This story appeared in the April 2016 issue of Naples Illustrated.
As dawn breaks over Chokoloskee Bay, Roland Martin navigates the tricky switchbacks and oyster beds with the confidence of decades of runs. “They call this the pickle fork,” he shouts over the hum of the Mercury outboard. “If you don’t know this place, you can get really messed up.”
Martin certainly knows this place. He’s been fishing these parts for more than 30 years, landing snook and redfish for segments of his television show, Fishing With Roland Martin.
We’re skimming across the shallow water of the channel at a steady clip, Martin gliding his 21-foot Mako through the mangrove thicket and islets that make up the Ten Thousand Islands with ease. At 76, he has the build of a lifelong waterman, deeply tanned from long days in the sun and slightly bowlegged from steadying himself on many a rocking boat. He moves around his boat with confidence, the line whizzing from his spinning reel, landing his lure with precision.
We’re near Highland Beach looking for snook. Martin flings his topwater lure once more, this time toward a downed tree.
“I hate catching them on the first cast,” he jokes. It’s a friendly boast, but one he’s earned. Martin is, after all, a legend on the professional fishing circuit. Throughout his career, he has racked up 19 Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) tournament wins (the second-most of all time), nine B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year awards (a record he still holds today), and fished in 25 Bassmaster Classics—the Super Bowl of bass fishing. He has been inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, and the International Game Fish Association’s Fishing Hall of Fame, solidifying his reputation as one the of most prolific professional bass fishermen of all time.
It’s a skill he first developed, strangely enough, in the military. “I learned my ABCs at Santee Cooper,” he says, referring to the outdoorsman’s paradise in South Carolina. As a young man in his twenties, Martin was an infantry officer stationed at nearby Fort Jackson. He would spend his free time on the reservoir landing stripers and bass. At the time, it was nothing more than a peaceful hobby.
After his military service time, he moved to Brazil where his father, a hydraulic engineer, was stationed in Recife designing hydroelectric dams for the United States Geological Survey. Martin was able to secure a job teaching algebra. He recalls that time of his life fondly, explaining that he grew much closer to his parents in Brazil. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Martin’s world forever changed in 1966, when he and his parents were in a head-on collision. His parents didn’t survive.
Martin returned to Santee Cooper, a place he’d always felt at ease, finding solace on the water. But this time, he decided fishing would be more than a way to relax. Now he had something to prove.
“I had always had this stigma and felt that my parents had no confidence in me,” he says. “I was the black sheep of the family, fishing and hunting. They wanted me to be a professional. I wanted to prove to them and to my family that I would be a success.”
He began making a name for himself as a fishing guide, running press trips for writers, and even started penning a few articles for newspapers and magazines. He was steadily building a brand and developing techniques that would solidify that brand. For instance, during those days Martin recognized the value of pattern fishing—studying water conditions to see what attracts fish to certain spots. This may be second nature to fishermen today, but in those days it was a novel idea that made Martin an in-demand guide. It wasn’t long before his success at Santee Cooper started attracting attention. In 1969 he got a call from Ray Scott, founder of B.A.S.S., inviting him to join his fledgling fishing tournament. The year-old B.A.S.S. wasn’t yet a household name, and Martin passed on the offer.
“At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal, and I didn’t want to fish in tournaments,” says Martin. “But Ray kept at me.”
He finally acquiesced and joined the circuit in 1970. He placed second in his first tournament, kicking off one of the most impressive careers in professional fishing history. In his first 25 events, he won seven, finished second in eight, and never placed lower than sixteenth.
“The tournaments showed that I was credible, and opened doors,” Martin says mid-cast, landing his plug in the shallows near shore. One of those doors led to his own television series. Episodes showcase Martin’s tricks of the trade as he fishes all around the globe, from freshwater streams and lakes to deepwater sites, in search of game fish. Last fall, Martin began filming the latest season for NBC Sports. Today—when he’s not on location filming, taking part in the occasional tournament, or making promotional appearances for Bass Pro Shops—Martin can be found right here in Naples, the place he calls home with his wife, Judy. His son Scott, himself an accomplished fisherman and the 2015 FLW Angler of the Year, runs the family marina in nearby Clewiston.
Martin also spends time doing charitable work, making dreams come true for kids and their families through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. But mostly, he’s fishing.
“I’m probably out on the water 150 days out of the year,” Martin says. “It’s down a bit from my heyday.” He casts another lure into the water, hoping to hook another snook, redfish, grouper, or reef fish. “It’s not about catching the fish, but the anticipation of catching the fish that keeps bringing me back.”