Last week I checked an item off the old bucket list – I got to fish with Aaron Martens.
It’s a privilege that it has taken me 12 years to accomplish, ever since I was his media observer on Day 1 of the 2004 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Wylie. In the ensuing years, I’ve interviewed him dozens of times, but I’ve never been back in his boat.
This time, we were at Live Oak Plantation in Adel (be sure to pronounce it AY-Del), Georgia, a bass angling amusement park with nine lakes, each with its own personality. I fished one that was shallow with standing cypress trees, another one that was loaded with grass mats, and a third that was clearer and deeper, with less cover. All of them had lots of fish.
More importantly, I got the full A-Mart experience, fishing from the front deck in my socks out of the purple Enigma boat. OK, the reason I was in my socks was because he yelled at me for dragging my sand-covered shoes into the boat, so I was forced to take them off, but you get the picture.
The hours that we spent together in the boat were as impressive as I hoped they would be. I was going to write “magical,” but my wife already claims that I have an unhealthy man-crush on the reigning AOY, so I’m going to temper my language a little bit. We fished shoulder to shoulder and while I’m not ashamed to say that he caught more and bigger fish than I did, at least I didn’t embarrass myself. He let me have one 6 ½ pounder that waked 10 yards through foot-deep water to smoke my frog. Then he loaned me his swimbait rod – which is the approximate fishing equivalent of borrowing Jimmie Johnson’s car, Babe Ruth’s bat or Clapton’s guitar -- and I caught my first “big swimbait” fish, a solid 5-pounder.
I could have left then and been on cloud nine, but the highlights of my three day trip to Georgia were not on the water. Rather, they took place during an ongoing roundtable of sorts with various members of the media, as well as pro anglers Fred Roumbanis, Brent Chapman, Clent Davis, Adrian Avena and Cody Meyer – with Aaron as the centerpiece of every conversation. It’s not that he’s louder than anyone else, or more forceful, or a one-upper. It’s just that when Aaron speaks, you can’t help but wait to hear what he’s going to say next.
A lot of it was about fishing – everything about how he builds a shakey head to which hooks he likes for particular soft plastics – but the conversation was far more varied than that. He offered opinions in response to questions both asked and unasked about topics as far-ranging as bears, protein shakes, deodorant and ping pong.
At one point I asked him who would win in a fight, a hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck. He answered with a question of his own: “What kind of ducks?”
And of course there was much discussion about cats.
Aaron’s love of cats has been greatly documented by the fishing media, often with a wink and a nod, and I have probably been more guilty of it than most. It’s entertaining and it’s occasionally endearing, but it could be perceived as veering toward ridicule at times. I hope that it’s never taken that way. For anyone who has ever spent any time around him, what is most impressive about Aaron Martens is his almost childlike sense of innocence. I believe Mark Zona was the first to publically point out just how nice Aaron is, but it goes beyond that. It’s that he seems absolutely incorruptible. When rookies come to the Elite Series, they often have a certain individuality that gets tamped down over time. That’s not to imply that they succumb to any sort of peer pressure, but rather that if you’re traveling around with the same hundred or so competitors all of the time, you are going to take cues from them. You’ll use the same phrases and have the same points of reference. Despite having been in range of that largely homogenous line of thinking for over a decade, Aaron has never lost the characteristics – speech patterns, thought processes and idiosyncrasies – that make him uniquely Aaron.
Ours is a sport where imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery – until the imitator starts kicking your butt on the water. Kevin VanDam wrote this week on Bassmaster.com that early in his career he “loved Clunn’s in-depth approach to pattern fishing, and I purposely modeled my style to anything I could learn from him.” I remember an episode of “The Bassmasters” a few decades back that likewise showed how closely VanDam’s flipping style mirrored that of Denny Brauer. Of course, since that time, thousands of aspiring pros have modeled their own fishing styles after KVD.
Despite this well-worn and highly logical tradition of copying the best in the game, you rarely hear young anglers saying they’re modeling their efforts on Aaron’s game. Yes, members of the younger generation of western anglers like Justin Lucas have stated that they idolized him growing up, but if they’ve overtly mentioned his influence on their fishing styles, I’ve missed that. Assuming I’m correct, I believe that the reason we haven’t seen someone copy his style is because they inherently recognize that it’s one of a kind. You can decide to be a flipper, or to fish fast, or to excel with a spinning rod, but Aaron’s magic lies in his mindset more than anything else.
There were great anglers before Aaron ever picked up a rod and there will be great anglers long after he retires from competitive fishing to start a cat rescue organization (I truly apologize for that one…couldn’t resist), but his combination of natural skill, passion for innovation and pure personality is unlikely ever to be matched.