Throwback Thursday – Bill Dance – A True Legend

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Bill Dance Today - photo courtesy Bill Dance Outdoors

Bill Dance Today – photo courtesy Bill Dance Outdoors

Time for another Throwback Thursday look at a true Legend of the sport of bass fishing from Dan O’Sullivan’s days at Bass West USA.

This time, we take a deeper look at the career of Bill Dance, a legendary competitor, and a trendsetter in the field of Outdoor Television.

Enjoy a look at the legendary career of Bill Dance.

by Dan O’Sullivan

According to online dictionaries, the term ‘Legend’ has several meanings, it can mean; ‘an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical.’ It might mean; ‘An explanatory table or list of the symbols appearing on a map or chart.’ Or in the case of the bass fishing world, a ‘Legend’ is; ‘one that inspires legends or achieves legendary fame.’

A Legend of the sport is someone who has made significant contributions or achieved uncommon accomplishments en route to leaving an indelible mark on the history of the sport. These are individuals who have set new standards, created new trends and driven the bar to new heights as they have blazed the trails of their careers.

Without these individuals, the sport of bass fishing would have nothing to measure itself against. The industry, minus their involvement, would likely be in a much less advanced state than it is. The drive of dominating competition, on and off the water has left a trail of history that many are witness to, yet few are a component of.

One of those anglers is Bill Dance of Collierville, Tennessee.

Dance by the Numbers
While Bill Dance may very well be the most famous fisherman in the world now, his fishing career started with tournaments. As many of the sport’s elite level pros, Dance has a résumé that includes a list of credentials that most anglers beginning a tournament career would long to have.

Bill Dance Fishing Black and White - photo courtesy BASS

Bill Dance Fishing Black and White – photo courtesy BASS

The first event that Dance entered in his 14-year competitive career was Ray Scott’s original All American; the tournament that founded the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, on Beaver Lake in Springdale, Ark. He finished 2nd in that initial event to Stan Sloan, his first in a string of six top 10 finishes.

In fact, Dance’s prowess as a competitor was such that it wasn’t until his 20th career event that he finished outside to the top 20. In those 19 events Dance won seven tournaments, had three 2nd places and two more 3rd place showings. All told, in his first 19 events, he placed in the top 10 17 times.

According to BASS statistics, the average finish of his 78 entries was a little more than 14th place, collecting paychecks on 54 occasions, a success rate of nearly 70%.

Dance’s competitive career featured eight trips to the Bassmaster Classic, in eight of the first nine such events held by B.A.S.S. His highest Classic finish, a runner up position to Rayo Breckenridge, came in 1973, on Clarks Hill Reservoir in South Carolina, during the third Classic put on by the organization.

His consistency in competition earned him three B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Titles, in 1970, 1974 and again in 1977. For the first eight years of the Angler of the Year tile, B.A.S.S. enjoyed an ongoing battle of Dance, and his contemporary Roland Martin that culminated in the pair claiming seven of the first eight awards.

His career earnings totals $57, 134.42, which does not seem like much, until you consider the fact that his single highest paycheck was a $4,000 check for his 2nd place finish at the Lake Gaston Virginia Invitational in 1977. Were he competing today, his first 19 events would have earned him $883,500.

However successful his tournament career, to relegate Dance to his status as a tournament exclusively would be to disregard what might possibly be his most significant contribution and accomplishment, his nationally syndicated television show, Bill Dance Outdoors.

While it didn’t start at the top, Bill Dance Outdoors may be one of the most widely viewed fishing shows on television. Originally premiering in 1968 on a Memphis, Tennessee ABC affiliate, Bill Dance Outdoors has grown to reach more than 18 million homes in 50 states on the Versus Network. While his original series focused on freshwater Sportfishing, a second show, Bill Dance Saltwater, began in January of 2009, and airs on the Outdoor Channel.

Bill Dance

Bill Dance at a Weigh-in – photo courtesy of B.A.S.S.

