The Best Fisherman You've Never Heard About
Bill Nichols and the role he played in bass fishing's history
Article By Steve Wright
One October day in 1967, Bill Nichols was standing on a 28-foot ladder, repairing telephone lines - nowhere near a lake or stream – when fate put him at the birthplace of some serious bass fishing history.
As Nichols stood on that ladder, he noticed a woman help seat her husband in a backyard chair so he could enjoy a pleasant fall day, at least as much as anyone could enjoy it when encased in a body cast. And Nichols couldn’t help but notice that the man seemed to be whittling on a fishing lure.
Nichols had a conversation with the man after he’d finished the phone line repairs. His name was Fred Young. The cast was in place to help him recover from a broken back. The balsa wood fishing lure Young was carving would be named after Young’s large brother Otis – The Big O – but the lure didn’t have a name yet.
“Son, I got the first one he ever made,” said Nichols, who is now 81 years old. “He re-did it for me two times. Fish were eating the paint off of it.”
If you know bass fishing history, you know the Big O is considered among the top 10 influential lures of all time.
“That’s what started the crankbait craze,” Nichols said. “You never heard about a crankbait before then.”
It was Nichols, widely recognized as one of the top smallmouth bass fishermen on Tennessee’s legendary Dale Hollow Lake, who slowly spread the word about this hot new lure.
“I never wanted any credit for it, I just wanted to fish it,” Nichols said. “I caught so many fish on it, it was pitiful. I’ve seen bass part the grass to find it. That lure moved a lot of water. That’s what made it so good.”
Young never tried to mass produce the lure. His were all hand-carved from balsa wood. Nichols furnished the material for the short, square-billed lip by providing 4’ x 4’ sheets of circuit board.
“I never had one (Big O) that would run over six-feet deep,” said Nichols, “but bass would come out of 12 and 15 feet of water to hit that thing.”
From the start, a Big O was a valuable commodity. Because so few were made and the demand became so high, fisherman would rent them by the day. BASS founder Ray Scott recalls anglers renting them for $25 a day, plus a $25 insurance deposit in case the lure was lost.
Nichols recalls even higher prices. His now deceased bass fishing buddy Stan Sloan, who won Ray Scott’s first All-American Bass Fishing Championship on Arkansas’ Beaver Lake in 1967, got $50 in rent for four hours use of one of his Big Os.
“And that was back in the ‘70s,” laughed Nichols. “Son, he could make more money renting them out than he could winning a tournament.”
Nichols still has a full head of hair, though now it’s mostly gray. More importantly, he still has that youthful enthusiasm of a bass fishermen one-quarter of his age, especially when he starts talking about catching smallmouth bass at lakes like Dale Hollow and Norris. (Dale Hollow, by the way, is still home of the world record smallmouth bass catch, 11 pounds, 15 ounces, in 1955.)
Nichols punctuates many of his sentences with the word “son,” like some men use the words “hoss” or “man.” (Man, did you see the size of that bass I just lost? I’ve seen bigger bass than that in my livewell, hoss.) But Nichols never talks down to anyone. He’s like the Santa Claus of smallmouth bass fishing, with that twinkle in his eyes, but without the big belly.
For some people near Nichols’ hometown of Clinton, Tenn., a fishing trip with Bill Nichols is better than a visit from St. Nick. Mike Bolding, 47, has been fishing with Nichols “a couple of times a month” for the past 10 years.
“Any chance I get to go with him, I’ll go,” Bolding said. “I’ll work around it, just to go. The fishing is a bonus. It’s a great bonus, but it’s a bonus.”
Bolding clearly remembers some advice bass fishing legend Larry Nixon gave at one of the Indiana State-sponsored “Bass University” seminars many years ago. Nixon said if you wanted to learn how to fish a lake, look for an older man carrying a paper sack for a tackle box. “He’s got it narrowed down,” said Nixon. Sure enough, the first time Bolding fished with him, Nichols arrived carrying two rods and a paper sack.
“This is THE MAN!” Bolding thought.
Nothing has happened in the decade since to alter that first impression.
