Professional Fisherman or Doctor
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.
The Bill Dance 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.”
Fishing the Start
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.”
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
“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
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
“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
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.”