By BRYAN BRASHER
Scripps Howard News Service
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The millions of Americans who've grown used to seeing professional angler Bill Dance in his trademark orange-and-white T cap, dark glasses and simple fisherman's attire probably would have a hard time picturing him in a white lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck and a prescription pad in his pocket.
But long before Dance ever envisioned fishing for a living, his plan was to be a doctor, like his father and grandfather.
He had gone as far down the path toward a medical career as enrolling at the University of Tennessee medical school in Memphis during the early 1960s. But on the way home from class one night, he saw some awful things that changed his life and many others forever.
"I drove up on a horrible motorcycle accident," said Dance, who turned 72 recently. "I got there before anybody else, and some of the injuries I saw were absolutely terrible. I decided right then and there that I didn't want to make my living around people who were hurt, sick or dying. I just wasn't sure I had the stomach for it."
So Dance made the slow transition from a career of saving lives to a career of enriching them.
First, he became a professional fisherman -- and he was better on the professional circuit than many people realized.
Dance caught the first bass in the first-ever professional bass tournament, way back in 1967 on Beaver Lake in Arkansas. From there, he was a titan in Ray Scott Bass Angler Sportsman Society events.
He won the first angler of the year title in 1970, earned seven major B.A.S.S. victories and qualified for the Bassmaster Classic eight times. He missed winning that coveted classic title by just a few ounces in 1973, placing second to longtime friend Rayo Breckenridge.
"Daddy wanted to win that tournament so bad," said Joey Breckenridge, the surviving son of Rayo Breckenridge, who now lives in Olive Branch, Miss. "But he had so much respect for Bill. He liked him so much. It almost made him feel bad that Bill had to finish second."
Dance admitted that was one of the lowest points of his career in the fishing industry -- and he said there was a brief time when he thought he might not get over it.
But he went on to win two more Angler of the Year titles, in 1974 and 1977. He finished with career earnings of $57,134.42 -- a total that was through the roof for the late 1970s despite seeming minuscule compared with today's hefty tournament purses.
"There was a time when Bill Dance was hands-down the best fisherman on the face of the planet," said Ray Scott, founder of B.A.S.S. and owner of Ray Scott's Trophy Bass Retreat today. "A lot of people will always think of Dance as a TV star because that's how he's made most of his name. But when he was fishing with us, he was as good as there was out there."
As Dance amassed sponsors during his career as a professional angler, he was eventually asked to host his own television show as a way to publicize those companies' products.
In the beginning, he actually assumed "Bill Dance Outdoors" would be hosted by someone else.
"I didn't know anything about TV," Dance said. "I thought sure I'd just make a great big fool of myself. But the people seemed to really enjoy it, and I really enjoyed having a chance to share my knowledge and love for fishing with a bigger audience."
Bill Dance Outdoors aired for the first time on an ABC affiliate in Memphis in 1968, and it's still going strong. The freshwater show is televised nationwide today on the NBC Sports network, as is a saltwater spinoff that has been a bit of a surprise for Dance at this late stage in his career.
"The saltwater show was something I really believed we could have a lot of fun with," Dance said. "And it has been a lot of fun. It's been a lot of work. But man, it's been fun, too."
Despite traveling the country in search of the best fresh and saltwater fishing locales, Dance is still making time to fish for fun at home.
During the past few weeks, Dance has landed and released blue catfish from the Mississippi River that weighed 75, 83 and 110 pounds, 4 ounces. The biggest of those three missed the Tennessee state record by just 28 ounces.
"Just when you think the Mississippi River has finally gotten as good as it's gonna get, it makes another huge jump," Dance said. "The fishing out there right now is simply phenomenal."
Dance doesn't seem to be showing signs of slowing down. He's still committed to his TV shows and to a host of mega-sponsors, including Bass Pro Shops.
He's also a champion for conservation, crediting Tennessee's 34-inch catfish rule for producing so many of the giant catfish that have been landed by anglers across the state this year. The rule limits Tennessee anglers to one catfish per day that measures 34 inches or more.
Before the rule was passed back in 2007, anglers were free to keep as many big catfish as they wanted. Now they're forced to release many of the larger fish to continue growing.
"I think that 34-inch rule has had an amazing effect on these fisheries in the state of Tennessee," Dance said. "All you have to do is come out here and fish and you'll see the effect. That rule should stay just like it is."
As for Dance, he's probably not going anywhere either.
"People ask me all the time when I'm gonna retire," Dance said. "I say, 'Retire for what?' I would just be retiring to do more of what I'm doing now. So I'm just gonna stay at it."
(Contact Bryan Brasher of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at email@example.com.)