Bill Dance, one of the world's most famous fishermen, always planned to be a doctor like his father, grandfather and three other generations of Dances.
Then, driving home one night while enrolled in medical school in Memphis, Tenn., in the early 1960s, he came upon a horrific motorcycle crash. The grisly encounter changed his life.
"I was the first person on the scene," Dance recalls. "It was very traumatic and it affected me deeply. At that moment I knew I didn't want to be a doctor anymore."
What did he want to be?
"Well," says Dance in his down-home Southern drawl, "I'd always loved to fish."
And fish he did. He began competing "and winning "in bass tournaments and landed a lure manufacturer for a sponsor. The sponsor encouraged Dance to start a TV show to help promote the product. Bill Dance Outdoors premiered on a Memphis ABC affiliate in 1968 and has been growing in popularity ever since. Today the show is televised nationwide and its host has achieved celebrity status among the nation's 45 million anglers.
Atop an empire
From his home and production studio in Collierville, Tenn. (pop. 31,872), near Memphis, Dance oversees a fishing empire that includes his TV show, tackle endorsements, how-to seminars, his own magazine and a series of popular "blooper" videos, hilarious, self-deprecating outtakes from his shows.
"I've got to be careful not to let this job turn into work," he jokes.
Dance, 67, and his three-man camera crew may spend as much as four days fishing and filming to get the 25 minutes of edited footage necessary for each of his 26 shows each year. The half-hour programs are broadcast on the Versus network (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) and the original shows are then rerun year-round. Each episode features Dance catching fish and chatting all the while as he explains how he does it. He talks to the viewers, to himself, and even to the fish. "C'mon in here, big boy. Easy, now. Man, what a belly on you! See ya . . . " All his catches are released.
"Bill has a special knack for connecting with his viewers," says Tony Mack, Dance's TV producer for 36 years. "It's hard to explain, but whatever he does, it works. People love it."
"He's the greatest people person I've ever known," adds Carlton Veirs, who handles Dance's personal appearances and endorsements. "Bill's never met a stranger, whether it's at some rural little boat dock or at a big outdoor show in Las Vegas. And it's genuine; he likes people, and people like him. That's the key to his success."
No trophies for "top fishing show" or "America's most-watched outdoors program" adorn his office "mainly because no one in Dance's organization has ever pursued such designations. "The only 'award' we care about," says producer Mack, "is seeing the show grow from one small local station to being carried in every state with 18 million viewers."
"I'm truly amazed by it all," Dance says. "I've been very fortunate and very blessed to be able to make a living doing something I love."
A knack for fishing
Dance developed his love affair with fishing as a kid, wading Mulberry Creek in Lynchburg, Tenn. (pop. 5,740), with his grandfather. "I've always had a knack for fishing," Dance says. "I always had good luck."
"There are oodles of good fishermen and lots of TV fishing shows, but there's only one Bill Dance," says Jim Duckworth, a fishing guide and tackle manufacturer who often shares a boat with Dance. "What sets him above all the rest? It's his personality and his sense of humor. Bill loves to laugh "often at himself "and have fun. That comes across to his audience. He makes them feel like they are right there with him, laughing, joking and having a good time."
Dance fishes for every species, and films his shows at locations around the nation. At times he is forced to retreat to private waters.
"Bill has become such a celebrity that it's hard for him to film on public lakes," Duckworth explains. "As soon as word gets out that Bill Dance is there, he gets mobbed. He's that big of a celebrity. Don't misunderstand; Bill loves people, loves to socialize. But when he's filming his show, he has to get away from the crowds."
"He's got a magic touch," agrees John Sloan, veteran outdoors writer. "He's an expert fishermen and he likes to show other people how he does it. He genuinely wants folks to be able to go out and catch fish, just like he does. And he's so darn friendly while he's doing it. There's not a pretentious bone in his body. Everybody who knows Bill likes him. In his business there's often some professional jealously, but not in Bill's case. Everybody loves the guy."
"I just be myself," says Dance, whose Outdoors outtakes include shots of him falling off a boat dock, taking a tumble out of his boat and banging his shin on a trailer hitch "pratfalls and blunders to which every fisherman can relate. "I don't put on airs," he says. "I don't try to be slick and fancy. If you fake it, folks will see right through it. Who they see is who I am."
His best catch
Dance attributes his success to the support of his wife, Dianne, whom he met on a blind date when his original date canceled. They've been married 47 years and have four grown children, including Bill Jr. and Patrick, who help run their dad's outdoors productions from Dance's home and a 5,000-square-foot office next door.
"Back when I was struggling to get started, I had her complete support," Dance says of his wife. "Think about it: A husband comes home one day and says, 'Honey, I've decided to drop everything and try to make a career out of fishing.' How many wives would say, 'OK, I'm behind you'? Well, mine did."
Dance teasingly describes Dianne as "the best catch I ever made." The wife of the world's most famous fisherman doesn't fish.
"I just never got into it," she says, then laughs. "Bill fishes enough for all of us."
Dianne says she "never doubted for a minute" that her husband would be successful with his fishing enterprise.
"I knew it intuitively," she says. "He has a knack for charming viewers, exactly as he charmed me almost 50 years ago."
Dance, like most anglers, believes that luck counts, in life as well as in fishing.
"As I look back over my life and my career, I'm convinced that things happen for a reason, even if we don't understand those reasons at the time," he says. "What if I hadn't come up on that motorcycle wreck that night? I'd probably be a doctor today. What if my original date hadn't backed out that time? I wouldn't have met Dianne. Funny how things work out, ain't it? Call it fate or whatever, I've been very blessed."
What does the future hold for a man who is contentedly perched atop the pinnacle of his profession?
"I'm like every other fisherman," Dance says. "I always want to catch just one more."
Bill's Lucky Cap
For 40 years, Bill Dance's trademark has been his orange and white University of Tennessee cap. He's always filmed or photographed wearing it.
"Doug Dickey, who was football coach at UT in the late 1960s, called me one day and said he was recruiting a player in Georgia who loved to fish, and was a big fan of mine," Dance recalls. "He asked if I'd drop the kid a note and put in a good word for UT. I did, and a few days later I got a couple of UT caps in the mail from Dickey.
"I was wearing one of the caps a little later when I won a big tournament. I was photographed in the cap, so I wore it on my next TV show. Before I knew it, it had become part of my identity. I've been wearing a UT cap ever since."
Is it his lucky charm?
"Nah, I'm not a bit superstitious," Dance says with a chuckle. "Let's just say if something's working, I like to stick with it."