Making a living just competing against others in fishing tournaments? Come on. You can’t do that, right?
Pro fisherman Mark Martin will tell you otherwise. Martin grew up learning to fish with his father and grandfather in Michigan, especially for walleye. He went on to become one of the greats in professional angling, and now it’s your turn to learn from him.
In the mid-1980s, Martin left a factory job near Muskegon to pursue his boyhood dream that started at the age of 3 or thereabouts, he says.
That life choice culminated with Martin’s induction in 2015 into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. In between, he made quite a living as a winner and high-finisher in countless professional walleye fishing tournaments; his achievements include winning the very first Professional Walleye Trail walleye championship in 1990, while in his 30s. That win launched his dream for good.
But let’s go back about 60 years, to that typical “What do you want to be when you grow up?” talk between Martin, his sister, and his father, when Mark was just 5.
“My dad sat down with me and my sister with a tape recorder, and asked what we wanted to be. My sister said a nurse. I said a fisherman,” he recalls.
“My dad said, ‘Mark, you can’t make money being a fisherman. Think about that a little and then tell me what you really want to be.’ When he asked me again, I said I wanted to be a fisherman. At age 5, he couldn’t convince me to do anything but what I wanted to do.
“When I won the 1990 championship, the first Professional Walleye Trail, I came home and we had a big dinner, and I saw that tape deck sitting in the corner. He reached over and turned it on. Nobody else in the room knew what was going on.”
His dad played the 30-year-old reel-to-reel of Martin at age 5. “He looked into my eyes and said, ‘Mark, you know, maybe I was wrong.’ ”
Aside from accruing angling honors, for more than 42 years Martin’s been passing along his knowledge in a series of multi-day fishing schools — North America’s longest-running “learn it, do it” fishing classes — in summer and winter. Students gather Sunday afternoon, Mondays are always in the classroom, and Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings are on the water practicing what they’ve learned.
Martin says he uses knowledge gleaned from his own mistakes, which eventually brought him success, to give back to others. His teaching career began when he hosted fishing schools with walleye fishing legend and former tournament partner Gary Roach, and legendary TV show host Al Lindner, 32 years ago in Minnesota. Martin carried on, solo, when those two exited due to other obligations.
His first solo event, for the outdoor media on the Upper Peninsula’s Bay de Noc, was some 20 years ago.
“When we opened it to students on Bay de Noc (near Escanaba), we had too many people. That’s when I realized (I had) to keep the number at 25 each class,” he says.
Since then, Martin’s been heading seasonal fishing schools on Michigan’s Houghton and Mullet lakes and on Saginaw Bay each January and February, with “soft water” editions on Mullet Lake and Saginaw Bay scheduled for May and June .
During the first day of classroom instruction, students learn tips from Martin and his staff of fishing experts — tips seemingly as insignificant as which hook on a treble hook of an ice fishing lure to place a minnow on, and how to find that 10 percent of water where the fish are, instead of going where the fish aren’t.
Martin’s techniques can make all the difference and he says he also learns from his students. Last year, he ended his tournament career to concentrate on teaching.
“It’s a challenge, but I can’t quit doing this because I like to give back. All the mistakes I made (helped me) get to where I am, and I like to share those so the students don’t make ’em. To get to the right way to fish, there were a lot of mistakes in between. My schools are three days because what you’re going to get from a one-day school is minimal. I may not even see every student in one day,” he says.
Martin says students occasionally come into class with a push-back attitude, preferring their own techniques to his. That is, until they’ve been with him for a couple days. By the last day, Wednesday, most are using the knowledge they came to get, and catching the fish they couldn’t reel in before, he says.
“They’re the reason I like to do it. They often say that they were fishing their own way on Sunday. By Wednesday, they’re saying, you guys are right. In 30 years, I’ve never had a negative review. By the time the last day comes, between listening to others at dinner, to the classroom and individual on-water instruction, they’ve got a lot of new skills,” Martin explains.
“And sometimes the students are using maybe a different lure, and if they can catch fish with lures we’ve never used, that teaches us, too,” he says. “It’s a two-way street. We’re learning. They’re learning more, but we’re still learning.”