By Todd Ceisner
“Is that Aaron Martens?”
“Yep. It’s me.”
“That’s Aaron (bleeping) Martens!”
That’s how a local from the Fountain City, Wis., area greeted the three-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year one morning a couple weeks ago as Martens and I competed in a bragging-rights team tournament that capped off a media event presented by an assortment of bait, tackle and apparel companies on Pool 5A of the Mississippi River.
The man, who announced himself to be a truck driver, worked the tiller motor in his small aluminum boat as Martens and I fished along with crankbaits. He told us how he’d seen Brent Ehrler’s boat on the river the day before and how he and his buddies had uncovered a wad of 4- to 5-pounders not far from where we were and he proceeded to describe the route we could take to get there.
The conversation lasted 10 minutes max before he politely motored up ahead and into a backwater slough, out of sight. Martens and I shared a laugh about the encounter, and then it hit me.
I’m fishing a tournament with Aaron (bleeping) Martens.
I’d been in Aaron’s boat several times before, usually during two-hour sessions at this same media gathering in previous years. He’s always cordial and open and willing to discuss just about anything as it pertains to life, family and, of course, bass fishing. It’s never a dull conversation.
But when the word ‘competition’ enters the equation, his focus tightens and his sole purpose shifts to putting fish in the boat.
The origin of this bragging-rights tournament dates back to 2014, when organizers of the media trip announced there would be a little derby on the final morning before everyone parted ways and headed for home. It offered a fun way to close out the event and there have been little twists each year to keep it interesting. For instance, one year when it was a three-fish limit the team that caught a keeper on a pink soft-plastic jerkbait was allowed to weigh in an extra fish.
Martens has had mixed results in this derby. The first year, he had battery issues and got a late start and zeroed. He rebounded with a victory the following year, but he wasn’t able to attend the gathering last year. In his mind, he was the defending champion.
When the pairings for this year’s derby were announced at dinner the night before, I’ll admit there was some consternation on the part of the pros. Basically, I’m seen as a liability with a rod and reel in my hand (a couple errant casts that result in backlashes will do that, I guess) so when it was announced Martens and I would be partners, I knew I had something to prove.
We were also told that the first team to submit a photo via text message of a legal-sized (14 inches or bigger) bass on a ruler to the de facto tournament director would be credited with a bonus pound.
Prior to parting ways for the night, Martens quietly approached me and asked if, in fact, I knew how to use a baitcasting reel. He had clearly fallen prey to the dock talk. Known to many as the most meticulous pro about his tackle and gear, Martens wanted some reassurance that I wouldn’t blow up his array of Shimano Metaniums the next morning. I put his mind at ease and off he went to his campground.
The next morning, I met Martens at the ramp. The wind had picked up out of the east and it was markedly cooler than the previous two mornings. It felt like early fall.
Minutes prior to blast off, he was still figuring out what baits he wanted to tie on. He was a little disheveled and I was figuring we’d be still be at the dock monkeying with tackle well after the rest of the boats had taken off. But Martens pulled everything together in short order and before long, we were idling away from the dock waiting for our signal to leave. I’ll admit I was excited to see what we could catch.
We were boat 7 (I believe) and every other boat except for one turned right and headed up the river. Hoping to catch a break and get the bonus pound before the other competitors made a cast, Martens idled a few hundred yards downriver from the ramp and dropped his trolling motor, and we began fishing some bank with a mix of wood and rock. He fished a small jig while I pitched a dropshot with a finesse worm, hoping to fool one holding behind a current break.
After 10 minutes without a bite, he decided to move across the river to a point of an island. We worked our way toward the tip of the island, where a branchy tree had tipped into the water. It was a textbook spot to work over with a jig and sure enough, Martens popped our first keeper at 7:56 a.m. local time. He hastily grabbed his ruler and held the largemouth up next to it for a wholly unofficial measurement photo (we’d later find out we didn’t earn the bonus pound).
Martens shows off a jumbo 1-pound perch that ate his swim jig.
Not long after, I hooked our second keeper out of the same tree with the dropshot.
We hung around that spot for another 30 minutes before making a short run farther downriver to an area that had been holding fish the previous two days. We stuck with the same baits until Martens switched to a swimjig, as there were clumps of eelgrass around us.
He had lamented how the pike had robbed him of several jigs during the previous two days. It proved to be a prescient comment as not 10 minutes later, he was cursing another pike that exploded on his swimjig next to the boat just as he was lifting it out of the water.
Martens grimaced and groaned about losing yet another jig he’d spent time tying the night before. I figured we were done for at that point, but he eventually shrugged it off and pulled a couple cranking rods out of his rod locker. We were straddling a ditch and he wanted to see if he could coax a bite with a medium-diving crankbait. His instincts were taking over.
