. “I don’t show it on the outside. I bottle it up. It adds fuel to the fire, but it’s not like you can say you’re going to try harder, because we all give it everything you have. You can say you’re going to work out harder in the offseason, but I’ve been beaten by a lot of guys who can’t even walk up a flight of stairs.”
Martens’ close friend Brent Chapman, who likewise has won AOY but not a Classic, agreed that “there’s a lot of us for whom it’s do or die, now or never. There’s a lot of pressure in this one, given the circumstances.”
Martens remains a fierce competitor, a compulsive tackle tinkerer and more of an emotional open book than many of his peers, but his twentieth Classic might very well be his last, and that adds to his determination to become the first angler closely associated with the west – despite living in Alabama now, he honed his craft in California – to win the event since Reese in 2009. He’s basically the same person as he was from 2002 through 2005, but asked to describe what if anything had changed, he first offered up a single word.
“Wiser,” he said.
But he quickly reconsidered that assessment, and recharacterized himself as “hardened.”
“I’ve been through so much,” he explained. “So many weird things have happened to me. I still try just as hard, but I don’t take things as hard. We’ll all be doing really similar things here, it just comes down to making the right decisions. You’ve got to stay calm. That’s where I’ve really been hardened.”
Of course, the development of his family has likewise affected and enhanced his motivations. When he finished as the Classic runner-up in 2002, 2004 and 2005, his son Spencer was yet to be born. His daughter Jordan was still a toddler. Now, they’re both extremely aware of what their father does for a living, and how much depends upon each fish catch. In fact, while Carol says that her daughter-in-law Lesley acts as “the voice of reason,” the Martens children drive a much harder bargain.
“Jordan follows it closely,” Aaron said. “She knows that I’ve been kind of off, and she keeps telling me that I better start catching ‘em.”