“Roland Still Rolling” As Roland Martin tells it, his first fishing trip with the Splendid Splinter “wasn’t so hot” – Colin Moore
As Roland Martin tells it, his first fishing trip with the Splendid Splinter “wasn’t so hot.” It was in the late ’60s at Islamorada, Fla., and Martin was substituting for another guide. The latter had asked Martin to take the famous, and famously cantankerous, Ted Williams fishing in his stead because of another commitment.
Martin obliged, and did his best to see that the former Boston Red Sox great was kept entertained. In an attempt to pass the time while waiting on the clear flats for the tide to change and the fish to bite, Martin decided to while away the empty minutes by making small talk with His Worshipfulness.
“So, Mr. Williams, who do you like for the World Series this fall?” asked the towheaded Martin, a bright-eyed 20something at the time.
“Look, you blond-headed %$#@!, you don’t know a $#@% thing about baseball, and I’m not *%$& going to talk to you about baseball. If you want to talk about fishing, that’s fine, but don’t %$@* talk to me about something you don’t know anything about.”
Which suited Martin, because he didn’t want to talk about baseball anyway. There came a time, not too much later, when Williams would frequently call Martin to talk about fishing, and to plead with him to go fishing. Though it puts thoughts into Williams’ mind that we can only conjecture, perhaps he recognized and respected the kindred, unfiltered talent that Martin possessed. The sports for which they became famous were different, but Martin had what Williams had in equal measure – a natural ability and a drive to be the very best at something, or certainly among the best.
Most people interested in fishing know Roland Martin the bass fisherman, but few know that before he became a famous tournament angler, Martin was a saltwater fisherman. His apprenticeship began in 1958, during summer break from the University of Maryland, when Martin and a buddy decided to go fishing in the Florida Keys. Within a few years after that first visit he was guiding there, though his tastes in fishing were always ecumenical. In the ’60s, when he was becoming a well-respected guide on the flats around Islamorada, he was also splitting his time and guiding bass fishermen on Santee Cooper in South Carolina.
One of Martin’s Santee Cooper customers was Homer Circle, the eminence
grise of fishing writers who recognized Martin’s bass-fishing skill and potential when he met him. Uncle Homer wasn’t the only one to encourage Martin to compete in bass tournaments, though he took some warming up to the notion. In 1969, when Martin attended his first tournament at Lake Eufaula on the Alabama-Georgia border and saw Bill Dance come in with a 15-fish stringer that weighed 83 pounds, Martin remarked to nobody in particular that, “I’ve got no business fishing against these guys.” Even so, several months later he was taking part in his first tournament, an event on Toledo Bend. Martin placed second there and then won the Seminole Lunker tournament on Lake Seminole. Motivated by the championship purse of a whopping $2,219, Martin decided he was, indeed, cut from competitive cloth.
During the next 35 years, he fished in 279 events and placed in the top 50 in 191 of them. He won 19 tournaments and was runner-up in 19, and was Angler of the Year nine times. This, in an era when one was as likely as not to draw a Bill Dance, Hank Parker or Rick Clunn as a boat partner, and then have to fish against him. Even so, Martin won more than $1 million, much of it during the years when tournament purses were notoriously meager. About the only thing that he didn’t accomplish, despite 25 chances, is winning a Bassmaster Classic.
Martin has been reasonably successful in FLW Tour competition, too. He scored six top-10 finishes beginning in 1996 and was AOY runner-up in 1999. He’s still fighting the good fight; in the challenging Costa FLW Series Championship on Kentucky
Lake (for which he qualified through the Southeastern Division) last November, Martin couldn’t scratch out a check, but he made a respectable showing.
After the Costa event’s Friday evening weigh-in, after fishing for six days in practice and competition, Martin towed his boat to Old Hickory Lake near Nashville, where he and buddies Bill Dance and Jimmy Houston participated in a one-day tournament to raise funds for their Th3 Legends “Cast for a Cure” cancer research charity.
Hard work, but Martin still loves it, and it’s all in a typical week’s routine. He continues to film his popular TV program, in which he reacts to every big fish that he hooks as if it is the best one ever. Nowadays, too, he’s involved with Dance and Houston in Th3 Legends, a promotional triumvirate that keeps them front and center in the fishing world. It’s entertaining to see and listen to the three together: Dance the wisecracker who’s never at a loss for words, Houston the clever-tongued jester and Roland, who usually is the foil for his two cohorts.
“Roland is one of the most guileless people ever,” says Dance of his longtime friend. “He is what you see on TV, and he hasn’t changed a bit over the years. One thing I have always admired about Roland Martin is that he will not tell you an outright lie. He might be able to dodge telling you the truth, or avoid answering you, but if you just go up to him, look him in the eye and ask him a flat-out-yes-or-no question, he will tell you the truth. That’s pretty uncommon in a fisherman.”
Dance is a practical joker of the first order, but early on he lost his ardor to pick on Roland; too easy a target, too much like giving a wedgie to an Eagle Scout. Even so, each man gets in his verbal licks when he can, though Martin is much more used to being on the receiving end. He delivered one of his best shots at Dance in 1980, when the latter announced that he was leaving the tournament scene to pursue his television career. At a tournament press conference, when asked for his reaction to Dance’s retirement announcement, Martin deadpanned that “sooner or later age catches up with everybody, and a man has to know his limitations. I guess Bill knew it was time to call it quits.”
That was 38 years ago, and though they’re each 77 years old now, neither man is ready to call it quits.
At age 77, Roland Martin is still competing at a high level in Costa FLW Series events and maintains a busy schedule of filming and promotional appearances.