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Bass Fishing Loses 'One of a Kind;' Cancer Takes Aaron Martens, 49

A master of finesse fishing, Martens made an impact on the sport that will never be forgotten.

Bass Fishing Loses 'One of a Kind;' Cancer Takes Aaron Martens, 49

Aaron Martens, Lake Champlain, N.Y., 2017. (Photo by B.A.S.S. / Seigo Saito)

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Immensely popular bass fishing pro Aaron Martens, a three-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, and four-time Bassmaster Classic runner-up, has died after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 49.

A Leeds, Ala., resident, Martens was a powerhouse fisherman on the Bassmaster Elite Series for many years, winning the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title three times in 2004, 2013, and 2015. His 2015 AOY title win was arguably the pinnacle of one of the greatest careers and modern seasons the sport has ever seen.

During that season, Martens outdistanced the rest of the field by an astounding 112 points, such a large lead that he didn't even need to launch his boat in the end-of-the-season derby on Wisconsin's Sturgeon Bay. But, of course, he did launch his boat (and finished 28th), because that's the kind of angler he was—a competitor to the very end.

Martens, a sport favorite, was affectionately known as "A-Mart" by fellow competitors and fans.

"He was one of a kind," BPT pro John Murray told editor John Johnson in an article posted Thursday night. "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 childlike enthusiasm that he had when he was 18."

Cancer Claims Aaron Martens
Aaron Martens was affectionately known as "A-Mart." (Photo by B.A.S.S.)

Finesse-Fishing Pioneer

After beginning his B.A.S.S. career in the 1997 California Western Invitational, Martens went on to become one of fishing's best overall anglers and most consistent pros, most notably as a pioneer in finesse-fishing techniques that now are staples in modern bass fishing.

Martens qualified for his first Bassmaster Classic in 1999, and he was so good and so consistent in his career that he competed in the sport's marquee event 19 more times, finishing runner-up four times. He also qualified for four FLW Tour Forrest Wood Cup Championships.

While the California native finished 24th in his first Classic, and in the Top 10 nine times, it was the years that he came agonizingly close to winning that set him apart in Classic lore.

In those four runner-up finishes, which endeared Martens to millions of fans because of his attitude following the gut-wrenching losses, "A-Mart" would prove to be one of the sport's best of the 21st Century.

In fact, he fell only to some of the sport's top names, including recently inducted Bass Fishing Hall of Fame member Jay Yelas, in the 2002 Classic at Alabama's Lay Lake. Two years later, Martens finished the Classic trailing only likely Hall-of-Famer Takahiro Omori by just four ounces at North Carolina's Lake Wylie. The following year (2005), it was six ounces behind Classic winner Kevin VanDam at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers. In 2011, Martens was second again to KVD, this time on the Louisiana Delta.

While Martens couldn't wrestle the Classic trophy away from VanDam, Yelas and Omori, he won plenty of other times during the course of his brilliant career, including nine times in B.A.S.S. events, and six blue trophies in Bassmaster Elite Series competition. To go along with those B.A.S.S. wins, Martens also added a FLW Tour triumph in 2003; a Bass Pro Tour Stage 6 victory in 2019; and WON U.S. Open titles on Nevada's Lake Mead in 2004, 2005, and 2011.

While Martens numerous victories were certainly impressive, so too were his non-winning performances, as he established himself as one of the sport's all-time best anglers.

In fact, over the course of a career that spanned just more than two decades, "A-Mart" almost always was in the hunt at the end of a tournament, or so it seemed. In B.A.S.S. competition alone, he added to his certain Hall-of-Fame resume with 13 runner-up finishes, 10 third-place finishes, 71 Top 10 finishes, 148 Top 30 finishes, and finishing in the money a total of 148 times out of 241 career B.A.S.S. starts.

Martens, who finished his career on the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour after making the circuit jump from B.A.S.S. in late 2018, was no stranger to success on the MLF side of the bass-fishing world.

After participating in the inaugural Major League Fishing cup event back in November 2011 on Texas' Lake Amistad, Martens continued to be a stalwart in the made-for-TV MLF Cup level events and in the eventual BPT derbies, including his win on Missouri's Table Rock Lake in 2019.

