CLEARWATER — They say great minds think alike. So when three fishing legends got together on a party boat and were asked a simple question, it is not surprising they all had the same answer.
"If you have one tip for the average angler, what would it be?" I asked Bill Dance, the 74-year-old host of Bill Dance Outdoors. Dance stopped for a moment, tipped the brim of his Tennessee Volunteers baseball cap, and said "Get there early and stay late."
Like Dance, Jimmy Houston and Roland Martin, household names to those of us who like to watch other people catch fish on television, also built their reputations on catching big bass.
"Well I would have to agree with Bill," said Martin, 74, a Naples-based professional tournament angler who has been to the Bassmaster Classic 24 times. "You have got to get out there early and make sure you stay late."
Jimmy Houston, who is known as much for his distinctive laugh as he is for catching big bass, didn't have to hear his friends' comments. "I'll tell you what they said," the 70-year-old said, cackling. "Be the first one on the water and the last one to go home. That's how you catch the most fish."
But the "Three Legends" as they are known, also had some advice for every angler. "Take a kid fishing," Houston said. "That is why we are here. That is what this is all about."
Dance, Houston and Martin usually get paid top dollar for personal appearances. The three men are true legends in the fishing industry but they wanted no compensation to come to Clearwater and hop aboard the Double Eagle III to help promote a new charitable organization called A Reel Future.
"We knew how something as simple as a fishing trip could change a kid's life," said co-founder Misty Wells. "We were thinking that if we could just come up with a way to get kids who normally wouldn't have a chance to get out on the water … what a difference that could make."
Wells, and local charter boat captain Tommy LaRonge, who was the product of the foster care system, paid for the trips out of their own pocket until they ran out of money.
"We were determined to make it work," said LaRonge. "When I was a kid and out fishing, I never thought about my parents or all the things I didn't have. For those few hours all I thought about was catching fish. And that made all the difference to me."
For a few hours on Monday, Wells, LaRonge, the Th3 Legends and a couple of dozen friends and supporters joined kids from the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, for bottom fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I have fished all over the world," said Dance, who has been a television fishing celebrity for 46 years. "But my most memorable fishing trips have been the ones that I have taken with my kids and grandkids. Those are the ones that have meant the most to me."
Martin, who is probably Florida's most famous fisherman, shared his friend's sentiments. "I would rather watch a kid catch a fish than land a 10-pound bass," said the only nine-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year winner. "That is what it is all about."
Houston, a proponent of catch-kiss-and-release, said the trip offshore with kids made his day. "I can't remember the last time I had this much fun," he laughed. "You know these guys are our future. If you want to help the sport — take a kid fishing."
Wells and LaRonge said money raised by a $100-a-plate luncheon at Island Way Grill that followed the fishing trip will finance future fishing trips.
"Just eight months ago we were doing this week by week, just hoping we'd have enough money to take a few kids fishing," LaRonge said. "But somehow we managed to take 20 trips. This year, we'd love to do twice as many."
Wells said the mission is simple: "We just want to take kids fishing," she said. "But we could use a little help."
To learn more, go to areelfuture.com.