Bill Dance isn’t just a happy guy.
He’s one of those supremely rare human beings with a gift for being so upbeat all of the time that he makes those around him happier by simply being himself.
His friends will tell you those deep dimples and giant toothy grins you see beneath his famous orange and white T-cap aren’t phoney. That’s who he is every day.
But the story of his near miss in the 1973 Bassmaster Classic on South Carolina's Clarks Hills Reservoir is one that wipes that big smile right off his face.
Many people who know Dance from his popular television shows Bill Dance Outdoors and Bill Dance Saltwater may not realize what a successful tournament angler he was before he became one of the most popular outdoors entertainers of all-time.
In 14 seasons on the Bassmaster circuit (1967-80), during a time when there weren’t nearly as many tournaments as there are today, Dance had seven first-place finishes, 40 Top 10s and three Angler of the Year titles.
But one thing he never managed was a Classic victory.
“I wanted to win it so bad I couldn’t stand it,” Dance said. “In my mind, it was the one trophy I still needed.”
He qualified eight times and came closest to winning fishing’s biggest prize in 1973.
The fishing was tough, but that’s just how Dance liked it. Through three rounds, he had been the only angler to weigh in a limit of bass every day.
He was catching his fish from 50 feet of water on Carolina-rigged worms – and since he only had nine of the worms with him, he was using a cigarette lighter to melt them back together when they finally reached their breaking point.
Dance had already weighed in a rock-solid catch of 19 pounds on the final day and was sitting pretty with a three-day mark of 48 pounds, 14 ounces.
“I just knew I had it won,” Dance said. “I was counting those chickens. I was already thinking about holding the trophy.”
But there was hitch: Rayo Breckenridge hadn’t weighed in yet.
The soft-spoken farmer-turned-pro fisherman from Paragould, Ark., had entered the final round in the lead, but he’d dealt with boat trouble for much of the day. He was stranded with a solid bag of fish that might have been wasted if Roland Martin – another eventual television star – hadn’t graciously offered to tow him back to the weigh-in site.
With the assist from Martin, Breckenridge brought 12-7 to the stand and finished with 52-8. It was more than 3 pounds better than Dance's 48-14.
You can still hear the devastation in Dance’s voice more than 40 years later.
“My heart just died,” Dance said. “I was standing there doing my best to try and maintain a smile, but it hurt me so bad that it nearly got the best of me right there at the weigh-in. I still think about it now.”
Dance’s wife, Diane, helped him off the mat by reminding him that Breckenridge had suffered through several tough years as a farmer and his wife, Marilyn, was losing her sight to diabetic retinopathy. They desperately needed the money.
Dance said that might have been the only thing that kept him from falling into the worst depression of his life. He and Breckenridge were already friends, and they stayed that way until Breckenridge died in 1995.
But still, there are moments when South Carolina 1973 zaps the smile from Dance's face.
“I sure was happy for Rayo," Dance said. “But gosh, that one hurt.”