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'Elvis' of ICAST: You Know When Bill Dance Is In The House

The beloved icon continues to bring knowledge and smiles to the bass-fishing world.

'Elvis' of ICAST: You Know When Bill Dance Is In The House

In many ways, Bill Dance is the "Elvis of ICAST," an iconic figure in the sportfishing world that continues to draw a crowd wherever he goes. Dance, 82, remains as popular as ever in the fishing world, with endorsements and two TV shows on Outdoor Sportsman Group networks. That includes "Bill Dance Outdoors," still going strong after 55 years—the longest continuous running outdoors television show in history. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

On a warm Florida evening last summer at ICAST 2022 in Orlando, several hundred media members in the sportfishing industry pushed onto the spacious show floor of the Orange County Convention Center, ready to enjoy an evening of seeing the latest fishing gear and enjoying some food and cold beverages, courtesy of the American Sport Fishing Association.

With free food and drink usually being enough to draw a crowd at gatherings like ICAST’s New Product Showcase reception, a murmur suddenly moved through the crowd. And just like that, the attention at the annual International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades  turned to a man wearing blue jeans, a powder blue shirt and a white mesh baseball hat emblazoned with a familiar big orange T.

Bill Dance was in the house. Ladies and gentlemen, the "Elvis of ICAST" had just walked onto the floor. He blushed when he heard that moniker, insisting he’s just a regular guy. But like Elvis was to music, Tom Brady was to football and Michael Jordan was to basketball, Bill Dance is that to bass fishing.

Bill Dance and Jimmy Houston
Bill Dance and his pal Jimmy Houston have been fishing competitively, telling stories, filming TV shows, and making people smile and laugh since the 1960s and 1970s. And whenever they get together like they did at the ICAST show a couple of summers ago, you know good times are ahead. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

Dance, an International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame inductee (2006) is an icon. Four-time Bassmaster Classic winner Kevin VanDam may be the “greatest of all time” in competitive bass fishing, but there’s little doubt Dance is a GOAT in his own right. The 82-year-old keeps going and going and going as the face of bass fishing.

"All I Ever Wanted To Be Was Bill Dance"

After decades of catching bass and helping millions learn how to do it, too, as a TV personality, Dance remains immensely popular. So much that in a song entitled "Bill Dance" country-music star Luke Bryan sings: "Because all I ever wanted to be was Bill Dance."

Like Elvis, Dance is a showman, but he also sees himself as much more than an entertainer in the outdoors world. He not only fishes for a living, he knows how many ball bearings need to be in a reel, what the term "modulus" means to a graphite rod maker, what a slow horizontal fall rate means to a lure designer, which knots work best with fluorocarbon and braid, how to use the latest innovation in electronics, and ways to make a crankbait sing and dance as it catches yet another 5-pounder on his TV show.

"Doing outdoors television [for so long], our strength has been in our educational format," he said. "I’ve really tried to pound that idea over the years. Sure, you only see a percentage of the fish that we catch. And sometimes, let’s be honest, you see every fish that we catch (because) it’s tough."

Dance knows that the best-looking bass and the ones with the most jumps will help make good television, but also that he’s a teacher first and not just an entertainer. His annual attendance at ICAST (scheduled July 11-14 this year in Orlando) shows that he remains a powerful presence in the pro fishing game. He’s been in the sport for more years than many ICAST attendees have even been alive, and is expected back this year.

Bill Dance signing autograph
There’s no telling how many autographs Bill Dance has signed down through the years. But despite his legendary status the Tennessee resident remains humble, humorous, immensely likable, and approachable by his fans. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

The Highlight At ICAST

Dance has a twinkle in his eye to go along with his keen wit and sharp sense of humor. He’s immensely likable and as All-American as apple pie. And that’s why a visit with him is such a treasured highlight at ICAST. While Dance can’t recall if he’s made all 65 previous shows, he’s certainly been to most of them. “I started going to them in Chicago at the McCormick (Place Convention Center),” said Dance. “I bet I’ve been to over 60 of them. We’ve had them in St. Louis, Kansas City—I remember being there when Elvis died—Dallas, Anaheim, Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta, and [Orlando] a bunch of times.”




Dance liked going to St. Louis—it was close to Memphis, his hometown—and to Las Vegas, but he’s been a regular fixture in Orlando since ICAST left Las Vegas and moved permanently to the Orange County Convention Center in 2014. And every summer, like clockwork, Dance is there, unofficially presiding over it all. He makes the rounds to various sponsor booths, hams it up with longtime pals like Jimmy Houston, Roland Martin, and KVD, meets and greets fans, signs countless autographs and like everybody else in the shadow of Disney World, wants to see what’s new in the ICAST fishing world.

He even finds time on occasion to fish in the ICAST Cup for media members and industry representatives, anchoring the winning Mystik Lubricants team in 2015 when Dance, Cody Detweiler and Dave East combined to catch 17 pounds, 12 ounces on a hot summer morning at Lake Toho near Kissimmee, Fla.

Dance is no stranger to winning tournaments, but it might surprise folks to know that he only fished in 78 official Bass Anglers Sportsman Society events during his career with the organization that his late friend Ray Scott started. In Scott's inaugural event, the 1967 All-American Invitational on Arkansas' Beaver Lake, Dance was runner-up to winner Stan Sloan and pocketed $1,000 (Sloan won $4,000).