On his first cast, he hooked our third keeper. His gut was right. I’d just witnessed what so many have raved about in the past – when it comes to making decisions on the fly and reading the conditions, he might be the best ever.
His second cast yielded nothing, but he got bit again on this third throw with the plug, prompting him to utter this gem, “Looks like they’re eating a crankbait today.”
After landing the smallmouth that didn’t measure up, he handed me a cranking rod and we proceeded to drift the length of the ditch, casting parallel and across the drop. There were lulls interrupted by short flurries, the best of which saw me finish our limit with a 2 3/4-pound smallmouth.
Close by was another spot Martens kept eyeing. It was a shallow area that had clumps of reeds (rice grass, as Martens called it) and the wind was blowing in on it. It certainly looked like it was worth a closer look. Martens said he hoped the water was deep enough to flip around the reed clumps.
As we eased over to and eventually into the field of reeds, the water was maybe 3 feet deep and the subsurface grass was healthy and bent over from the current constantly pushing through there.
It took Martens all of about five flips before he violently set the hook on a 3-pound largemouth as I worked the outer edges with a Strike King Rage Cut R worm rigged on a Gamakatsu G-Finesse worm hook behind a 3/16-oz. worm weight.
We were probably up to eight or nine pounds at that point, but at least we had a limit with a couple decent fish. Martens was chatty and relaxed, but I got the sense he felt like there were more (possibly bigger) fish around. I didn’t have high expectations for Pool 5A on the Mississippi, but I’d been impressed by the numbers of bass it seemed to hold. The best was yet to come.
“There has to be a 4- or 5-pounder in here somewhere,” he mused.
I kept working the worm around, through and over the submerged grass clumps off the back deck while he alternated between flipping and swimming a jig from the bow. With less than an hour left to fish, I happened to look up and saw some schooling activity about 100 yards off the right of the bow in a small clearing in the reed clumps. I alerted Martens and he told me to keep an eye on the area – he had a couple more clumps he wanted to flip.
The author and Martens show off some of their 15-pound bag.
I reeled in and didn’t make another cast as I kept my eyes locked on where I saw the surface activity. It was hard to tell what was chasing bait to the surface, but I was 90 percent sure they were bass and 100 percent sure we should make a few casts at it.
We eased over in that direction and I lobbed a cast that landed right in the middle of where I saw the fish breaking the surface. Within three cranks of my retrieve, I was hooked up – another 3-pound caliber largemouth.
Martens immediately threw back in there with his swimjig. Bang – he catches one nearly identical to mine. A double with Aaron Martens! I’d have been fine if those were our last two fish of the day, but we were just getting started.
We dropped both fish in the livewell – we were up to seven bass and a magnum perch now. Martens directs me to jump up front and keep casting while he sorts out which fish needed to be culled.
The tail of my worm got bit off on the next cast so I had to scurry to rig up a new one. On my next cast, another 3-pounder. I hand it to Martens, who was still figuring out if the smallmouth we caught earlier was going to make the cut.
Finally, Martens gets back up front and his next cast results in another keeper. It was nuts. We had found the mother lode. Martens was giddy. Unprovoked, he’d burst out with a devilish giggle as if he knew he’d just stumbled upon something good. I was dazed. We wanted to stay there all day.
We were down to 10 minutes to go and Martens leaned into another one out of the same spot – another solid 3-pounder. He quickly swapped out our smallest and deposited his latest catch in the livewell. He’s thinking we’re around 15 pounds now.
“Not bad for a few hours out here,” he quipped.
We caught a couple more fish in the closing minutes, but they were smaller than their predecessors. I let Aaron know it was three minutes until check in.
“We should probably go then,” he says.
The last thing we wanted was to be late and have to deal with the ribbing that would’ve come from the other teams – Martens gets enough of that as it is. He yanked his trolling motor, strapped down his rods and hopped in the driver’s seat. The ride back was brief and smooth, maybe a mile total and it was the first time I headed back to the ramp with a real sense the winning fish were coming with me.
After loading the boat, Martens sat in his Phoenix in the parking lot while other teams brought their bags to the scale.
There were some solid stringers caught and then Cade Laufenberg, a former college angler who’s tearing up the BFL Great Lakes Division this year (three top-10s, including one win), hauled his bag to the scale. Laufenberg, a resident of nearby Winona, Minn., who helped out during the event, teamed up with freelance writer Tyler Brinks to weigh 15.60 pounds. It was going to be close.
Martens and I loaded our bag (perch and all) and headed to the scale. After loading them into the black weigh-in bag, the scale immediately went to 16-plus pounds before settling at 15.04 (the perch, weighed separately, registered 1.04 pounds). Second place! Bummer.
For me, it was a win by any measure. I got an up-close look at one of the best of this era doing his thing and reading the conditions and making decisions on the fly. Sure, it was a meaningless tournament, but a competition nonetheless. Best of all, I didn’t blow up any of his reels.