By Todd Ceisner
I think I might’ve jinxed Aaron Martens last week. No, seriously.
Because there’s really no other plausible explanation for him finishing 51st (next to last) in the Bassmaster Classic, including a unMartens-like zero on day 2. I’m here to take the blame. In 19 previous Classics, his worst finish was 43rd in 2001. He was 9th last year at Lake Hartwell, one of nine top-10 finishes he’s amassed at the Classic.
What have I done?
It started in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, March 14, the last day of practice on the Tennessee River for the 52 Classic qualifiers. I was assigned to be Martens’ marshal for the day and we arranged to meet at 6:30 a.m. in the boat yard, which for this Classic was the top level of a parking garage attached to the Hotel Knoxville. I arrived around 6 and staked out Martens’ truck and boat, located in the dark southwest corner of the yard.
Prior to my arrival, someone had placed a couple bags of ice along with two Ziploc bags packed with lunch items on his boat cover.
This wasn’t the first time I’d spent time in the boat with Aaron. I’ve attended several media junkets that he’s participated in and he’s always been gracious. We even came close to winning a bragging rights team tournament together on the upper Mississippi a couple years ago.
As I watched other competitors depart the boat yard and head to the launch ramp, located roughly a mile away, Martens finally ambled across the parking lot toward his boat at 6:45. He was in no hurry. There was a slight chill in the air, but the forecast called for it to be the warmest day of the week with overcast skies.
After putting on additional layers of cold-weather gear, his next task was to uncover the boat.
“Who put this stuff on here,” he asks about the ice and lunch sacks. They were there when I got out here, I tell him.
He rolls up the cover and stows it in the backseat of his Ford dually pickup. He hops in the boat and gives the lunch options a closer inspection. Those who know or follow Martens know he is a health and fitness nut. He holds what appears to be a foil-wrapped sandwich to his nose, trying to sniff out its contents. He guesses turkey, then stuffs it back in the bag.
There also is a chocolate chip cookie in a Ziploc bag that he declares to be a fake, meaning he’s unlikely to eat it. He discards a bag of potato chips. He packed two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for himself in lieu of a smoothie because the blender he uses in his hotel room is too loud and he didn’t want to disturb others who were sleeping.
I deposit a Pelican camera box in the floor of his boat and hop in the passenger seat of his truck to await our departure. His radio is tuned to the Fox News channel. He climbs in the driver’s side moments later. Wesley Strader is the only other boat left on the parking deck. Martens approaches the exit and sees a car partially blocking his way.
“Look at this dingledorf,” Martens says, before muttering that the car’s positioning might cause him to scrape the fender of his trailer on the concrete apron of the garage.
He maneuvers around the car without incident and turns left on Honor Our Troops Drive. He should’ve turned right. He claims to know the way to the ramp, but I sense his uncertainty, so I pull up Google Maps on my phone and help him navigate through a residential area before descending a hillside road that deposits us onto Riverside Drive, which leads to Governor Ned McWherter/Riverside Landing Park where the Classic field will launch and load their boats. It’s 7:04 a.m. now. On the way, he ate a breakfast burrito made by his wife Lesley.
Trucks and trailers of most of the other competitors are already parked. Aaron meanders his way into the launch line. He sees Skeet Reese’s rig parked by a fence. It's hard to miss.
“I bet Skeet was here first,” he said. “That boy can’t sleep past 3 a.m. I bet he was out here at 4:30.”
With two boats launching at a time, it doesn’t take long before I back Martens’ boat down the ramp and his Phoenix slides off the trailer, but not before he’s approached by a man with a Spanish accent who’s carrying a plastic bag. He mentions to Martens that he’s there on behalf of Patrick Sebile, a noted bait designer. After chatting with Martens for a few moments, he deposits a sack of packaged lures onto the deck of Martens’ boat. Martens tosses them in one of his storage compartments.
Martens sampled many different shoreline scenarios on the final day of practice, from laydowns to flat, nothing banks.
