Bill Dance Signature Lakes Offer Impactful Improvements to Tennessee’s Fishing Waters

Representatives from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, and Tennessee State Parks celebrate the ribbon cutting of the Bill Dance Signature Lakes project at the Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville on March 25, along with the project’s namesake. Photo Courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development:

By David Haggard & Heather Lose

It was easy to spot the fish out of water at the 2023 Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville. They weren’t sporting some iteration of B.A.S.S. gear, they couldn’t have cared less about snagging a five-gallon white swag bucket (or six), and they weren’t losing their absolute minds over meeting Bill Dance.

The Bassmaster Classic is a three-day professional fishing tournament and a mecca for fishing enthusiasts. It’s been called the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing. At this year’s event in March, 163,914 visitors poured through the doors of the Knoxville Convention Center to get close to this year’s angling extravaganza, and 4.5 million viewers tuned in to the tournament’s tv coverage. And how about social media? Crazy amounts of eyes! Fishing is big business, in case you hadn’t heard, and the Bassmaster is a fun opportunity for folks to come together and celebrate the activity they love, and the anglers who excel at it.

Inside the Convention Center, visitors troll around from booth to booth, checking out the latest fishing gear and reeling in the swag. If you were there that Saturday, you may have seen a huge line of people snaking around the conference center floor, beside the huge screens, through the sparkling boats and shiny black motors, beside the spindly forests of new rods and reels. What were they waiting for? Only Tennessee’s favorite fisherman, the one and only Bill Dance.

World-renowned angler Dance was born in Lynchburg and has spent his life fishing the best waters in the Volunteer State. Dance honors his Tennessee roots with his legendary “lucky” orange and white UT ballcap—a gift from coach Doug Dickey. He started competing in tournaments and educating people about fishing with his “Bill Dance Outdoors” television show in the late ’60s. Since then, he’s won numerous awards and titles, and has published many how-to fishing books. His popular blooper reels show the human side of this beloved, gentle giant of fishing who leads with a downhome smile and has built the trust of millions. And now, he is lending his name to help improve our state’s already impressive fishing waters with the creation of the Bill Dance Signature Lakes project.

Tennessee State Parks, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development are the primary partners in creating the new Bill Dance Signature Lakes, which held a ribbon cutting at the Bassmaster Classic. The partnership has committed over $15 million in improvements “above and below the water line” at lakes across the Volunteer State that meet Bill Dance’s approval. The improvements are basically meant to help more people catch more fish and have a better day out on the water.

Tucker Bass with a nice crappie at Reelfoot Lake, a Bill Dance Signature Lake. Photo Courtesy of David Haggard.

Fishing tourism is already popular in Tennessee, and the improvements at these lakes can only mean increased revenue for local restaurants, hotels, and other businesses. Currently, fishing in Tennessee generates over $1 billion in economic impact annually and supports over 7,000 jobs across the state. More than 1 million anglers visit Tennessee waters every year, and by investing in these signature lakes, the hope is to bring more people to enjoy a wider variety of outdoor opportunities.

Dennis Tumlin, Chief Customer Officer for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, is excited about the potential impact the current and forthcoming lake improvements will create across the state. “Tennessee is home to half-a-million acres of lakes and 1.8 million people who hold a fishing license. The Bill Dance Signature Lakes initiative will touch 35 counties, including 18 ‘at-risk’ or economically ‘distressed’ counties in phase 1, and is an important step in helping those communities create new revenue streams through outdoor recreation,” Tumlin says. “This effort would not be possible without the alignment of our agency partners including Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee State Parks, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, and Governor Bill Lee’s office. We believe that once fully developed, this economic development initiative will have everlasting positive impacts on the communities involved.”

Fishermen are also excited about the lake enhancements. Cody Rodriquez, a fishing guide at Reelfoot and Kentucky Lakes, sure is. “The Bill Dance Signature Lakes project is an awesome deal for Reelfoot Lake and the other selected lakes. We are seeing firsthand how the project is improving ramp and bank access. The work done at Kirby Pocket at Reelfoot was a much-needed improvement and a great addition for the lake. The ramp at Whites Landing improvements include a wheelchair accessible fishing pier. I cannot wait to see what other great things are scheduled for Reelfoot Lake and all the other signature lakes with the additional funding that goes with this project!”

Back at the Bassmaster Classic, the line is moving slowly. Bill gives his full attention to every family who comes up to get his signature, a selfie, or a handshake. Many fans get all three. A teenage girl in shorts is awash in tears after meeting her hero. And an event that was supposed to end at 6:00 goes on till around 7:30 because Bill insists on greeting every single person who has stood in that line for so many hours to meet him. What does Dance think about the project that bears his name? “To be able to work with Governor Lee, and the teams at the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, TWRA and Tennessee State Parks is a tremendous honor. Words can’t describe how great it makes me feel!” he says with a grin. “I hope everyone will join me and take at least one new person fishing on one of Tennessee’s new Bill Dance Signature Lakes sometime this year!”

And there you have it. Fishing orders from the big man himself. We’ll see you out on the water this summer!

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David Haggard is a regional interpretive specialist with Tennessee State Parks. Heather Lose is editor-in-chief for The Tennessee Conservationist. This article has been reprinted with permission from the July/August 2023 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.)