OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Martens was courageous on and off the water

Every pro angler has haters except for one. Everybody loved Aaron Martens, who died Nov. 4 from brain cancer.

Martens, probably the penultimate finesse angler, was one of only five anglers to win three or more Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles. He qualified for the prestigious Bassmaster Classic 20 times and finished second four times. One of those was at Pittsburgh, where he lost to Kevin VanDam by a mere 6 ounces. I will never forget the look of utter shock and disbelief on his face. It seemed to take him an eternity to process the bad news, and he stood immobile, hands over his mouth, as the confetti rained down for VanDam. His hands remained over his mouth as Bassmaster emcee Keith Allen gently led him from the stage.

My heart broke for him, and I was a fan ever since.

Later, at the Elite 150 tournament at Lake Dardanelle, Martens gave me a memorable interview next to the state park visitor center. I stood on the walkway while Martens fished the pilings on the fishing pier, no more than 8 feet away. Martens, as usual, rattled off everything he was doing and how he was doing it in his distinctive, stream-of-consciousness delivery.

Martens's technique to fish that dock was hyper-finesse. He let his bait soak on the bottom beside a piling. Every minute or so, he tapped his rod handle ever so slightly, just hard enough to make his bait move. As I recall, he caught three bass in that spot in that fashion.

Most anglers jealously guard their secrets. Martens had no secrets. He'd answer any question you asked him without the slightest amount of guile.

At another Bassmaster event the following year at Lake Dardanelle, there was a long delay before the weigh-in because a Toyota representative forgot to fuel the Tundras that Toyota had provided for the event. The lead truck ran out of gas and shut down the weigh-in.

When told of this, Martens fell on his back on his boat deck laughing.

"That's why I have a Ford!" he said. "Actually, I have three Fords. No, wait, I have ..." Martens diligently started counting how many Fords he owned, as if it were a life-and-death matter.

Obviously, Martens was a phenomenal angler, but he was also a courageous angler. At the Elite Series tournament on the Arkansas River at Little Rock in 2011, Martens did what nobody believed was possible. He made the final cut fishing the Little Rock Pool, which is probably the most sterile stretch of bass water on the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System.

All of the other finalists fished Pine Bluff Harbor, which required precise timing to get through two sets locks between Little Rock and Pine Bluff Harbor. The fishing media all said that Denny Brauer and the other finalists gambled to run to Pine Bluff. That's not true. They took the surest bet.

Martens was the one that gambled. He fished water so poor that he had it all to himself. He gambled that Brauer and the others would either get locked out and be disqualified, or that they would lose enough weight in penalties by checking in late to prevent them from winning.

The gambit nearly worked. Brauer, the winner, checked in six minutes late and was penalized 1 pound per minute. If not for an agreement among the other anglers to let the leaders idle out of the lock first, Brauer might have lost an additional 7-8 minutes. Martens finished second. To do that in the Little Rock Pool at the highest level of the sport is astonishing.

In my seven years as guest host of Ray Tucker's Arkansas Outdoors radio program, we've had a few interviews that were truly world class. One was with Martens, who talked for an hour about the importance of diet, exercise and mental conditioning to endure the grind of professional tournament fishing.

While fishing in 2020, Martens experienced a massive seizure. He woke in the hospital to news that he had brain tumors. It was glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer. He fought valiantly for 19 months.

Martens had a mind like no other in the sport. Only Rick Clunn is on the same mental plane. Professional fishing will miss his gentle spirit, if not his fierce competitiveness. They had to be at their best to beat him. I am proud to have known him.