Courage, the Classic and chemo 

A rough ribbon of asphalt unfurled before Pam Martin-Wells as she lifted her fingers from the radio dial of her black Chevrolet four-wheel drive. Bouncing her way from the Georgia pine forests wrapping her home on Lake Seminole toward Texas, the 21-year-old angler was driving to a date with destiny. 

The year was 1985. And though she could have barely dreamed it then, 25 years later the Bainbridge, Ga., native would stand before a crowded 18,000-seat arena in Birmingham on the final day of the Bassmaster Classic. She would share that spotlight with all-time legends of the sport like Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli and Aaron Martens. In a final cut littered with former Bassmaster Angler of the Year and Bassmaster Classic winners, Martin-Wells more than held her own — she set a standard for excellence still being chased by both male and female anglers today. 

“She earned her way there,” said Bassmaster Elite Series veteran Mark Menendez, who fished the Bassmaster Classic alongside Martin-Wells in 2010. “Kevin [VanDam] dominated that event from start to finish, and it may have slid under the radar that Pam was actually the first woman to ever qualify for the finals that year. But there is no doubt in my mind she absolutely earned her right to be there.” 

But before qualifying, setting records and cementing herself in the history books of bass fishing in the new millennium, Martin-Wells needed to reach Lake Fork in 1985. And as the wailing vocals of Journey and Boston belted above the Detroit-made V8, her hands began to shake with anticipation. 

Rolling the Chevy to a stop in a lakeside motel parking lot, Martin-Wells settled in for practice, feeling utterly alone. “I can remember lying in the little motel room, having an anxiety attack, thinking I was dying,” says Martin-Wells. “I kept wondering what I was doing. You have to remember, it was the ’80s. There were no cellphones, and I don’t think the room itself even had a phone.” 

The tournament was hosted by Bass’n Gal, a women’s-only bass fishing league founded in 1976 that peaked with 32,000 members. By the time Martin-Wells linked up with Bass’n Gal in 1985, the circuit was on a roll. Tournament fields regularly consisted of more than 100 boats. Hundreds of competitors split between boaters and nonboaters created a buzz on the water rivaling B.A.S.S. Invitational events. 

“I think they were the first to have a five-bass limit,” says two-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year Jimmy Houston, whose production company filmed Bass’n Gal tournaments for ESPN for more than a decade while his wife Chris was rising through the ranks to become its second-leading earner. “Their tournaments were very much like the B.A.S.S. tournaments. They were fishing 150 boats with 300 people, and there were a lot of girls that were really, really good fishermen.” 

According to Houston, weigh-ins — handled by Bob Ferris — resembled B.A.S.S. “Including Ray Scott, I believe Bob Ferris was the best tournament announcer ever.” At its peak, Bass’n Gal had television, Bass’n Gal had big-time weigh-ins, and Bass’n Gal even had a classic. 

Martin-Wells knew all of this as she sweltered away in a Texas motel room. Entering as a nonboater, she was set to embark at a Lake Fork that looked even more perilous in 1985 than it does today. 

“It was basically all trees,” says Martin-Wells. “The lady I drew lived close by. She ran me through some trees and it was like running through a forest. I was thinking, ‘My God. If something happens to her, I will never find my way out of here.’ I had never seen anything like that and it absolutely lit a fire. It created a monster.” 

Though her first foray onto Lake Fork was largely a bust, within weeks Martin-Wells had forsaken co-angling and begun driving her own boat to events. 

The wins began to follow. Martin-Wells began to chase down Chris Houston in Bass’n Gals Classic appearances and wins. And by the mid-1990s, Martin-Wells was an inescapable force in the sport, reeling in podium finishes from Texas to New England. 

She battled round-for-round with Houston at the top of the Bass’n Gal rankings. She was crowned a multitime angler of the year. And in 1996, she notched a Top 10 finish on the FLW pro circuit at Lake Seminole, showing a flash of future greatness against male competitors. 

Setting the stage for the Bassmaster Classic 

By 2006, the heyday of Bass’n Gal had given way to the recently launched Women’s Bassmaster Tour. Launching in conjunction with the Bassmaster Elite Series, the WBT was an effort by B.A.S.S. to replicate the successful formula Bass’n Gal pioneered decades earlier. For the first time, many of the top women in fishing were competing under the B.A.S.S. umbrella. 

That association meant that female anglers could now compete against their peers to qualify for the sport’s biggest event, the Bassmaster Classic. “To qualify for the Bassmaster Classic, you had to win WBT Angler of the Year,” says Martin-Wells. “Some people said that we didn’t belong because the way we got to the Classic was different, but we had to qualify through six tournaments with 200-plus boats in them and win Angler of the Year. That was quite the feat.” 

In 2008, Australian angler Kim Bain-Moore became the first woman to ever notch her name in the Classic field, finishing 47th on the Red River in 2009. And though Martin-Wells was the second, her 2010 Bassmaster Classic performance far outpaced the Aussie. In fact, it outpaced more than half of the field, including multiple former champions, including legendary male anglers like Denny Brauer, Skeet Reese and Greg Hackney. 

“Pam is an aggressive angler,” adds Menendez, who placed 16 slots behind Martin-Wells at the event. “She is always thinking on her toes, always making adjustments needed to be a very strong pattern fisherman. She’s not a specialist. She doesn’t win in any singular way. She can pick up a spinnerbait, a plug, a topwater. She will do whatever it takes to win.” 

Weather at the 2010 Bassmaster Classic was cold and miserable. Practice patterns discovered under fair weather conditions were wrecked when unseasonal cold blew in. Menendez remembers racing through a rare Alabama snowstorm during the event. Martin-Wells remembers constantly adjusting tactics to put a limit in the boat. Ironically, her mental fortitude rested heavily on inspiration from one of the sport’s great pattern fishermen. 

