We’ve had a few weeks off since the Mississippi River event, where I finished second. Since then, I’ve had some time to reflect on finishing second.

My goal for any tournament is never to finish in second place, but I seem to do it a lot — 14 times in Bassmaster tournaments alone, including four Bassmaster Classics. While I’m never fully happy with finishing in second place, I’m usually satisfied that I did well and put myself in position to win. Sometimes it’s not for days, weeks or even years after the event, but eventually I realize that second place was a good finish. I think it would be different if I had never won an event, but I’ve won six times in Bassmaster events, once on the FLW Tour, and I’ve won the U.S. Open three times.

Not all second place finishes are equal. While some do haunt me, most of them don’t. The difference isn’t the size of the tournament or the amount of money I could have won. The difference is how I ended up finishing second. In most of my second place finishes, I didn’t lose the tournament, somebody else went out and won it. When you’re fishing with 100 of the best anglers in the world, it’s not easy to beat all 99 of them. Sometimes one of them just goes out and wins it, and there’s nothing any of the rest of us can do. Perfect examples of this happening are the Mississippi River and West Point tournaments this year. I finished in second, but I fished very well. Tommy Biffle and Skeet Reese just went out and fished a little better.

There’s very little about fishing that has anything to do with luck, but winning does take a little luck.

Actually, “luck” might not be the best word to use. “Everything needs to go right” is probably a better way to say it.

Preparation and paying attention to small details like sharp hooks and good knots help things “go right,” but not everything is within our control as anglers. We’re engaging with another living creature, and they can be hard to predict. Sometimes, they win the battle. One fish can get off the hook, and that can be the difference between winning and ending up second or even much further down the leaderboard. Call it luck or everything going right — either way, if you want to win with this group of anglers you better have it.

“Second place is the first loser” is a phrase attributed to the late Dale Earnhardt, the famous NASCAR driver. I hear that phrase a lot. I’ve even said it myself from time to time. But did you know that Earnhardt finished second 70 times in his career?

In golf, Jack Nicklaus is still the king of Major victories with 18, but he’s also the king of second-place finishes in Majors with 19. Tennis great Jimmy Connors had 8 Grand Slam wins and 7 runner-ups to go with those wins.

In fishing, the great Roland Martin won 19 BASS events. He had exactly the same number of second-place finishes. Kevin VanDam has 12 “seconds” to go with 20 wins. Skeet Reese has seven wins and 11 seconds.

Do I lose sleep over my 12 second-place finishes and four Classic runner-ups? No, but sometimes I think about how close I’ve been.

For the most part, the second-place finishes are driving me to get better, fish harder and win more.

I hope to win more events. If I do, I’ll probably mix in a few more second-place finishes along the way.

The best in any sport will finish in second place sometimes. By the time my career is over, I hope to be remembered for lots of wins rather than the near-misses. I have plenty of time left to make that happen, and the second-place finishes will help drive me.

Aaron Martens went into Day Four in the lead, but by day’s end, he was in second place with a four-day total weight of 61-11. The photos that follow document Martens’ final day of fishing in the Diet Mountain Dew Mississippi River Rumble presented by Power-Pole. Photos by James Overstreet

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West Point Lake
La Grange, Georgia
2nd Place
20 fish, 44-06

The Elite Series last visited West Point in 2011 and I finished 35th, which is respectable, but I had the chance to do a lot better. I stuck a six pounder and a seven pounder in practice that I probably could have caught in the tournament if I hadn’t done so. Those were avoidable errors. The bigger problem was unavoidable – I came down with a terrible stomach flu on the second day of competition that basically crippled me. I was puking over the side of the boat and couldn’t fish. I felt like this time around I was due for a few breaks.

When we got there, it was immediately obvious that the lake was going to fish differently than it did in 2011. The fish were more ahead in terms of their spawning stage and the water was higher. I went into practice intending to fish for both largemouths and spotted bass, but after a day or so of practice I focused primarily on the largemouths. It was tough out there, and three pounders were golden. Fours and fives were super-rare. You needed one or two of those big bites each day to go from a decent limit to the top of the leader board.

Because of all of the rain, the river was really too dirty to be fishable, so I focused on the section from the dam up to the middle of the lake. The complicating factor wasn’t necessarily the weather itself, even though the nearly constant rain and cold made it miserable. Instead, it was the changing water levels. The lake rose, and then it dropped and then it rose again. When the water cleared up, I had to adjust by making extra-long precise casts to cover. When it got dirty, it was necessary to slow down and really milk your casts on a given piece of cover.

My strategy was pretty simple: I just went down the bank in key areas pitching and casting at any good piece of cover. There’s lots of shoreline grass, but any place there was a divot in the vegetation or a little piece of wood sticking out, that’s where you’d usually get bit. You couldn’t hit it all, but that’s where the bites came from so you wanted to focus on the best of the best.

I was really able to mix things up to get the job done. I’d use a Megabass Vision 110 Magnum (Pro Green) fished on the Orochi XX Flat-Side Special (F4.5-70XX) or a fluke style bait to locate the fish. If I came across a bed, I’d drop a Robo Zipper Grub or a small craw on them, usually on Sunline 20 lb. SX1 braid and a Japanese model Megabass Super Diablo rod (F5.5-70Xti). I also caught quite a few fish on a Davis Baits 3/16 ounce Aaron Martens Shakey Head fished on the Orochi XX Dropshot Rod (F3-611XXS). That rod is playing an increasingly large role in my success this year.

I caught my best bag of the week (13-05) on Thursday to put me in 4th place, and then followed it up with 11-09 on Friday, which surprisingly was enough to move me into the lead. Saturday was my undoing, though. I hooked a 3 pound spot on a jerkbait that threw the hook when it jumped. It was my own fault, though. The hook had been bent out and I pushed it back in instead of replacing it. That cost me the tournament right there as I only weighed in 7-12. I fell to 3rd place entering Sunday, but the weights were super-tight. It was really anybody’s ballgame.

Things didn’t get much better on Day Four. I managed to weigh 11-12, and Skeet had to catch a whopping 15 pounds to beat me, but I had the fish on to win. I jumped off a 3 pounder that would’ve helped, but the one that really killed me was the 5 pounder that I lost. I’d skipped my fluke into a little pocket and I kept my eyes on another patch of grass, where I saw a 2 ¼ pound fry guarder. All of a sudden it felt like my line was snagged. I held pressure and then set the hook, just to be sure. It turned out to be the best fish I’d hooked all week.

Unfortunately there was an 80-foot pine tree between me and the fish. It was rubbed smooth and didn’t have any bark on it, so I don’t know what cut my line, but when the fish wallowed, just as I got her head turned my line broke immediately. I didn’t even have a chance to release pressure on her. That’s the type of thing that can’t go wrong if you want to win at this level. I’m feeling a little better about it now – my overall attitude is certainly much better than it was back at the Sabine – but it still hurts. Thinking back on it, my strategic mistake was that I probably spent too much time fishing for spotted bass on Day Four. I ended up culling out all but one of them. My real downfall, though, was execution, some of which I still can’t explain.

Next up is the Alabama River, a place I’ve now been a few times. I like the way it fishes very much. The current typically makes it easier to pinpoint the fish, and without saying too much in advance I think it’ll fish to my strengths. I need to work hard and make some luck for myself. I know a lot of guys would kill for a second place finish at this point in the year, but I have way more seconds than firsts and it’s really starting to wear on me. It’s been too long since I’ve won a regular season B.A.S.S. event and this would be a good time for it to happen. I’ve crept back into the top 15 in the AOY standings and it’s not too late for me to make a move.