Roland Martin, born in Maryland but always a Southern boy at heart, is one of angling's great competitors. Hard-nosed and tough he'll fish against anyone, anytime, anyplace.
And why not? He has little to fear. Martin entered his first BASS tournament in 1970. Since then he's fished another 277. Out of those 278 tournaments he's finished in the money 184 times. That includes 19 first-place, 20 second-place and six-third place finishes.
Stop and think about that for a moment. Martin cashes a check two out of every three times he competes. That's extraordinary, especially when you consider that he fishes against the best bass anglers in the country.
It's a matter of attitude
Is he the Greatest Angler ever? Ask him that and his tone changes. No matter his hard-nosed reputation, he gets a little soft and sentimental as he discusses the career that got him to the point where such a subject would even be considered.
"I feel honored … one of the top two is really something," he says.
Not too long ago his attitude was much different, however. Things were getting tough for the old warrior. Sure, he'd earned a good living over the years and was still doing so with his TV show and lucrative endorsements. But he wasn't finishing where he should, or at least where he thought he should.
"I wasn't catching as many fish as I used to when I was more competitive and on top of my game … couldn't read the water and the fish like I used to … started feeling sorry for myself. My feet hurt; I wasn't able to see as well, cast as far or as accurately and couldn't fish hard all day. It was tough."
But then, "this Greatest Angler thing came along and all of a sudden I realized that I was considered one of the best. It made me feel better … really changed my attitude."
Martin goes on to explain that there isn't much difference between the top anglers – "maybe 2 percent at the most." So, as Mother Nature began to take her toll on his body, it immediately showed in the standings. He wasn't where he had once been or where he thought he should be. And, even worse, there wasn't much he could do about it.
"I used to be able to psych myself up. I'd trash talk and that would motivate me … make me work harder so I didn't look bad. It doesn't work anymore … isn't as easy as it once was."
Disappointment and redemption
Martin, like most men who have been at the top and at the bottom, will tell you: The top is better. But to appreciate the top a man needs to have been at the bottom. Where was that for Martin; what's his most memorable disappointment?
It's the 1980 Bassmaster Classic on the St. Lawrence River. He finished second.
As Martin tells the story he was fishing the St. Lawrence River on the last day of the tournament. He knew there was a big bass off the Mary Island Ledge. "I knew it was there but kept waiting all day to go over and fish for it., don't know why, just waited," he says.
Toward the end of the day he finally stopped waiting and motored near the ledge. As he was casting. another angler rounded the point and informed Martin, "You're too late." That angler reported that another competitor had caught a 6-pound bass from the ledge earlier in the day. As bad as that sounded at the time it was going to get worse, a whole lot worse.
That other competitor was Bo Dowden, the eventual winner. As Martin painfully points out, if you take that 6 pounds off Dowden's 54-10 total and add it to Martin's 44-10 catch you have a very different result. Martin would have the Classic win he's always coveted, the one that's always been just a little outside his reach.
But enough about frustration; what about his greatest accomplishment? When asked that question Martin struggled but soon enough got some help from his wife, Judy. She suggested it was marrying her. Now, Martin might be slowing down when it comes to reading water and fish but not when it comes to reading the ladies. Without taking a breath he replied, "Marrying Judy!"
After Judy you'd expect Martin to list his nine Angler-of-the-Year titles, six more than VanDam and Dance and eight more than Clunn. Or maybe he ought to talk about his 25 Classic appearances, second only to Clunn's 28. Another natural choice might be his receiving the BASS Achievement Award at the 2004 Classic or perhaps his induction into all three recognized fishing halls of fame.
Those are all solid credentials, no doubt about it. And maybe we can forgive him for not being able to quickly pick one over the other. But there's more to it than that, a lot more.
He talked on, back and forth, about them all but always returned to the Greatest Angler Debate. Not so much winning it mind you, but rather just being considered.
What it all means
"I won't say it doesn't matter if I win … sure, I want to win. But more important is to be one of the last two with an angler like Clunn, such an honor," he says.
(Martin constantly, and without exception, refers to Clunn when he talks about the great ones. Clunn has been quoted as saying the race wouldn't even be close if Roland hadn't taken up turkey hunting. The mutual respect between these anglers is something to behold. It's deep and it's genuine. That's a good thing for them, for BASS, for the sport.)
Given his standing in the Greatest Angler Debate and his age 65 will he continue to fish and compete? "I'll probably fish a few next year," he says. That's probably right. A true warrior never quits.