Dance and his camera crew film 44 new episodes a year for the two shows. Each episode of Bill Dance Outdoors airs five times a week on Versus, and Bill Dance Saltwater airs three times a week on the Outdoor Channel. At least 180 times a year, anglers across the country learn something new about fishing from and are entertained by Dance. With that many new episodes each year, with the average number of people in each household, this means the average amount of visual impressions made by Dance in a year could be more than five billion.

Along with the impact of his presence on television, Dance is one of the most sought after promoters of fishing and fishing related products. His impact annually is responsible for the purchase of millions of dollars of goods for companies whom he represents. Anglers all over the country turn to him as an influence when choosing products to purchase. His promotional prowess is felt in product lines from lures to trucks and everything in between.

While the Bill Dance Outdoors Empire is certainly far reaching in scope of influence, like anyone, he started his fishing career long before he was actually getting paid to cast. His beginnings can be found in the roots of a family tree that loved the outdoors.

The First Steps
Like so many others, Dance learned his love of the outdoors from two people in his life; his father and grandfather. “I was really blessed as a youngster to have a Daddy and Grandaddy who loved to hunt and fish,” said Dance. “They gave me the greatest gift; they introduced me to the great sports of fishing and hunting, and it started early on in my life.”

Dance said he spent much of his youth wading the creeks of middle Tennessee fishing with his grandparents. For quite a while he fished for everything that he could catch. Nothing was immune from the business end of young Dance’s fishing tackle. From hunting crawfish to black perch, smallmouth bass and catfish in the rain, they all offered a sportsman’s delight. “I loved those times with my grandparents,” he said. “To this day, those early experiences are the reason I love to fish moving water so much.”

Being from a small town in Tennessee, Dance said the town would close up on Wednesday afternoons, and it was a tradition for his grandparents to take him to the local lake for an afternoon catching fish. “We used a lot of live bait in those days,” said Dance. “I used one of the four rods my Grandaddy had purchased for me. It was either the metal tubular telescopic fly rod, the South Bend Automatic, the old Pflueger with braided Dacron line or my favorite; a Pflueger Summit on an octagon shaped metal rod. I don’t mind tellin’ ya’ buddy – it was state of the art in those days.”

Bill Dance Gets Trophy and Payday from Ray Scott - photo courtesy BASS

Bill Dance Gets Trophy and Payday from Ray Scott – photo courtesy BASS

It was on one of those Wednesday afternoon outings that Dance fell in love with black bass. As an eight-year-old, he had purchased his first lure at a local establishment called Motlow’s Hardware. “Lem Motlow was a local businessman who became the proprietor of Jack Daniels distillery when Mr. Daniels died,” Dance reported. “One of his son’s ran the hardware store, and they had some tackle in it. I bought a frog colored Arbogast Jitterbug, and took it with me on our next Wednesday outing to Cumberland Springs, halfway between Lynchburg and Tullahoma.”

When they arrived at the lake, his grandfather would spread out his rods; his grandmother would spread out the picnic blanket and crochet, while he would walk the bank fishing. It was after he had walked away from his grandparents that he saw a pair of fish swimming near some reeds, in water so clear Dance reported “being able to read heads or tails on a nickel in 10 feet of water.”

“I made a cast that was off target by about 20 feet with that Jitterbug, but when the bait hit the water; they stopped,” he said. “I started to reel that thing away from them, and they followed. When I stopped reeling, they stopped, when I started again, they followed in turn. Eventually, the bigger of the two struck the lure; and I saw every bit of the action.”

He said his excitement led him to handle the landing of the fish in a less than graceful manner. “You’ve got to picture this kid in hi-top sneakers and an old rod as I threw the rod back over my head and began well-roping that fish in,” remembered Dance. When I got it to the bank, I reeled up all of the slack and ran to my grandparents to show it off.”

Dance said the experience left an indelible mark on his life. “That was the first lure caught bass, and I fell in love with artificials,” he said. “I’ve experienced that moment maybe a million times since, but that moment is what started my career.”

Bill Dance

Bill and Dianne Dance 1977 AOY Presentation – photo courtesy BASS

It wasn’t too much longer when Dance’s parents separated, and the young man moved with his mother to Memphis. While Wednesday afternoon outings were no longer the tradition, he still fished every chance he got. “I would ride my bike or catch a bus to city parks to go fishing,” he said. “When I got older, I borrowed her car until I got my own, but I went fishing as often as I could.”

