Sometimes, the “big one” gets away, and that only intensifies the aspiration. Ask Bill Dance. He would become one of the world’s most famous and successful bass anglers from the late 1960s through the 1970s and then one of fishing’s most popular television personalities. But before that, he was a young man, just married, that day on Pickwick Lake. He used a paddle to maneuver his johnboat down the side of a bluff, where hungry smallmouth bass chased shad.
“I had just missed a 2 ½- to 3-pounder,” he recalls. “It had rained a lot and I was looking at a waterfall on down the bluff. “When I looked back down at the lake, my little old popper just disappeared. I thought it was a bluegill, at first.”
Instead, it was a bass Bill Dance will never forget.
“He jumped five times,” the Tennessee angler says. “I saw four of them. The other time, he ran under the boat and jumped behind me before I even knew what happened. I saw him four times in the water and four times out of the water.”
“My Uncle Ben used to smoke cigars. He looked like a walrus with one tusk because you could see about an inch and a half of the cigar sticking out of his mouth.
“And when I saw that orange popper sticking out of the fish’s mouth, I thought of Uncle Ben. I could see just a little of that popper. The rest was in the fish’s mouth, including two sets of treble hooks.”
With the fish so well hooked, Dance understandably thought he was about to land the biggest smallmouth bass of his young life, possibly even a world’s record. Based on mounts he’d had seen at a taxidermist’s, he was certain this bass weighed more than ten pounds.
He was devastated.
“I wanted to catch him so bad,” he remembers. “I went back there for weeks and months. I went back early and late. I went back at night. I fished up and down that bluff, knowing smallmouth bass have home-range tendencies. I went for a year, I know.”
And he spoke often of the one that got away.
Finally, wife Diane said, “I know what that fish means to you. It will be imprinted on your mind for the rest of your life. I know how you feel and I’m so sorry.
“But will you please stop talking about that fish?”
Decades later, though, he still talks. “People ask me about the biggest smallmouth I’ve ever caught, and I’ll say three 8s,” Dance says. “But then I’ll add, ‘Let me tell you about another one.’”
Pro or amateur, young or old, all of us who fish have hooked fish that got away. Fortunately for our mental health, we don’t remember all of them. But one or two stay with us always. Heads shaking, they leap majestically in our dreams and memories. They burn drag. They burrow into brush. They throw baits back at us, and splash us back into reality with a slap of their broad tails.
Often, as with Dance, we believe those lost fish are the largest we’ve ever hooked. As memorable to Bill as the Pickwick smallmouth is the bass he lost at Clarks Hill in 1973. He believes that fish would have won the Bassmaster Classic for him. Instead, he finished second to Rayo Breckenridge.
“It’s not the pounds or numbers of fish you catch,” he says. “Yes, you can weigh those, but they don’t come close to the memories.”
And among those memories are visions of the big ones caught—and others that got away—both of which help explain why we fish.
Read more fishing tales in Why We Fish! (And before you ask–all the anglers in our book practice catch and release.
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