Tennessee River story time with Bill Dance


Bill Dance is not only a bass fishing legend, but he is also one of the best storytellers in the industry. He loves to share his favorite memories of this year’s Bassmaster Classic playing field.

The man under that orange and white cap with a capital T front and center — to anyone even vaguely familiar with the bass fishing industry, Bill Dance is unmistakable. A gift from former Tennessee football coach Doug Dickey, the original hat came as a “thank you” for nudging a prospective recruit to UT. But after Dance wore it during a major tournament win and then on his TV show, the hat has become synonymous with one of industry’s most lovable personalities — and one of Tennessee’s biggest fans.

But as much as he loves his Vols, Dance treasures every drop of the 652-mile Tennessee River. This fertile waterway he describes as boasting great water quality and loads of high-protein forage has yielded many memorable moments — from nabbing an 8 1/4-pound Pickwick smallmouth, to hosting celebrities such as NASCAR legend Bobby Allison and the late actor/country artist Jerry Reed.

Broad is the spectrum of his angling experiences, but if there’s one thing you can always count on from Bill Dance, it’s a good story; and when we asked him for his favorite Tennessee River tales, he did not disappoint. We’ll warm up with this one.

“When we started the Pickwick Bass Club many years ago, we had five members and the worst I ever did was fifth place,” Dance jokes. “Someone would ask how I did in a tournament, and when I said ‘fifth,’ they’d say, ‘Well, that’s pretty good,’ but I wouldn’t tell them there was only five of us fishing.”

Here are a few more.

High ground

Ever heard a story and thought, “I know someone who would do that”? Well, Dance has a doozy that will no doubt conjure a certain face for all of us.

So, this old-time commercial fisherman named Buck told a friend known as Parker he had a solid game plan for a Pickwick catfishing mission. The strategy centered on the current from Wilson Dam’s power-generation schedule, which Buck had observed starting around 8 a.m. (We’re going without the tva.com data on this one.)

Short on budget, but long on ingenuity, the pair chopped foot-long chunks of highly buoyant chestnut wood for drift floats. Around nightfall, they paddled their wooden boat into the back of Lower Anderson Branch and caught about four dozen green leopard frogs — a rare treat that catfish can’t resist.

With bait secured, they made camp and rigged their floats with twine and hooks by firelight. Then, around 11:30, the anglers rowed upriver toward State Line Island, where they baited each hook with a leopard frog and then paddled back down to a bluff just above Pickwick Dam. Here, they tied off their boat around daybreak and got into position to watch for their current-born chestnut floats.

Dance continues, “About 8:00, they saw the current starting to move, and Buck looked way up the lake and said, ‘Do you see ’em?’ Parker said, ‘Yeah, I think I see one.’ Buck said, ‘Is it jerking? Is it moving?’ Parker said, ‘No, but there’s another one. I’m starting to see them now. The current is drifting them this way.’

“Buck said, ‘Do you see any of them moving?’ Parker said ‘I see a bunch of them, but I don’t see them moving yet.’ Buck said ‘Well, I’ll be. We set those things at a perfect time and a perfect location; we ought to have a bunch of catfish on them things. Get in the boat; let’s go out there.’”

Perplexed by their lack of success, the men rowed out to examine their rigs. Just imagine their dismay when they found each of their leopard frogs riding safely atop those chestnut floats.

Should’ve remembered the lead weights.

Breakfast is served

During a stay at the historic Boatel — a once-flooded TVA work boat hauled ashore and converted into a recreational lodging/dining establishment — Dance and a pal showed up for breakfast but found no cook on duty. Knowing the owner didn’t mind friends fixing their own meals, Dance started cooking two rounds of sausage, eggs and toast.

While he tended the flat top, four more patrons walked in and placed their order to a good-natured bass celebrity kind enough to just let them think he was the cook. As he started their order, he placed the two plates he’d prepared for himself and his pal off to the side, just as two more hungry anglers arrived.

“They said, ‘Are you cooking?’ and I said, ‘What do you want?’ One of them said, ‘Anything,’ so I asked, ‘How about sausage, eggs and toast?’ He said, ‘Fine,’ so I gave him my breakfast. The other guy said he wanted the same, so I gave him my friend’s breakfast.”

Awfully nice of him, but Dance wasn’t about to play the big-shot card on anyone. So, as the local bass club’s entire tournament field made its way through the Boatel restaurant, guess who made sure they all got fed?

“I sat there and cooked 32 breakfasts,” Dance chuckles. “I didn’t have on my T cap, so they didn’t recognize me. They ate well, but none of them left a tip.”

It’s a safe bet that Dance’s “customers” enjoyed their breakfasts, but this next story ends with a meal of questionable palatability.

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