“He’s just got so much knowledge in his head,” Bolding said. “It’s like he’s got a map of the lake in his mind.”
That’s hardly an exaggeration. Norris Lake started filling in 1936, when Nichols was seven years old. Nichols’ father had rabbit hunted all over the land that would soon be under water. When the lake filled, Nichol’s father motored around it in a wooden boat powered by a four-horsepower motor, dragging a brick attached to a cotton rope, confirming where the humps and ledges were.
Armed with that knowledge and a flasher-type depthfinder, Bill Nichols knows exactly where to fish in Norris, Dale Hollow and a few other smallmouth factories in Tennessee.
“That’s all he needs is that flasher,” Bolding said. “That’s all he wants. You get a true reading that way, instead of waiting for the picture on the screen to form (on an LCD-type depthfinder). He’s looking for depth changes.
“We used to use these lighted buoys (at night). We’d go across a spot two or three times, then he’d drop a buoy. I can’t tell you how many times we’d catch fish right at the buoy. He’d just smile and say, ‘Why do you think I put it there, son?’”
Bolding spent 10 years trying to make a living playing professional golf. From having learned the importance of the feel of a golf club in your hands, Bolding focuses his attention on Nichols’ hands when trying to pick up the subtleties that make Nichols such a good bass fisherman.
“You’ve got to keep that jig on the bottom,” Nichols says. “(The smallmouth) are going to be close. I put a little quiver in that jig.”
And when Nichols crawls a jig across a lake bottom in search of smallmouth, it’s almost always at night.
“Son, smallmouth bass don’t like that sunlight,” Nichols says.
So from July through the winter, Nichols and his regular fishing buddies, like Bolding, Max Meredith and jig-maker extraordinaire Paul Harrison, head out about an hour before dark. Even in his 80s, Nichols doesn’t have any problem fishing until daylight the next morning, if the smallmouth are biting, which they usually are for him.
Nichols hasn’t caught a smallmouth that approached that 11-15 world record from Dale Hollow. But he’s got an eight-pounder mounted on the wall. Around 1992, Nichols and a friend caught 10 smallmouth that totaled 47 pounds, 11 ounces.
Nichols owns a mobile home on Dale Hollow that has been customized into a “fishing cabin.” That’s where breakfast gets cooked after a night on the lake. It’s not the accommodations that make it special, it’s that Bill Nichols’ ambience.
“I traveled all across America when I was playing golf,” Bolding said. “That little fishing cabin is like the Ritz-Carlton as far as I’m concerned.”
The biggest reason why you’ve probably never heard of Bill Nichols is because he held a steady job and raised a family while he was fishing. He never made that full leap into the fishing business. He retired after 37 years with various entitles of AT&T and the Bell Telephone Co. He and his wife, Polly, have been married 59 years, and “never once has she pitched a fit about my fishing,” Nichols said.
Billy Westmoreland, who died in 2002, is the name most associated with Tennessee smallmouth bass fishing. Westmoreland won three BASS tournaments and authored a book entitled “Them Ol’ Brown Fish.”
Nichols’ closest brush with fame came during a seven-year-stint as host of a TV show entitled “Fishing in Tennessee.” That ended in 1982, “when the telephone company decided I was having too good a time,” Nichols said.
Larry Columbo did include Nichols in a book entitled “Living Legends of American Sportfishing.”
Nichols spent the first 35 years of his fishing life “chasing
those largemouth and anything that would bite,” but he mostly
concentrates on smallmouth now.
“I like them because of the fight they put up,” he said. “They don’t give up. They’re really a fun fish to catch.”
Jerry McKinnis, longtime host of “The Fishin’ Hole” TV show on ESPN, aired several shows about fishing for smallmouth with Nichols during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Those remain some of McKinnis’ favorite memories.
“The last season we did the show, I made sure we did an episode with Bill,” McKinnis recalled. “He is one of the dearest friends I ever made in bass fishing. He’s just a great guy. He’s got zero ego.
“And he’s one of the best fishermen in the world that nobody’s heard about.”