Like many mothers, Dance’s encouraged his passion, even when it was not necessarily to her benefit. “I used to buy her rods and reels, or lures for Mother’s Day or Christmas,” he remembered. “She’d see right through my attempt at gift giving and tell me to use it until she needed it; she was always good that way.”

He eventually got an outboard motor, a fishfinder and a john boat, and every free minute was spent fishing oxbow lakes around Memphis. “I sculled that boat around until I got a trolling motor,” he said. “I caught a lot of fish in those days.”

His prowess was noticed by others, and wasn’t too long before his tournament career would start.

Steppin’ up to Tournaments
In 1967, word began to spread among the fishing community about a new tournament that was said to draw the best bass anglers in the world to Beaver Lake in Springdale, Arkansas. The tournament, being organized by an insurance salesman from Alabama named Ray Scott, was to be called, the All American.

“I had heard about the tournament, but didn’t think I could come up with the money for the entry fee, or be able to take the time off of work,” said Dance. “I was working as a salesman for Stratton Warren Hardware, a warehouse distribution company, mainly because they sold fishing tackle.”

It was after he received a call from the president of a local automotive dealership that he began to think of the tournament as an option for him. “Oscar Oakley was at Hurl Dobbs Ford, which at the time was the biggest in the country,” Dance said. “He called me into his big, push office and asked if I knew anything about the All American. I told him I had, but wouldn’t be able to go.”

“He told me he wanted to sponsor me into the event and my boss told me that I could have the time off,” he said. “I decided to go ahead and accept Dobbs’ offer and fish the tournament.” It wouldn’t be much longer that his decision would prove to be one of the most historical moments in B.A.S.S. history

Bill Dance

Bill Dance Accepts 1977 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Trophy – photo courtesy BASS

First Bass in B.A.S.S. History
Ray Scott has publicly said many times that Dance caught the first bass in that Beaver Lake tournament, and by doing so, became the first man to catch a fish in B.A.S.S. competition. “I had found a school of fish across from Prairie Creek Marina in a pocket with a road bed, and decided to start the tournament there” Dance said. “I had a really fast boat, one of the fastest in the field during the All American, when Scott fired that shotgun; I ran straight to that little pocket, it was so close that I could barely get on plane before having to shut down.”

The other angler who would have challenged Dance for the fastest boat was Ray Murski, who was still in sight when Dance got ready to fish. “I could still see Ray when I put the trolling motor down and set up for a cast,” he said. “The boat wakes from the other competitors had not even reached my boat when I made my first cast.”

Dance said his worm was sinking to the bottom when he felt a strike. “I threw that worm out there, and before it could hit bottom, I had hooked up with a two pounder,” he said. “My draw for the day was a guy named Troy Anderson, and when we both had caught our limits, we could still see some of the tournament boats driving to their first spots.”

Dance would lead the first two days of that inaugural B.A.S.S. event, eventually finishing in 2nd place behind Stan Sloan. However, his first tournament caught bass would forever be known as the first caught in the history of the organization.

Gettin’ to Business
Dance became a sought after angler quickly, and it wasn’t long before well known lure manufacturers were seeking his services. He received offers from Bagley’s and Heddon before settling on someone who had impressed he and his wife.

“Nick Crème flew Dianne and me to Shreveport, Louisiana where they met us and drove us back to their shop around Toledo Bend,” said Dance. “We stayed with Nick and his wife Cosma from Friday through Sunday, and decided to take his job offer. I’d been catching about 60% of my fish on a Flip Tail worm, and decided that was the best thing for me to do.

For his services, Dance would receive a company station wagon, and double his salary from the hardware distributor. Best of all, he would get to fish the tournaments, and the rest of his time was spent fishing with writers. “Between tournaments, Nick would have me go down to Toledo Bend and host writers and sporting goods buyers on the water,” he said. “I taught them how to fish Crème worms, and the slip sinker rig.”