“Rick Clunn has always been an amazing person and an amazing angler to me,” says Martin-Wells. “His mental attitude helped me get through the event. Going in, I took the mindset that I was going to walk through like I owned the place with my head held high.” 

Channeling the spirit of Clunn, Martin-Wells clearly felt like she belonged on the water at Lay Lake. But despite entering the event as a bona fide legend with a two-decade record of success on the women’s tours, Martin-Wells says some Bassmaster Classic competitors treated her as an outsider. At one pre-tournament meeting, Martin-Wells found herself sitting completely alone in an auditorium aisle while male anglers sat both in front of and behind her. In the boatyard, good morning ‘hellos’ to some neighboring anglers were greeted with a cold shoulder. Rumors of bets being placed against her reached her ears. 

“That kind of stuff didn’t do anything but piss me off,” joked Martin-Wells. “And when you make me mad, I can move mountains.” 

By the end of the tournament, VanDam stood atop the field (as he so often did), but another competitor was leaving with her head held high. In a brutal weekend for fishing, Martin-Wells put 25 pounds in the boat, proving herself more well-suited for adversity than two dozen of bass fishing’s best. It was just ounces away from a Top 20 finish. 

But the performance was bittersweet. 

Six weeks before blastoff, B.A.S.S., then owned by ESPN, announced the termination of the WBT. Every female angler on the tour — all with hopes of making the next Bassmaster Classic through the WBT — was issued a refund for the upcoming season. 

Though female anglers would be allowed to qualify via the Bassmaster Opens, the loss of a dedicated tour felt like a crushing blow. 

“I was disappointed,” says Martin-Wells. “After years of mediocre trails that came after Bass’n Gal, it seemed as though the women finally had another reputable organization that could provide the media attention needed for the sport to grow, for sponsorship potential to grow and to grow professionally.” 

And today, Martin-Wells stills carries the sting of one pre-tournament incident with her more than a decade later. 

At registration, an event equipment sponsor refused to give her the same product being distributed to every other contestant. “When I got to his booth, the guy reaches up and pulls his stuff back. He said, ‘We don’t have anything your size. When I get back to the office, I’ll get something and send it to you.’ Well, I guess he never got back to the office because I haven’t ever seen anything from them. 

“That still hurts all of these years later.” 

After the WBT folded, some of its top competitors — including Martin-Wells and Bain-Moore — did chase opportunities in the Opens. But even with Bassmaster Classic experience under their belts, Martin-Wells says sponsorship dollars for female anglers never appeared in quantities meaningful enough to make financing an Opens career sustainable. 

From Classic to cancer 

On March 27, 2022, Martin-Wells’ life changed completely. Her spirit sank like a lead weight when the results came back. Hours after visiting a doctor for a presumed case of colitis, Martin-Wells was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. 

The Bassmaster Classic appearance, a successful third career in the Lady Bass Anglers Association and a new collegiate bass fishing coaching job at Georgia’s Emmanuel College faded into the background with the news. 

“I had an MRI at 2 p.m., which confirmed the diagnosis,” says Martin-Wells. By 5 p.m., blood tests for tumor markers that should read below 35 in a healthy person returned at more than 1,700 for the veteran angler. Within five days, she was in a Tallahassee, Fla., operating room. 

“They said they took out everything I could live without,” says Martin-Wells. Ominously, they also delivered more news. “One of my doctors was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, so she [didn’t mince] words. She said, ‘I’m not here to blow smoke up your ass. It’s not a matter of if you will get cancer again. It’s a matter of when.’” 

Only a few weeks after surgery, Martin-Wells would prove her mettle again at the bow of a bass boat. 

On a sweltering July day in 2022, Martin-Wells stepped onto a tournament stage in Diamond City, Ark. The playing field: Bull Shoals Lake. On the line, the LBAA Wild Card event and a slot in the season-ending LBAA Lady Bass Classic. “I had absolutely no hair,” says Martin-Wells. “I had just finished my third chemo treatment on Monday, and my husband drove me all the way to Bull Shoals. I slept for two days. I got up and started practicing and ended up winning the event.” 

Photos from the event show an overwhelming, emotional scene: a tearful Martin-Wells burying her head into her husband Steven’s chest. An ecstatic crowd and group of competitors. The hot, Southern sun beating down on the shoreline. 

“I walked in there with my bald head, and everyone stood up and gave me a standing ovation,” says Martin-Wells. “The support I got from the ladies was so humbling.” 

Two years after surgery, Martin-Wells is still undergoing maintenance chemotherapy to keep the cancer at bay. These chemotherapeutic cocktails contain a blend of agents that can cause symptoms such as enhanced sensitivity to cold, tingling pain in fingers, toes and hands, nausea, insomnia and an inability for her immune system to fight against simple infections such as common colds. It’s a life-changing recipe for anyone, but an especially difficult combination of symptoms for a professional angler. 

For some, the condition could be enough to quit altogether. For the most successful female angler of all time, it’s a reason to keep fishing. 

Today, Martin-Wells is still an active competitive angler and a successful collegiate bass fishing coach. She’s helped the Emmanuel College bass fishing team grow from a squad of eight anglers to 28. And her individual career highlights stand alone. To date, Martin-Wells holds 32 individual national championships and 10 angler of the year titles shared between Bass’n Gal, WBFA, WBT and the LBAA. She is a 2007 inductee into the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame and the all-time leading money winner in women’s bass fishing. 

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” she says. “Believe in yourself.” 

Originally appeared in Bassmaster Magazine 2024.