Millions of fishing fans know Bill Dance as the host of The Bill Dance Outdoors TV show, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Others remember him as one of the fiercest competitors in professional B.A.S.S. fishing.
Dance won eight of the first 20 professional tournaments he entered and was Angler of the Year three out of the first eight seasons he competed. But he never won the “big one” — the Bassmaster Classic.
He did come close, though, in 1973. And the story of how Dance lost the 1973 Classic is one of the most poignant in bass fishing. Dance revealed it in an interview with Steve Bowman of JM Outdoors for B.A.S.S.’s 50th anniversary celebration. If the story has been told before — which I doubt — it’s worth repeating.
Classic III was held in late October 1973 on Clarks Hill Reservoir, South Carolina. It paid $15,000 in prize money, winner-take-all.
Dance was in contention from the opening round, battling it out with legendary anglers Tom Mann, Bobby Murray and Roland Martin.
Dance fished deep, catching 10-bass limits on Carolina rigs with high-floating Bill Jackson worms at 30- to 50-foot depths.
“The worms came three to a pack, and I only brought three packs with me,” Dance recalled. “On the final day, I was down to four ragged worms. I had a cigarette lighter and was melting them back together.”
Somehow those worms held together long enough for Dance to land a limit. His three-day total of 48 pounds, 12 ounces seemed insurmountable.
Everyone just knew Dance had won. Murray, Mann and Martin had already weighed in and fallen short.
Only Rayo Breckenridge, the Arkansas cotton farmer, remained.
“Finally, here comes Rayo,” Dance recalls. “His boat had broken down on the way in, and I saw him and pulled him in. And he beat me!”
Breckenridge’s total of 52-8 topped Dance’s by 3 pounds, 6 ounces.
“You could have stuck a fork in me,” Dance said. “I mean, you talk about the agony of defeat. I still had to maintain a smile, but it just let the air out of me. I went over and hugged Rayo’s neck and shook his hand. And then I pulled my hat down over my eyes so he couldn’t see me crying.”
Dance’s wife, Dianne, pulled her husband aside. “I know how you feel,” she said, “but everything happens for a reason.”
Dance knew the reason he lost — his own bonehead lack of judgment.
An ABC television crew was filming for The American Sportsman from a nearby boat when Dance hooked a big bass, easily a 5-pounder. The show’s producer yelled, “Let him jump!” Although he knew better, Dance let the fish run. On cue, it jumped and — you guessed it — spit out his worm.
Yes, Dance knew why he lost the Classic, but Dianne was about to tell him the reason for it all.
She pulled her husband aside and told him, “You know that Rayo is a farmer, and he’s had two horrible years farming. And Marilyn — you don’t know this but I do — Marilyn is going blind. Every penny they get is going to help her have a major eye operation.”
“When she told me that, I mean, I just felt a hundred percent better. I was tickled to death that Rayo had won it — I really was,” said Dance.
“I never won a Classic, but I had the chance. And I’m glad I didn’t win it.”
He can say that, now that he knows the reason.