For Bill Dance, casting a brand-new top-water lure from a neighborhood store seventy-one years ago set him on a path to become one of the world’s best-known fishermen.
And he remembers every detail from that fateful fishing trip.
As a seven-year-old boy in Lynchburg, Tennessee, he had his eyes on the shiny new Arbogast lures that were inside a glass counter at Motlow’s Hardware Store. He wanted one in particular, the plastic-and-aluminum Jitterbug, but was stonewalled by its price tag of 75 cents. He visited the store several times just to eyeball and handle the artificial bait. One day his grandmother surprised him with three quarters so he could go buy it. Dance recalls running to the store just as fast as his little legs would take him.
With a new rod his father had just bought him, and a Shakespeare reel spooled with braided “catgut” line, he tried out his new lure that afternoon on nearby Cumberland Springs Lake.
Let’s let Dance, a thorough and captivating storyteller, pick it up from here:
“Granddaddy would fish on the bottom for shellcrackers (or redears) with red worms. I took that Jitterbug and I walked down 75 yards while grandmother was crocheting under a shade tree. It was a spring-fed lake, so it was real clear. I looked to my right and saw two bass – one of them around two pounds and the other a pound and a half – swimming side by side.
“As soon as the bait hit the water, both fish stopped.” It had their attention. As young Billy reeled, the Jitterbug cut the surface of the water with its distinctive whirring gurgle, and the fish swam toward it. The bigger largemouth crashed into the bait and bit, and the other one tried to attack it, too.
“I was so excited, I threw the rod behind me and grabbed the line and pulled the fish up on the bank,” he says. “It was probably a little over two pounds, but it was a monster to me.”
It was the first of thousands of bass caught over the decades, but there was something else significant about the catch. It confirmed to him what his grandfather, Dr. Paul Parks Dance, had been teaching him – that fish rely on their senses of hearing and sight to eat. These basic principles form the bedrock of what Dance has passed on to millions of TV viewers in the 50 years since he first hit the airwaves with a local fishing show in Memphis in 1968.
“Little things he taught me started to come into play,” says Dance. “That fish on that plug kick-started it. And today they still make that plug. It was first made in 1934.”
A Jitterbug like the one that cost his grandmother 75 cents retails for $6.99 today. Compared with the selection of eight Arbogast lures that Dance remembers being on display at the hardware store back then, the number and variety of lures and other fishing accessories is staggering. There is so much on the market and readily available at stores like Bass Pro Shop and Cabela’s that even Dance, who still loves experimenting with new equipment and techniques, isn’t familiar with them all.
But it’s not for lack of trying. This is a man who loves fishing so much that he does it even in his personal down time from a profession of fishing. Though he lives in Collierville, Tennessee, just east of Memphis on the state’s western end, he likes to return to the middle Tennessee area of his youth, fishing those same rivers and creeks where he first got hooked on the sport.
His TV exposure over the years has made Dance recognizable around the world – especially when he’s wearing his trademark mesh University of Tennessee cap. After years on ESPN and then TNN, his shows “Bill Dance Outdoors” and “Bill Dance Saltwater” air throughout the United States and much of Canada on Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel and the World Fishing Network, reaching more than 12 million households. And he has a strong presence on social media.
When asked who has been on TV longer than him, Dance pauses for a long moment and replies, “I don’t think anybody.”
What has been the secret to his success? A big part of it is his winning, affable personality, to be sure, but he’s much too modest to say so.
“I think when you can entertain and educate at the same time, you’ve got the best of both worlds,” he says. “We’re not there to impress you with how many fish we caught in a thirty-minute period. We’re there to show you how we caught those fish.”
So how do you catch the big one?
The first rule of thumb is to concentrate and pay attention to what the bass are trying to tell you, Dance says. Here are some more tips and observations from this legendary fisherman:
To go bass fishing, what do you absolutely need in your tackle box?
Don’t complicate it. I think you need a few top-water baits like a Chugger, a prop bait, a Devil’s Horse, maybe a buzz bait, a couple of spinner baits, a double willow blade and a Colorado blade, a shallow running crank bait and a deep-diving crank bait and a pack or two of six-inch worms, lizards, etc.
If you had to fish with only one bait, what would it be?
A black 3/8-ounce spinner bait with a silver Colorado blade. The reason for black is it holds its identity better in most water clarities and at night, in cloudy or bright days. The Colorado blade vibrates considerably more than other blades and can be worked at a slower speed because it has greater water resistance, and the silver finish reflects more than any color or finish.
How do you know where to find fish?
It depends on the weather and time of year and lake conditions. In spring you look for the warmest waters, in the covers or creek arms. If I were at a strange lake, I would go to the marina and ask to find out at what depth the fish are being caught. You can take the best lure in the world and fish at the wrong depth and not catch anything, but you can take the worst lure and fish at the right depth and catch a few. Depth is critical.
What technological innovations give benefits to today’s anglers?
Today’s rods are light, strong and sensitive, and the fishing lines are, too. Reels are smooth, with improved drag systems. Outboard motors are well constructed, faster, safer, and more dependable. Hooks are sharper and lures are more realistic. Electronics are through the roof. They are mind-boggling – (with GPS) you are able to return to the same spot in the middle of the lake. With depth finders, you have units with live real-time scanning sonar, which is simply amazing.
How do you know where to cast?
Bass relate to cover, whether it’s a tree, a stump or a boulder or vegetation. The muddier the water, the shallower they’ll be because they can see better, and the tighter they’ll hold to cover. The windier it is, the tighter they’ll hold to cover. Sight is their number-one sense – they’ve got to see it to eat it. That’s why it’s smart when you’re fishing in off-colored water to make several repeated casts to an object. Your first catch, the fish hears it. The second cast, he zeroes in on where he heard it. The third cast, he moves toward it.
Also, I always try to throw past it, so I’m covering the back, the side and the front all in one cast.
I psyche myself to believe a fish is there. That goes a long way. By doing that I’m going to fish that object much more carefully and much more thoroughly.
What are some mistakes that beginning bass fisherman make?
Not thinking it out. Just rushing and trying to fish too fast without reading the conditions.
Who is your favorite fishing partner?
My longtime friend Johnny Morris (founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops). He has caught every kind of fish that swims, and every fish he catches, it’s like his first one. We have caught fish together from Canada to Mexico. He is like a brother. I have known him for 45 years. He gets excited not only when he’s catching fish, but when you’re catching fish.