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But Dance, one of the so-called "Memphis Bassmen" according to AntiqueLures.com, was on his way to stardom, and claimed "the honor of catching the first bass ever caught in a bass tournament (a two-pounder on a plastic worm). He had a 60-horsepower motor and he could go faster than most of the other boats.  Bill caught a fish on his first cast and as he looked around he saw that most of the boats had not even reached their fishing spots."

While competing for B.A.S.S., Dance won an amazing seven times in 17 tournaments over a three-year span. The first victory was the 1968 Rebel Invitational on Mississippi's Ross Barnett Reservoir where he caught 72 pounds, 1 ounce of bass; his last was the 1970 All-American on Missouri's Table Rock Lake where he weighed in 52 pounds, 6 ounces. Dance won a total of 23 national titles over the course of his career, 16 of those being away from the B.A.S.S. circuit.

On the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, he finished as a runner-up in eight events, the first being the 1967 All-American and the last being the 1979 Arizona Invitational. His runner-up finish at the 1977 Virginia Invitational gave him his biggest professional tournament payday, a $4,000 check. Dance’s career Bassmaster winnings were of $57,134.42 in a dozen years. While Dance never won the Bassmaster Classic (he was runner-up in 1973), he did win the Angler of the Year title three times.

Bitten By The TV Bug

It was during the '70s when Dance forged a different career path, one that would make him a fishing legend and a household name across the South.

Raised in Lynchburg, Tenn., he originally planned to be a doctor and had reportedly moved to Memphis to attend medical school, ready to follow his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to become a physician. But after being the first to a grisly accident scene in the 1960s, he knew that wasn't the life for him. Looking for a new career path, Dance knew he loved to fish and jumped eagerly into the new tournament game that Scott began. And with tremendous early success, not to mention a warm and humorous down-home personality, Dance was a natural for TV.

When Memphis-based Strike King Lure Company built by Charles Spence suggested that he start a television show, Dance agreed and the first episode of "Bill Dance Outdoors" aired in 1968 on the Memphis ABC-TV affiliate, WHBQ. The show quickly became very popular in Memphis.

Bill Dance at ICAST fishing show
There's more gray hair than there once was and maybe he's slowed down just a bit, but aside from that, Bill Dance remains very much one of the icons in the sportfishing world. With a showman's heart and an educator’s mind, Dance continues to draw a crowd wherever he goes. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

Eventually the show went national, and today it continues to air on Outdoor Channel, along with “Bill Dance Saltwater” on Sportsman Channel. As the longest continuous running outdoors TV show in history, millions have watched Dance's humble demeanor as he fishes, catches big fish, educates and entertains, especially with the self-deprecating bloopers that Dance's brand airs on its Facebook page and other social-media platforms.

A natural on TV, Dance retired from tournament bass fishing competition in 1980 at the age of 39. But he hardly skipped a beat, starting the most successful fishing show of all time, now in its 55th year. His tournament prowess, not to mention an unparalleled outdoors television career, landed him in the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 1986 when he was still in his 40s.

Dance has become a trustworthy and smiling pitchman for numerous brands through the years, including Strike King, and later on, for Johnny Morris' Bass Pro Shops, Nitro Boats and Tracker Boats. He has continued to fish, authored seven books, has conducted countless fishing seminars, and has taught millions in person and on TV how to bass fish, helping to popularize lures and techniques like the Carolina rig.

Dance has slowed down a bit, but continues a pace that many would consider robust, including ICAST each summer, the Bassmaster Classic Expo each spring, filming two television series, and even finding the time to lend his name and expertise to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency line of 18 revamped lakes dubbed "Bill Dance Signature Lakes."

Bill Dance at ICAST
After winning seven of the first 17 tournaments he entered, filming Bill Dance Outdoors for more than five decades, attending most of the previous 65 ICAST fishing trade shows, and being elected to the IGFA Hall of Fame in 2006, Bill Dance has forgotten more about fishing than most anglers will ever know. And yet he shows up in Orlando every summer, eager to see what’s new, hungry to learn how to describe new fishing gear to those who faithfully watch his TV show, and wanting to soak up something that can make one of the world’s best all-time bass anglers even better. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

Still Going Strong

While Dance never became a medical doctor, he still became "Dr. Dance," earning an honorary doctorate from the University of Tennessee in 2021. Dance has always been a Volunteers fan, was a close friend of UT football coach Doug Dickey, and has even been known to lend his encouragement to help football prospects figure out the way to Knoxville.

But Dance remains in many ways the same old Bill he’s always been, married to Dianne all of these years despite having to tell her more than once when the ICAST Show was in Las Vegas that he had to go to a sponsor dinner rather than taking her out to a show. And he continues to wear blue jeans, tennis shoes or dock shoes, sunglasses and, of course, that familiar white hat with the big bright orange "T" on it.

Despite his age, schedule and the idea that nothing is ever really new under the sun, Dance continues to look forward to attending ICAST to see old friend and visit with sponsors.

Last year when we spoke, Dance was fresh off four days of filming with Johnny Morris, and had visited with Garmin about electronics and Mercury about motors. But he had a smile on his face, a pep in his step, and more energy than most.

Dance keeps up with the latest trends in fishing technology and he pays attention to which products and companies are taking home awards in ICAST’s New Product Showcase. He talks to engineers and product specialists and says, "Tell me about this and show me how it works."

"It is often still Greek to me,” he smiled, before adding he also asks, "Tell me more about it, (because) I want to be able to talk about it like I had some sense, to be able to tell the public about it, and I wanted to be able to tell them that I knew something about it and I knew what I was talking about (when I told it all to them on TV).

“And I gain that by coming to the (ICAST) Show.”

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