I park the truck and meet Martens at the dock a few minutes later, but as we’re about to pull away and head to Volunteer Landing for the rehearsal blast off ceremonies, he discovers he forgot a can of chewing tobacco in his truck. He eases the boat up against the dock, going against the current, which is pulling at 3-plus miles an hour under the James White Parkway Bridge. I hustle back to his truck and grab what he needed and jog back across the packed gravel lot toward the dock.
I hop back in the boat and he eases the boat out into the river headed toward Volunteer Landing. The spots along the dock are already occupied, so Martens, who will be the 52nd (and last) boat to be sent off, neatly eases his way in between the dock and shore, before planting his Minn Kota Talons into the riverbed.
It's about this time that daylight is starting to illuminate everything along the Tennessee River. It’s a neat vantage point from the water in the heart of Knoxville. Calhoun’s on the River, a Knoxville dining fixture, looms above. Neyland Stadium is visible down the way. So, too, are the tiny pebbles of gravel I evidently tracked from the parking lot and into the boat. Martens notices them and begins plucking as many as he can from the carpet fibers and tossing them overboard. He’s concerned they may get into one or more of his reels and cause a problem.
I inspect the bottom of my shoes, but there’s no clear evidence of dirt or muck. A closer look reveals the pebbles may have gotten into the tiny grooves of my shoes before I got into the boat of the guy who’s famous for not wearing shoes during tournaments. On this day, though, he’s donning a pair of waterproof Ugg boots.
It’s 7:25 now. The national anthem is played and Bassmaster emcee Dave Mercer starts to introduce the field, beginning with 2018 Angler of the Year Justin Lucas and defending Classic champion Jordan Lee. All the while, Pebblegate is playing out in Martens’ boat. Finally, as the boats start dissipating from around the dock, Martens pushes a button and his Talons retract and he idles out toward the middle of the river.
Two boats after four-time Classic winner Kevin VanDam is announced, Mercer introduces Martens with a “last but certainly not least” send off and Martens can finally begin his final practice day prior to his 20th and perhaps final Classic. And we're off.
He presses the T-H Marine Hot Foot pedal toward the floor and his 21 PHX glides down the river as he hops over wakes of the boats ahead of him. I get the sense he’s not in a race to a spot being the last one to blast off. By 8:10, he’s pulled into his first spot near a marina. The first rod he reaches for is a 6-foot, 8-inch Enigma Fishing crankbait rod. He has nine rods out to start the day. Seven of them have a version of a red/orange craw crankbait tied on, one has a red craw lipless crankbait and the other has a vibrating jig tied on.
“This is my favorite kind of deal – shallow cranking,” he says as he starts probing a seawall.
As he moves farther into the area, Dean Rojas is fishing his way down the other bank, heading back out toward the river. The water is 51 degrees in this area, the warmest he’s seen this early in the morning so far.
“This is a pretty little cove,” Martens says. “They should spawn like crazy in here.”
After making a few more casts, he eases down a stretch of rip rap beneath an elevated boardwalk that serves as a walkway and vantage point for the condominium dwellers on shore.
“There’s a lot of fish on the main river,” he says. “I keep coming back in these creeks, but they’re going to get hammered.”
He fishes his way to the back of the pocket before turning around and following the same path as Rojas. The opposite bank is a slow, tapering clay bank with numerous laydowns in the water. A Bassmaster media boat has idled in behind us and the photographer shoots a few pictures of Martens before asking him to make another cast in his direction.
“Dude, I have to go fishing,” Martens says as he fires off the cast at the requested angle.
By 8:35, he’s done with this area and pulls into the next pocket down river. Two other boats are in there.
“Lotsa boats, lotsa boats,” he mutters as he leaps up and deploys his trolling motor. “These mud points with timber on them could be good.”
Indeed, there are a lot of hard targets to look at and explore along the riverbank, and in the shallow pockets and creeks. The current flow through this section of the river has been pretty intense in recent weeks and fish may be using the laydowns or anything that diverts current to hide behind.
Martens next stops on a steeper mud bank and says he has a waypoint for this spot, possibly marking a brush pile he’d found earlier. By 8:55, he’s ready to move again and straps his rods down.
“I would rather waste time today than in the tournament,” he says before revealing current-related spots on the main river grabbed his attention over the first three days of practice.
