WETUMPKA, Ala. — Aaron Martens knew his day was going well when his first cast at 5:50 a.m. produced a 6-pound largemouth. It got better when he had a limit of nearly 18 pounds after five casts.
"I had one of the best days of my life turn into one of the worst days of my life," Martens said.
Maybe it was too easy — he had 18 fish after 20 casts — because his day turned horribly wrong. By 9:30, Martens had fish about to die in his livewell. He felt compelled to throw them back. Fish weighing over three pounds! Thrown back!
That lowered his weight to near 16 pounds, but it went from bad to worse.
"It's like someone put cyanide in there," Martens said on his boat around 10:30 while lamenting his livewell. "Every time I put one in there, it's dying. This is unbelievable. I'm totally in shock. They are all dying.
"It's like not enough oxygen or something. I don't know what to do."
Hindsight tells Martens he might have kept the larger fish and taken the 8-ounce penalty. Three of his fish, albeit smaller than the ones he threw back, did end up dying. He suffered a penalty of 1-6 pounds total, which would have given him victory in the Ramada Trophy Chase.
Instead, Russ Lane won with a two-day total of 32-3. Martens, who caught a 4-pound fish later in the day, finished with 18-0 on Sunday for 32 even.
He slouched over in disbelief when the final tally was announced at the Bassmaster stage at the Wetumpka Civic Center, knowing how it unfolded.
"I wanted to weigh in at 9 o'clock. I had 20 pounds," he said. "One of the best days I ever had. I've never had problems with fish care."
He surmised that he could possibly have shocked his fish somehow with too much ice or livewell additive. With similar difficulties on Day One, Martens replaced both pumps that night.
Kevin VanDam stopped to chat with Martens as he waited in line to weigh in and inquired about the issue. Martens said he thought it might be an oxygen issue because bubbles in his livewell were too large. VanDam asked where the water flow comes in and Martens said mid-tank. VanDam told him the feed should be from above the water line to help oxygenate the water.
VanDam asked how much Martens would have had. Martens tolds him 20 pounds.
"That's hard to do here. Good job," VanDam said.
Martens said he plans on fixing the issue and during practice for the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph he will test out his livewells.
The penalties could cost Martens more than the Chase title and the $60,000 boat package that goes with it. With the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points reshuffled, he goes into Friday's tournament trailing leader Skeet Reese by 10 points. Lane took the spot he could have had at second and Kevin VanDam is third.
"How much money is this going to cost me?" Martens asked himself on the boat. "Forty grand? Angler of the Year, maybe?"
He is within striking distance when action gets under way on the Alabama River, but that and the $1,000 big bass bonus won't console him much.
"This is a nightmare," said Martens, who will long agonize over what could have been.