By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Aaron Martens, one of the greatest competitors in the history of professional bass fishing and a man whose single-minded devotion to the sport was legendary, has died after a 19-month battle with brain cancer. He was 49.
Perhaps the most accomplished of a bevy of standout anglers who came out of the West, Martens was a three-time Bassmaster Angler of the year, a three-time WON Bass U.S. Open champion and a four-time Bassmaster Classic runner-up. He put together the most dominant Elite Series season ever in 2015, when he didn't even need to launch his boat in the AOY Championship event to wrap up the crown – his final margin of victory was an eye-popping 112 points.
Renowned for his uncanny fishing instincts, total dedication to his craft and ability to succeed with patterns that went against traditional wisdom for a particular season or body of water, he won nearly $4 million with B.A.S.S. and FLW/MLF combined over a Hall of Fame-level career that spanned 23 seasons, along with untold thousands more in earnings from Western events.
"He was one of a kind," said John Murray, a fellow BPT pro who competed against Martens across several decades, beginning in their native region when Martens was barely old enough to drive. "He had such a creative mind that had no (constraints) and he knew more about catching bass than anybody I've ever known.
"On the mental side, he was a step ahead of anybody I'd ever met, but the biggest thing about him was that he really never changed. There was a kind of maturity about him in recent years, but as for his attitude toward fishing, he kept the same child-like enthusiasm that he had when he was 18."
Martens suffered a series of seizures while fishing with friends in early April 2020 and tests revealed two brain lesions. He was determined to have glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer that begins in the brain, and he underwent two operations within a three-week period that same month.
He returned to Bass Pro Tour competition three months after that and posted a 48th-place finish in the regular-season finale at Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin. He competed in five BPT events this past season, the last of which resulted in a 33rd-place showing at Lake Champlain in August.
Martens was a pioneer of the finesse tactics that are omnipresent on the top professional tours today. He made his initial splash with a dropshot rig at the 1999 California Western Invitational at Lake Oroville, which culminated in the first of his nine B.A.S.S. victories. In subsequent years, he told of catching big spotted bass from as deep as 120 feet in that mid-November event.
He said he related that detail to whomever wrote the Bassmaster Magazine report of the tournament. When the article was published, however, the maximum depth was listed as 75 feet.
"I guess (the writer) didn't believe me," Martens said with a grin and a shrug.
Martens' single-minded devotion to his craft was renowned throughout the sport.
He launched his career on B.A.S.S.' national tour that same year. He compiled six Elite Series wins from 2007-17, including one on each side of the country (Lake Havasu in Arizona and the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland) during his hallmark 2015 campaign. In a stark example of his outside-the-box tendencies, one of his primary patterns in the derby at Havasu centered around fish feasting on blackbirds in dense stands of tules.
"I've had bass spit up adult blackbirds in the livewell before," he told BassFan in the aftermath of the victory. "I've seen fish go after the birds and I've heard it lots of times. It's something that's normal at this time of year.
"There's places where the tules are matted up and folded over and it's real thick. The birds are nesting in there and the bass eat them."
He was a 20-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier and posted three 2nd-place finishes in the event in a four-year stretch from 2002 through '05. He was also 2nd in 2011.
Kevin VanDam, widely regarded as the sport's No. 1 all-time competitor, won two of the Classics in which Martens was the runner-up.
"The way I really got to know him was through the close finishes we had together and things like that and he was always so real, so unfiltered and so genuine that it always amazed me," VanDam said. "We talked a lot after tournaments were over and I was always fascinated by his thought process and what he'd figured out. He was just incredibly intuitive.
"When I first found out about his diagnosis, it hit me hard from day 1. This was a guy who was always running, always watched what he was eating and was just really healthy. It just goes to show you that you can't take anything about life for granted.
"His (Christian) faith through this whole process has been unwavering," VanDam continued. "He talked about it all the time and it had a lot to do with the great positive attitude he had through all his treatments. He was just so strong in that and it put the people who were close to him much more at ease."
Martens captured the first of his three U.S. Open victories in 2004.
A native of Southern California, Martens was a fishing fanatic from his early childhood. His competitive career began with team tournaments in his home region with his mother, Carol, as his partner and he established himself as one of the top anglers in the West while still a teenager. He relocated to Leeds, Ala. in the mid-2000s following the inception of the Elite Series.
Gary Dobyns, a dominant figure on Western circuits at the time Martens arrived on the scene, remarked back in the '90s that he'd never seen Martens without a shirt on, but if he ever did, he'd expect to see gills running down his younger rival's sides. There was no other way to account for Martens' ability to think like a fish – he had to actually be one in some form.
"I might get torn up for saying this, but I truly believe that if you took away all the info-sharing and all the (fish-finding) electronics and it was just man vs. fish, he was the best there's ever been," Dobyns said. "He was an unbelievable fisherman and he just loved it – he could fish seven days a week, 365 days a year and never get tired of it. He was just amazing and I can't believe this has happened."
Martens won his first Bassmaster AOY title in 2005 and his second in 2013. In addition to his B.A.S.S. tournament triumphs, he posted an FLW Tour victory at Wheeler Lake in Alabama in 2003. His U.S. Open wins at Nevada's Lake Mead occurred in 2004, '05 and '11.
He was one of nearly 70 Elite Series competitors who left B.A.S.S. in the fall of 2018 to form the BPT. He won an event at Table Rock Lake in the inaugural season and finished 14th on the points list.
"He was one of the brightest lights the sport of bass fishing has ever had and this is just such a tragedy," said newly inducted Bass Fishing Hall of Famer Jay Yelas, also a product of the West. "His enthusiasm for bass fishing was contagious – anytime you were around him, you wanted to go fishing right away. He was always so excited to catch the next fish and he was the most naturally gifted fisherman I've ever met in my life.
"In addition, he was a great dad and husband and a friend to everybody he met. Losing a superstar that young is unprecedented in our sport. His name and legacy will live on for a long, long time. He definitely made a huge impact on the sport and we're all going to miss him terribly."
Martens is survived by wife Lesley, daughter Jordan and son Spencer, along with his mother. No services will be held immediately; a "Celebration of Life" ceremony will take place sometime in the spring.