He idles past Casey Ashley and under a bridge before stopping to make a few casts at the rip rap bank along the causeway. It’s 9:03 now and he’s cranking another rocky stretch of bank. He says he smells coffee. Same here, but there’s no house or convenience store within sight. A couple minutes later, he explains the mindset it might take to be successful at Fort Loudoun-Tellico.
“You have to be really open-minded and not go by spots, but by what looks good,” he said. “A spot might not look that good, but you could go in there and find a couple little spots that are good.”
He then mentions having a 30-fish day the weekend prior during the first phase of practice. He estimates he caught 15 fish and his best five weighed 16 pounds on Sunday.
“Sunday was the best day for size,” he said. “The second day was tougher. The first day was really good for everyone because it was fresh and the fish hadn’t been hit that hard.”
By 9:14, he’s on the move again. He stops eight minutes later on a main-river dock with some rip rap behind it and numerous support posts. The water out here is 50.7 degrees, according to his Humminbird Solix 15 unit. He detects his first bite at 9:30 and was surprised the fish didn’t get hooked. He’s cut the hook points off of all his treble-hook baits that he has tied on.
He noted that he downsized his treble hooks earlier in practice because the fish he’s caught have had the baits in their throats. He said he revealed this to Kevin VanDam in the boat yard (their boats were parked next to each other) and VanDam told him, “You must have the wrong color then.”
He points out that the natural slab rock that is very prevalent seems to be holding more fish than stretches of rip rap. He’s also surprised the morning hasn’t yielded more bites yet, but he hasn’t fished this stretch of the river since his scouting trip back in December.
“We’re not down by the good stretches yet,” he said.
Moments later, Martens spooks what we think was a beaver that was near the water’s edge and it dives in the water, startling both of us. It’s 10 a.m. and he moves across the river in behind a couple islands and begins throwing the vibrating jig. The wind is non-existent and he believes that’s why it’s been a tough morning. A little breeze can make the crankbait bite turn on quick, he says.
“Pretty slow this morning, bro,” he declares at 10:06, noting that the one definitive bite he had was from a fish that hit his bait in a way that spun it around. “He hit it funny.”
At 10:13, he hooks another fish on a bait with the hooks cut off and shakes it off. Not surprisingly, he thinks reaction baits will outperform jigs at this Classic. At 10:20, he comes up to a stretch littered with blowdowns. They look incredibly fishy and Martens is sure they’re holding a fish or two or more, but it’s not something he cares to commit to.
“I might fish the ends of them in the tournament with a tube or a jig, but they’re just too time consuming,” he said. “If we get any rain or wind, that seems to get them off the cover.”
I broach the topic of this possibly being his final Classic in the wake of his decision to drop out of the Elite Series to join Major League Fishing’s new Bass Pro Tour.
“It feels like it,” he says. “My chances are running out.”
He quickly shifts the conversation back to the tournament and what he thinks he’ll need to do to be successful. He mentions being open-minded again.
“You can’t go too fast or slow down too much here,” he said. “You have to do it just right.”
He comes up to a point with a partially submerged blowdown and says that if this were a tournament day, he’d devote seven or eight minutes to fishing it whereas others might blow through it.
“It’s why I do well at a place like Table Rock,” he said. “I pick them apart.”
Just then, he gets a bite off the fallen tree.
By 10:35, he’s cranking main-river blowdowns.
“I’ve got no bites doing this, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be fish there in the tournament,” he says. “It’s just so perfect.”
He speeds up the trolling motor and heads to a flat, gravelly point up ahead. He then opines that the wake created by his fishing line cutting through the water could be spooking nearby bass.
This 2-pounder was the lone fish Martens brought in the boat during the final day of practice for the Classic.
It’s PB&J time at 10:45 as he idles around in the same area near the islands. By 11:10, he’s still in the same area, but has moved into a new cove. He says he was there on Sunday and describes it as having a hard bottom with some brush and rocky shoreline with some blowdowns. It's out of the main current flow, so it's likely bass have been coming and going.
“Not every cove is like this, though,” he added.
