RIDGEDALE – Going into the final day of the Stage 6 competition with the Bass Pro Tour of Major League Fishing, Aaron Martens sent up a prayer or two.
The 47-year-old from Leeds, Alabama, was one of 10 finalists competing on Table Rock Lake, chasing the $100,000 first-place check in the event.
But after fishing through two days of the shotgun round, part of a field of 80 anglers to start the tournament, then one day of the knockout round, with the top 40 remaining individuals, Martens and nine other finalists moved on to Wednesday’s championship round.
Martens admitted he struggled a big in the early days of the tournament, and he was hoping for a little wind to aid his cause.
“I prayed for wind today, because I was still catching them but was missing a bunch,” Martens said. “I was like, ‘If I just had a little bit of wind, God please give me some breeze.’ ”
Maybe he prayed a little too hard.
Winds picked up significantly on Table Rock Lake, with whitecaps on the water and leading to some big-time adjustments on the fly.
Martens made those adjustments count, with a 50-fish haul weighing in at 86 pounds, 4 ounces, good for the tournament title.
“All of a sudden it went from slick calm to like 25 miles an hour,” Martens said. “I was like, ‘That’s too much, God, please back off a little bit.’
“It went from too little to way too much. It made it challenging.”
Martens answered the challenge as best he could, taking the lead at about the midway point of the fishing time on the final day and holding off runner-up Andy Montgomery, who brought in 50 fish weighing in at 77 pounds, 14 ounces.
Anglers on the circuit go out every day with an official and a cameraman on board, and can catch an unlimited amount of fish. When a fish is hauled in, it is immediately weighed and entered into the computer system by the official, then released.
The conditions made it a challenging round for all 10 of the finalists.
“I didn’t catch nearly as many as I could have, because I had to have my motor on high and it spooks them,” Martens said. “I had a lot of opportunities that I saw go away, just because of the motor noise.
“When the prop comes out of the water and makes noise, they just take off. That part was frustrating, but luckily it didn’t hurt me too bad.”
That’s easy to say for Martens, who has been a pro on the various fishing circuits since he was 21 years old. He has more than $3.6 million in career earnings, with three Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year awards, 11 tournament titles and more than 80 top-10 showings.
But he has been in a drought of late. Wednesday’s title was his first tournament victory in more than eight years.
“I needed it,” Martens said. “It’s been a long time. I’ve won a lot of qualifying rounds, and had some seconds in the finals, but had never won one.
“I was getting to the point where I was asking myself, ‘When are we going to win one of these things. Am I going to be like 60 or something?’ ”
Martens said he has been to Table Rock several times through the years, and called it one of his favorite lakes. He has caught a couple of nine-pounders and an eight-pounder during past visits, and enjoys the variety that Table Rock brings.
Martens caught 35 fish, weighing 56 pounds, 15 ounces, to place 13th in the shotgun round, then jumped to fifth in the elimination round, with 38 fish and 65 pounds.
The 40 anglers in the knockout round started over at zero as they chased spots in the championship round, and Martens was seventh overall, with 44 fish and 75 pounds, 1 ounce.
The victory moved Martens to 16th in the season point standings through six events, with 316 points. He has earned $118,000 on the season. In the first five stages, he finished out of the money twice and earned $6,000 at each of the other three stops.
The season schedule has nine tournaments, including scheduled stops in Grove, Oklahoma, next week, and in Neenah, Wisconsin, in June. The tour championship is slated for La Crosse, Wisconsin, in August, for the top 30 anglers in the season point standings.
Martens figures to be in the mix for that final event, chasing the first-place paycheck for $300,000.
It may have seemed to be a long ways off as Martens was trying to end his victory drought.
“You always try to win,” Martens said when asked about his thought process going into the Table Rock Lake event. “I’m 47, and I always try to be positive thinking. You always go in thinking you can win.
“These are just really hard to win, because you start over every day, and by the time you get to the fourth day, the fish are really burned out, and you have to find new fish every day. That part makes it really tricky.”
He was optimistic going into the week, and excited about the opportunities at Table Rock Lake, but he had to work through some struggles in the opening rounds.
“I thought I was going to catch more than I did, but we had 80 anglers out there for those days, and a lot of guys fishing the same stuff – a lot of spots got really beat up,” Martens said.
“Things worked out really good.”
Montgomery recorded a runner-up finish on Wednesday, chasing Martens virtually the entire day but not able to catch him.
The Clemson University graduate and native of Blacksburg, South Carolina, was 31st after the shotgun round and 16th after the elimination round, then placed third in the knockout round with a big day of 53 fish and 83 pounds, 4 ounces, to reach the finals.
“It was great,” Montgomery said of his experience for the week. “Table Rock is an incredible place, there are so many fish in it, just trying to keep pace with Table Rock Lake was nerve-wracking.
“But somebody to come here and fish just for fun, this is just incredible.”
Montgomery had two career victories and 34 top-10 finishes coming into this week’s event. He said the pressure to keep bringing in weighable fish (only catches of 1 pound or more are recorded) was significant.
“It’s unlike any other tournament because you feel so much pressure to keep catching,” he said. “You have to keep catching them and catching them and catching them.”
The changing conditions took a toll on all the anglers, Montgomery said, with calm conditions followed by storms and weather delays, then the windy and choppy conditions on Wednesday.
The storms left anglers dealing with muddy waters and floating debris in the final round.
“You put so much into it, and you’re running on adrenaline,” he said. “We had a really long day yesterday, with the weather delays. You just get wore down. But it worked out.
“It’s a good week – I made a lot of money this week. We do this for a living, and we don’t get a lot of opportunities to make it, so we have to make enough in a week to make it stretch out.”
Montgomery collected $42,000 for his runner-up finish, pushing him over the $1.1 million mark for career earnings.
He took a moment before the postgame show on site to reflect on what it is like to go to work on the water, with a rod and reel in his hand.
“It has its good and bad,” he said, “but it’s a good way to make a living. No job is perfect, and this one is far from perfect.”
But when an observer pointed out there are worse ways to make a living, he had a quick answer: “You’re dang right.”