“You caught my fish,” joked Bill, as flush of water engulfed my topwater lure. The powerful barramundi leaps from the water making several strong runs before I bring it boat-side to where my son Eland snaps a photo of Bill and I with it. A crazy morning I must admit fishing for Australian fish in Central Florida with both my son and my childhood hero – Bill Dance.
I was never a huge sports fan. Names like Brady, Woods, and Jordan hold little weight with this kid from Ocoee, Florida that waited all winter for spring break just to wade the shoreline of Starke Lake in hopes of sight casting to bedding bass. Memories of my then elderly grandfather sitting in his recliner intertwine with us watching Bill Dance Outdoors together. He and I both enamored with charismatic guests like Jerry Reed, Terry Bradshaw and Hank Williams Jr. that played off the host’s warm Tennessee charm during the golden age of fishing television. By the mid-eighties Bill Dance was a household name in most southern homes and in my eyes the undisputed G.O.A.T. of professional fishing.
As a teenager I rode my bike each Saturday morning to our local bait shop where I took pride in performing crucial tasks such as cleaning cricket cages, dipping shiners for customers and mopping the floor only to hand my pay back to my boss at the end of the day in order to buy whatever Bill recommended on that week’s episode, going as far as purchasing a peg hook’s worth of Dance’s Eels for a month’s worth of work one summer.
As it turned out my passion for fishing led me to become an outdoor writer and over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and fish with many of our industries stars but the one that inspired me the most has remained an unchecked box on my bucket list. Through sheer luck however we both share several mutual friends with one being Byron Hennecy of Osceola Outback Adventures in St Cloud Florida. “Bill’s coming to fish and film a show on Sunday if you want to come hang out,” said Byron over the phone. The conversation jolted my nerves at the thought of fishing with the legendary, Bill Dance. Now a middle aged husband and father of two boys I’ve long since forgotten the magic of being a kid again but while driving to St. Cloud the following morning with my son Eland I began to feel it all over again.
We spent most of the morning fishing another barramundi pond together away from where Bill and the crew were filming before Byron texted us to come over. The camera crew had broken for lunch and dispersed leaving Bill now 82 years old reclining in the bow seat with the bow of the boat on shore. Byron introduced us and Bill welcomed me and Eland into the boat. “Come up here,” he motioned for us to step up on the bow.
“Like Ralphie meeting Santa for the first time I was frozen with excitement managing only to eke out a pitiful icebreaker. “I’ve watched you since I was kid”.
Like Ralphie meeting Santa for the first time I was frozen with excitement managing only to eke out a pitiful icebreaker. “I’ve watched you since I was kid,” I squeaked, my voice quavering as he bit into his tuna sub behind dark sunglasses. After several chews he slowly replied “Yeah we’ve been on for a long time,” sounding a bit uninterested. C’mon Dustin think of something better I thought to myself, then stiffened and began spewing a stream of name drops in hopes to connect with him.
“Yeah I know Byron and Kim and Mark real well and the folks at Hook and Barrel Magazine,” I bragged similar to Ralphie describing the fictitious bears he’d seen in the neighborhood to his father in hopes that a Red Ryder BB gun would be needed. With no immediate reply I began nervously casting without purpose as he unscrewed the lid to a Gatorade bottle. My son indifferent to the whole scene just diligently filmed us both together with my cell phone as I’d instructed while on the trip over.
“They’re good people,” Bill finally replied.
I began to worry I was annoying him when without warning the last thing I intended to happen did. The lure that I was hap-hazardly casting was devoured by an aggressive barramundi sending my drag into over drive. But to my surprise Bill swung his chair around and began to encourage me joking that I’d caught his fish and to “get it in here!” It was like a light bulb went off and the connection we needed was the one thing we had most in common – fishing. “Look what he caught,” Bill chided Eland, now aware that I had coerced my poor ten year old to film the whole encounter.
“That’s our camera man right there buddy,” Bill smiled at Eland, while handing me a pair of pliers to unhook the fish. Both Eland and I were grinning ear to ear as Bill now sensing our admiration for him continued to pour on the charm remarking what a great camera man Eland was and explaining to me how aggressive the barramundi were with the same conviction that made thousands of fans like me tune in each week. To my surprise another fish hammered my lure on the next cast and Bill joked that he was just trying to finish his sandwich but I kept catching all the fish.
“Nice one,” he said as I lifted it into the boat. “Check out its beady eyes their Eland,” he said, motioning Eland toward the fish as if he were the actual cameraman. I reveled in the moment and the kindness he showed us as over the next hour I lived out my childhood dream of fishing with Bill Dance albeit while he ate his lunch and I fished. Before long the camera crews returned and were getting into position so I thanked Bill for allowing us aboard to fish with him before we parted ways. “Ok buddy take care,” he said, already beginning to focus on the next task at hand of finishing the shoot.
While driving home I couldn’t stop replaying the event over in my head. Growing up on the man with the iconic University of Tennessee cap, his influence spans over an incredible 50 years of television. A living link to our childhood and an inspiration to countless of us kids who turned off Saturday morning cartoons and went outside looking for a pond to fish instead. And while they say you should never meet your idols as seldom do they live up to the image you create in your mind. I’m happy to say that after finally meeting mine the hero exceeded the expectation.