If the results from the inaugural Alabama Bass Trail (ABT) North Division tournament are any indication, the 2014 Bassmaster Classic anglers and spectators are in for a treat.
The ABT tournament on Lake Guntersville, site of the Bassmaster Classic on February 21-23, was impressive to say the least. Winners Brandon Staggs of Summerton, Tennessee and Jerry Wright of Waterloo, Alabama weighed in 32.02 pounds, a whopping, six-pound-plus average. Jamie Smith and Michael Rains, both of Albertville, Alabama, just missed a six-pound average with a 29.92-pound stringer for second place. The top 16 teams weighed in five-fish limits of at least 20 pounds.
What that means for the three-day Classic, dubbed the Super Bowl of bass fishing, is the fishermen and crowd will likely be on pins and needles until the final angler has weighed in on the stage at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). The drama is fueled by the fact that any of the 56 Classic competitors can potentially bring a huge sack of bass to the stage at any time.
One of those Classic anglers is Aaron Martens, 2013 Bassmaster Angler of the Year, who calls Leeds, Alabama home. A native of California, Martens couldn’t resist the quality of fishing in Alabama and permanently moved to Leeds 10 years a go.
“I considered a lot of states and decided on Alabama,” Martens said. “People are nice down here, friendly and everybody waves to you. The lakes kind of drew me in. Overall, if you like fishing, this is the place to be. You’ve got the Coosa River and the spotted bass. You can go to Pickwick and catch giant smallmouths. Then you’ve got Guntersville, which is probably the best largemouth lake in the nation outside of Falcon (Lake in Texas). The fishing is what really hooked me. When I moved here, you could go to Logan Martin and catch 40 or 50 spots in four hours.”
After a stumbling start to the 2013 season, Martens managed to overcome his disappointment with a renewed goal.
“I kind of focused that negative energy into positive energy, which I’m really good at doing for some reason,” Martens said. “I kind of complain sometimes, but that’s how I work. I’ve got no filter is what my wife (Lesley) always says. I say what I think.
“The rest of the year got progressively better and better. It seemed like I was on a mission all year. The mission was to make the Classic. Then I heard some writers talking about the statistics and that I might be able to win Angler of the Year. I thought to myself, I’ve got to at least make the Classic.”
After his 85th place finish in the opener, Martens rebounded by finishing in the top 24 in the remaining seven Elite Series tournaments. He finished second to Skeet Reese at West Point (Georgia) Lake and second to veteran Tommy Biffle at La Crosse, Wisconsin.
“This was one of those years when I didn’t second-guess my decisions,” Martens said. “I just went and did it. Bass fishing is a lot of decisions. I can fish any way, but that last tournament fished to my strengths. But I wasn’t thinking about Angler of the Year. I was thinking about winning that tournament. My ultimate goal was to win the tournament. I had two seconds, so I didn’t need any more of those. I’ve gotten a lot of seconds. Too many.”
Martens was in second place on Michigan’s Lake St. Clair in the Elite Series finale when he had to settle for “only” winning the Angler of the Year title. Martens slammed into one of the big waves on St. Clair and almost knocked the motor off the stern of the boat.
“I really wanted that tournament,” he said. “I was as determined to win as I’ve ever been. It showed because I sheared the bolts off at the jack plate. It was a bad wave, plus a combination of 30 miles of three- to five-footers before that. I’ve never not made it to the weigh-in before. And to have the fish to win the tournament, why would that happen? But winning Angler of the Year means a lot.”
The reason Martens is so frustrated with a second-place finish is his Classic history. Four times in his career, he has finished runner-up. In the 2002 Classic on Lay Lake, Martens finished just behind Jay Yelas. In the 2004 Classic at Lake Wylie, South Carolina, Martens ended a couple of pounds behind winner Takahiro Omori. Martens finished only six ounces behind Kevin VanDam in the 2005 Classic in Pittsburgh. Most recently, Martens finished second to VanDam in the 2011 Classic in New Orleans.
Therefore, Lake Guntersville holds a great deal of hope for Martens as he attempts to shed the bridesmaid label.
“Guntersville is a grass lake,” he said. “There are so many big creeks in that lake that can be so good. There are so many good places to fish; it’s going to be a hard one to win. Even if you know the place really well, even if you’re Chris Lane (former Classic winner who now lives on Guntersville) and guide there, it’s anybody’s tournament. I won there in 2009, but it was later in the year.”
That victory at Guntersville in May 2009 was special. Martens won with a four-day total of 107.3 pounds. The next three finishers—Reese, Kevin Wirth, and Michael Iaconelli—all weighed in more than 100 pounds.
“The lake is so good you could have a guy fish a spot that a tournament has never been won on, and he could find something special and just dominate,” Martens said. “It’s hard to say. But I’m excited about it. I usually make the cut at Guntersville, so I am excited.
“It’s a matter of getting there and getting a feel for it. Conditions change. If it rains or freezes or gets really warm, we’ll have options for different situations. This time of year on Guntersville you can get away with power fishing. But you may have to mix it up.”
Martens does expect to see plenty of big bags on the BJCC stage. He suggested that a three-day total of 75 pounds would be in the running for the title in the Classic, which will be missing defending champion Cliff Pace of Petal, Mississippi. Pace broke his leg in a hunting accident recently and won’t be able to compete.
“I’m thinking it’s going to take 24 or 25 pounds a day to win,” Martens said. “Then again, it could be 26 or 27 a day. I think 30 pounds would be phenomenal. Of course, if it rains all week, it might be 23 or 24 pounds. But my best guess is it’s going to take 25 pounds a day.”
Martens won’t be the only angler who lives in Alabama in the Classic. In fact, Alabama has more anglers than any state in bass fishing’s premier event. Chris Lane made the field by winning the season finale at St. Clair. David Kilgore of Jasper won a Bass Pro Shops Southern Open to qualify. Randy Howell of Springville won a Bass Pro Shops Northern Open. Cody Carden of Shelby qualified by winning the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship Southern Division. Jordan Lee of Auburn qualified through the Carhartt College Classic. Greg Vinson of Wetumpka, Steve Kennedy of Auburn, and Gerald Swindle of Warrior all qualified through Angler of the Year points.
Classic anglers will launch each tournament day at 7:15 a.m. from City Harbor, 201 Blount Avenue, in Guntersville. Doors to the weigh-ins at BJCC Arena in Birmingham will open at 3 p.m. each day. The Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo will be held in conjunction with the Classic at the BJCC Convention Center.
Image courtesy BASS/Seigo Sato