Cancer Claims Aaron Martens
Kevin VanDam hugs runner-up Aaron Martens after winning his fourth Bassmaster Classic in 2011. (Photo by Jason Cohn/B.A.S.S.)

Life-Changing Diagnosis

In the end, only Martens' illness could interrupt his brilliant career, an illness that first manifested itself in the spring of 2020, as he began to experience seizures while out on the water. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Martens soon found himself isolated in the hospital, away from family, friends and colleagues during one of the most trying times anyone can experience.

After testing, an MRI revealed Martens had two cancerous lesions on his brain stem, known as glioblastoma, a particularly fast-growing and deadly form of brain cancer. He quickly had two surgeries to remove the tumors in April 2020, followed by numerous treatments and rounds of chemotherapy in the months that followed.

During those months of battling the brain cancer—doctors had initially given Martens only a 1-percent chance of surviving for a year—Martens drew upon his faith, family, friends and industry colleagues for strength and support.

He also continued to push on and persevere in his profession, continuing to compete in BPT events throughout 2020 and 2021. In fact, Martens finished 30th at his final career tournament event, the BPT Stage Six event from Aug. 5-10, 2021, on Lake Champlain.

For those who knew Martens, or who caught on to his likable personality and intense love for bass fishing through events and television shows, that's not surprising. Because "A-Mart" was as good as most anyone else in the sport had ever been and he was especially entertaining to watch when his immense knowledge and years of experience combined to tell him where to fish and what to do during the course of a tournament.

Cancer Claims Aaron Martens
Aaron Martens, shown in the 2004 Bassmaster Class, was a Classic runner-up four times. (Photo by B.A.S.S./ESPN OUTDOORS)

Martens' Impact Felt By Many

That includes one of my favorite personal memories of Martens, a day when he shined like few other anglers ever have during an MLF Cup competition up in the Northwoods of Minnesota. By day's end, Martens had figured out the pattern, figured out the right lure, and figured out how to tempt the marauding wolf packs of smallmouth bass to the tune of 37 bass weighing an astounding 88 pounds, then an MLF single-day record.

In short, as Martens caught so many bronzeback bass in the Minnesota woods, it was a day for the ages. But merely one of many such days over the course of his career, one that saw him eventually earn $3.78 million in winnings, including more than $3 million on the B.A.S.S. tournament trail alone.

But it wasn't the money, it wasn't the gaudy numbers, it wasn't the amazing competitive prowess that drew so many to become a fan of Aaron Martens. For the most part, it was something much more intangible, something much more deeper and meaningful, something much more hard to describe about the life of the angler from Leeds, Ala.

But don't take my word for that, take the word of one of the sport's all-time greats, International Game Fish Association and Bass Fishing Hall of Fame member Jimmy Houston.


"I never got to fish in the boat with Aaron, and I regret that," said Houston, the longtime tournament angler and television star out of Cookson, Okla. "That's just kind of the way that the modern game has evolved over the years and we don't get to get in the boat with other anglers like we once did."

While Houston lamented the way that the competitive game has changed since he first got to fish with and against the likes of other legendary bass pros like Roland Martin, Ricky Green, Bill Dance, Larry Nixon, and many more, he knows that different eras, different circuits, different competition formats, and even different sponsors in the industry kept the frequent Outdoor Sportsman Group show host from ever getting to share a boat with "A-Mart."

But that doesn't keep Houston, often described as "America's Favorite Fisherman," and the ever-laughing host of Jimmy Houston Outdoors, from forming an opinion about Martens and his immense angling talent, his on-the-water integrity, and his deep personal character.

"I got to be around him in tournaments several times, and sometimes at those tournaments, we would end up finding and fishing the same water," said Houston. "Aaron was always so polite to me and we talked fishing and advice for how to become better anglers. He was just the kind of tournament fisherman that you’d always like to be around."

In addition to Martens' calm, cool and collected demeanor on the water, "A-Mart" was also one of the sport's most brilliant tacticians and an angler who brought a deeply cerebral approach to the bass-fishing game after growing up on the West Coast.