Bill Dance On Camera - photo courtesy Bill Dance Outdoors

Bill Dance On Camera – photo courtesy Bill Dance Outdoors

Dance would work in that role for a couple of years before he thought of making a change. “I thought about what I was doing for Nick, and felt that if I could do it for him, I could do it for myself,” which Crème said he would bless. “Nick told me when I left that the door swung both ways, so together with Charles Spence; we started Strike King Lure Company.”

After a few months, Dance realized that part of the fishing business was not for him, so he turned his part of Strike King over to Spence, and went to work for Cotton Cordell. It was Cordell who made a suggestion that changed Dance’s life.

The Television Star
His new boss made the suggestion that he should make a television show about fishing, so with the support of Cordell, he went to work making a show for the ABC affiliate in Memphis. “I carried my camera with me everywhere I went fishing,” he said. “My guests and I would take turns holding the camera and fishing, then I would head back to the studio where I would edit and produce the shows.”

It wasn’t long before other markets picked up on Dance’s show, which was to the amazement of friend and tournament roommate Jerry McKinnis. “McKinnis always said puttin’ me on television was like puttin’ perfume on a pig. What was the point,” Dance giggled. “But, it wasn’t long before I had more areas wanting shows.”

Over the next couple of years, Dance would begin taping and producing shows in four separate local markets; his original Memphis show, one in Jackson, Mississippi, in Baton Rouge and Paducah, Kentucky. “I was on 52 weeks a year, producing 208 shows,” he said. “I would spend a week in Memphis filming, then another on Ross Barnett, then head to Kentucky for another one, and then down to Jackson. I’d get all of the footage I could for those shows in that time frame, then set up in editing and production.”

Bill Dance

Bill Dance at Weigh-in – photo courtesy BASS

His television work was going on while he was still chasing the B.A.S.S. tournaments, and with the amount of work, he eventually sought help. “I eventually hired a guy to help me shoot, edit and produce the show,” he said. “The schedule was getting really hectic, and I needed to do something about it.”

By 1980, when he was on a series of whirlwind trips around tournaments, filming and personal appearances, he decided to focus on bill Dance Outdoors. “I flew into town from an appearance, met my cameraman / producer at the airport with my rig as he was flying home,” he said. “I realized that something had to give, and it was going to be tournaments.”

Until that time, he had been one of the fiercest competitors, but his results had slipped due to his hectic schedule. “Ray (Scott) and my wife had always told me there would be a day when that would happen,” he remembered. “Until that point, I had lived and breathed tournaments, but to compete requires a different focus. I’d always felt that your goal must be to win, and in order to do that you have to have several options on the water; I didn’t have time to devote to it, so I made the decision to go strictly with the show.”

While he would miss the tournaments, and the people around them, Dance was soon busy enough growing his empire that he wouldn’t have time to think about tournaments at all. “Before long, we were syndicated to 50 networks, then 90, before we started airing on TNN (The Nashville Network),” he said. “They were making a push in the outdoors, had NASCAR, and bull riding, so it was a natural fit.”

It was around that time that he acquired another sponsor that helped push his show up another level. “Wal Mart became a partner, and for the next 15 years, we did really well together,” he said. “It was a great ride, we worked well together, and the show has grown as a result of it.”

Bill Dance's Eel - photo courtesy Bill Dance Outdoors

Bill Dance’s Eel – photo courtesy Bill Dance Outdoors

Save the Last Dance
Dance is quick to point out that he has lived his life to the best of his abilities. “It’s the only life I know,” he said. “I could have been something else, but this life has done everything for me and my family that I could have ever wanted.”

“I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of people who are very good at what they do,” he said. “These people make me look good, and that is really hard to do, especially without much recognition. It’s been a great ride, and I’ve been fortunate to make a living doing what I do, and at the same time give back to the people and industry that I love, I hope the good Lord let’s me do this forever, and a little bit more..”

His career has always been about competing and performing at the highest level, we have been blessed to partake in the special moments will continue to be things we have learned from and been entertained by. His goals have always been to inspire, educate and entertain, and he has done all of those. That’s why he is a Hall of Famer, a founder, a teacher, performer and television host; he is, Bill Dance, the man in the University of Tennessee cap – Legend of the Sport.