Ten minutes later, he cuts off one of the crankbaits and ties on a different one. He also pulls out another rod rigged up with a 1/4-ounce spinnerbait on it. He stays in the same area until 11:35, then we start moving to a new part of the river. At 11:39, he makes a hard left turn toward a tall bluff rock bank.
“I want to make sure I’m not missing anything,” he says.
He fishes the spot for five minutes without a bite. A few minutes later, I inquire if he thinks it’s been a productive day so far.
“Yes, for eliminating water,” he says.
He picks up the spinnerbait rod at 11:50 and fires it toward a half-submerged laydown. A couple minutes later, he says a Texas-rigged 6-inch Fat Roboworm with a 1/4-ounce weight would work in this situation.
“It’s what we used in California when they were just moving up (to spawn),” he said.
Martens sheds his Simms Pro Dry rain suit at noon and also removes the insulated boots. He’s down to his famous toed socks and a Simms zip-up hooded jacket. Moments later, he sees a heron pluck what appeared to be a baitfish out of the water.
“He just caught a one-inch shad,” Martens said. The bird was at least 25 yards away.
The water temp in this area is 51.6 degrees and Martens thinks he should be getting more bites.
“This means I’ve eliminated a lot of water today,” he chimes in.
Just then, he gets a bite on a jig out of a blowdown. He called it a “good bite” and said the jig was the only bait he could get in there. At 12:08, we depart the area and make a 15-minute run. He eases past James Elam on his way back into another pocket. Martens asks Elam where everyone is. Elam shrugs in response. Martens suggests they should go running together later on.
At 12:45, he ties on a more neutral-colored spinnerbait, replacing a chartreuse model. Five minutes later, he tells himself he needs to tie up some new jigs to match the conditions. At 1:05, he heads back toward the main river, but stops in a small pocket and pitches a jig to a laydown.
“I’m trying to go as fast as I can, but not skip around too much,” he said.
Five minutes later, we’re moving again. He looks back toward his Mercury outboard and says he wants to keep the back deck wet because if it dries out, that means he’s been fishing one spot for too long. At 1:22, he pulls into a pocket off the main river. He notes the abundance of shad in this area and we see four herons on shore waiting to pounce on a quick meal.
About 25 minutes later, he moves to a main-river shoal. He wants to find something current-related on the main river near a staging area, where fish will migrate to while en route to their spawning grounds. At 1:59, he lands a 2-pounder on a Duo Realis Vibration lipless crank near a clay bank in three feet of water. Five minutes later, he hooks another one, but is able to shake it off.
“That makes me feel good to have that happen again,” he says. “I feel pretty good, but the way the bite is guys aren’t going to crush it. I think I’ll be alright, but I have to keep moving.”
We depart that pocket after he got three bites in a matter of 10 minutes. He moves into the next one and doesn’t get a bite, but we get a front-row seat to watch a heron overpower a small catfish before hauling it away to eat later.
It’s 2:43 now and he’s got an hour left before checking in. He stops in another main-river pocket and continues to throw the lipless crank. He mentions that he thinks a swimbait might work in this area with the clearer water. He departs at 2:52 and moves to what he calls his best area. Mark Daniels Jr. and a local are nearby. Martens gets a bite on his first cast with the lipless along a clay bank in between docks. I'm starting to sense a theme.
It’s 3:15 and time is ticking down before Martens needs to start heading back to the launch ramp. He moves into a cove with several large docks. A homeowner wanders out to chat briefly and asks when the tournament begins.
Martens makes a couple more casts before strapping his rods down and pointing the Phoenix toward Knoxville. He doesn’t know how long the run will take. We arrive with five minutes to spare, so he speeds up river a bit to see if there’s anything worth fishing come tournament time. The water is turbid and there’s a lot of debris.
We ease back toward the ramp area. I grab the keys to his truck and back it down the ramp after a brief wait while others load their boats. After parking his rig, I hop out and interview a few other anglers about their final practice day. In the meantime, Martens stows his rods. I meet up with him back at his truck in the parking lot. I hop in the passenger seat for the ride back to the hotel. He opens the driver’s side door. There are gravel pebbles all over the floor mat.