Cancer Claims Aaron Martens
Aaron Martens, a three-time Angler of the Year, was a fan favorite at the Bassmaster Classic. (Photo by Seigo Saito/B.A.S.S.)

Master of the Drop-Shot

That West Coast angling influence in Martens' life, which was often honed by days in the boat and on the water with his mom Carol, became razor-sharp as he learned to fish on the heavily pressured waters of California, many of which were deep, clear and demanded specialized techniques to succeed.

As a part of the West Coast group of bass anglers who over the years have taken their unique fish-catching techniques to the east—anglers like Gary Klein, Skeet Reece, Dean Rojas, Byron Velvick, and others come to mind—Martens proved that an angler from west of the Rocky Mountains could succeed in a sport that is most often played east of the Continental Divide.

He also proved that while power-fishing techniques often prevail in the Deep South and back east where so many bass tournaments are contested, West Coast techniques like drop-shotting can also prevail as often as not.

"Aaron definitely helped to change the game with the drop shot," said Houston, noting that others might have become as good or better at the technique than Martens was, but also adding, "Aaron taught them everything they know!"

After joining nearly 80 anglers to form the Bass Pro Tour in the fall of 2018, Martens left the Bassmaster Elite Series and proved he could adapt to the bass-fishing game conducted under Major League Fishing-style rules.

Gracious, Classy and Humble

That's not surprising since Martens competed in MLF Cup-level events since the outset, narrowly missing out on the Championship Round at the first MLF event mentioned above, an event that took place a decade ago on West Texas' Lake Amistad.

While that made-for-TV event aired in 2012, it was actually conducted during the prime fall fishing conditions of November 2011. Martens' brand of fishing was tailor-made for the deep, clear waters of Amistad, as well as the throw-caution-to-the-wind approach to fishing that demanded as many bass an angler could catch in an outing, not just the five biggest of the day.

While I had met and covered Martens during his career with B.A.S.S., I was tasked with interviewing him at that first MLF cup event—right after he had received some devastating competitive news in a derby that saw Kevin VanDam, Kelly Jordon, Mike McClelland and eventual winner Brent Ehrler advance to the final day of competition near Del Rio, Texas.

What was so difficult about that particular interview is that Martens came to the boat ramp believing he had actually qualified for the Championship Day on Amistad, only to find out that communication difficulties in the challenging and rural terrain of southwestern Texas had prevented all of the day's information from reaching his boat official's I-Pad.

When Martens pulled in, he learned that his dreams of a big MLF Cup trophy had evaporated when another angler caught a last-gasp bass and pushed him out of the top four in the standings.

"Wow, I can't believe it," said an obviously disappointed Martens on several occasions, as I watched and listened to the painful conversation from a couple of feet away. "I really thought I had made it."

But instead of letting his emotions boil over, Martens was gracious, classy, and humble despite his unexpected and disappointing defeat.

While writers aren't supposed to develop "favorites" in the world of competition, I couldn't help but be a fan of Martens going forward from that day.

Man of Faith Will Be Sorely Missed

Those same qualities—including Martens' positive approach to life, his commitment to nutrition, health, and daily running, and his deep Christian faith—were all on full display throughout his arduous battle with cancer. Those same qualities also attracted many other fans, Houston included.

"Aaron was a man of strong faith," said Houston. "And his positive attitude and his Christian faith kept him fishing tournaments as long as he possibly could. I liked that because you always wonder what you'll do when something like that happens to you. You wonder what you might do when presented with similar challenges.

"I'd guess that Aaron knew from the outset that he was most likely terminal with his form of cancer," Houston added. "I think Aaron knew and still lived his life to the fullest, as much as he could, and lived positively and like he was going to get well. And that's a pretty cool deal when you think about it. I'd like to think I'd be like that.

"But even knowing what he knew, Aaron still continued on with life, determined to finish strong in fishing and to be loving to those who meant the most to him and were around him. That's pretty amazing if you ask me."

Amazing, just like Aaron Martens, one of the best bass anglers the world has ever known. He will be sorely missed by family, friends, colleagues, fellow competitors, fans, and more than a few outdoor writers, like myself.

Funeral services are pending and Martens is survived by his wife Lesley, his two children Jordan and Spencer, and his mother Carol.

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