By Raymond Partsch III
Written for the LSWA
Bo Dowden’s joyous scream that day along the choppy St. Lawrence River in upstate New York could be heard all the way back in Natchitoches.
The professional angler had just hauled in a 6-pound, 6-ounce largemouth bass for his fifth and final fish on a blustery, rough day on the waters, which secured him his first professional bass fishing tournament victory
His first win also just so happened to be at the sport’s most prestigious event — the 1980 Bassmaster Classic.
“I was really happy when I stuck my thumb in that fish’s mouth,” Dowden said. “When I grabbed it, I knew that I had won the durn tournament. There was no way that anybody could catch me at that time.”
Yes, it was a bit of an embellishment that anybody heard Bo’s “YAHAAHOOOOOOOO” back in his hometown. While it would make a good fish tale, it was much more as Dowden had just won the Super Bowl of fishing.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Dowden, who defeated 40 of the top bass anglers in the country for the coveted title of Bassmaster champion. “It was a thing that I had always wanted.”
Dowden will receive another prestigious honor when he is inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches on Saturday, August 28. It culminates a three-day Induction Celebration. Participation opportunities and information are available at LaSportsHall.com or by calling 318-238-4255.
Dowden’s love affair with fishing began as a small child growing up on the corner of Williams Avenue and Sirod Street in Natchitoches.
He was taught how to fish by his grandfather V.S. Pugh as the two would spend as many afternoons and weekends fishing for bluegill and redear sunfish on nearby Black and Saline Lake. Dowden used a cane pole to snag those early stringers of fish before moving on to rod and reels.
The young Dowden instantly fell in love with the sport — and the difficulty that comes along with it.
“It was challenging,” said Dowden, who began fishing at the age of four. “You know you can fish by being a dope or you can fish more by being a little bit better.
“You had to stay with the program,” Dowden added. “You couldn’t be lollygagging around out there. It didn’t matter to me whether it was the goo or channel catfish, I just liked being out there along the water.”
Dowden’s passion for fishing continued to grow — sometimes even taking him away from his studies at Natchitoches High School where he graduated in 1959. In fact, fishing played such a vital role in Dowden’s life that it was a contributing factor in why he attended Northwestern State University.
“The campus was 30 minutes from Saline Lake and the duck blind,” Dowden said.
Dowden would graduate from NSU in 1965 with a degree in industrial arts but his pursuit to become a professional bass fisherman didn’t come right away. As a matter of fact, his first pro bass tournament wasn’t until 1972 on Lake Sam Rayburn.
Instead, Dowden worked as a drafting surveyor where he plotted land lots — a typography skill that would come in handy years later — for several years before getting a job as an outboard motor mechanic at C. Collins & Son in Natchitoches.
“I would repair people’s problems,” laughed Dowden.
It was Bowden’s skill at fixing motors — and reputation for being a good local fisherman — that got him to his first Bassmaster Classic.
“They had a guy in Natchitoches named Ed Todtenbier, a franchise owner of Frisch’s Big Boy Drive-In Restaurants and one of the founding members of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.),” said Dowden. “He was a big deal and he was trying to make the Classic up there. So I went along with him and tried to help him set up a pattern to catch bass.”
Dowden didn’t win the 1972 tournament — that distinction went to Roland Martin — but he did catch four fish on Lake Eufala in Oklahoma that year.
After that tournament, Dowden was hooked on becoming a professional fisherman, all the while running a successful maritime business (Bo’s Marine) and raising his three children (Villis Pugh Dowden Jr., Eason Paige Dowden and Meredith Rose Dowden) with his wife Gladys.
That meant there were many weekends where Bo was out of town at tournaments, but the Dowdens made the patriarch’s passion a family event.
“I always saw it as an opportunity,” wife Gladys said. “Our three boys got to travel with him a good bit. They got to see this country from one end to the other and meet people. It was a great education for our children.”
“The early fishermen didn’t have the big-time sponsorships that they do now. They had to work back then,” former Natchitoches Times sports editor Philip Timothy said. “Your daytime job paid for your fishing. You had to be committed to it, your family had to be committed to it.”
Within a few years, the slow-talking Dowden would develop a reputation for being one of the best and most respected professional fishermen in the United States, as he placed in the money in 32 of his first 44 B.A.S.S. tournaments.
“He was a super fisherman,” Timothy said. “I would go over to his shop and talk to him and ask questions about fixing my old boat. He was always so helpful and humble.”
“Now Bo was slow talking and slow walking,” Timothy added. “But that was just typical Bo Dowden. He never seemed to get into a hurry. I guess that’s why I enjoyed talking with him. He always made time. He always answered my questions.”
Dowden’s low-key and patient approach had helped him become one of the best anglers out there. The only thing missing was a tournament win but Dowden had come achingly close.
Despite hauling in a would-be record of nearly 57 pounds of bass at the 1976 Bassmaster Classic in Guntersville, Alabama, Dowden — who also led after the first day –finished as runner-up to Ricky Clunn by three pounds.
Dowden would also finish third the following year by roughly three pounds.
He began to be known as the “bridesmaid and never the bride” but that would all change in 1980.
That year the Bassmaster Classic was held along the Thousands Islands region of the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, which was the farthest north the event had taken place at that time.
The second time it was held on a natural body of water — the other being in 1975 when fellow Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Jack Hains won the event on Currituck Sound in North Carolina.
The St. Lawrence River presented plenty of obstacles.
There was the strong current, the traffic along the river that routinely had oil tankers traversing its waters, rocky shoals throughout and numerous different species of fish including northern pike which are known for wrecking a bass fisherman’s day on the water.
The river also had plenty of vegetation along its banks which was negative for some anglers, but not Dowden. The then 39-year-old felt right home on the river as its vegetation reminded him of his days fishing on Saline Lake.
“New York is a place where they have current running down the river and along the edge was vegetation,” Dowden recalled. “I love places that have vegetation. You learn to fish Saline Lake. You are going to have vegetation there. I know how to fish vegetation.
“I don’t fight it,” Dowden added. “I used it. I think fishermen who fight vegetation are the dumbest people in the world. I am serious about that.”
Dowden began the tournament catching the five fish weigh-in limit and found himself in the lead heading into day two, and then again heading into the final day.
“I was amazed that I was three pounds ahead of everybody on the first day,” Dowden said. “The second day I was amazed that I was still three pounds ahead of everybody.
“They were all back there to fish along the banks like they did during the pre-practice,” Dowden said. “They were fishing single bass here and there. The bass were moving out of that shallow water towards the river.”
The conditions would change for the worse for the final day as an unexpected cold front blew in.
The wind gusts were as high as 30 miles per hour that day which caused the water to be rough — so rough, a three-foot wave nearly knocked Dowden off his boat that day.
“He didn’t have it easy,” Timothy said. “He adapted himself to the harsh conditions better than anyone up there. He found the bass, caught them and battled the conditions.”
Despite the adverse conditions, Dowden managed to haul in four bass — which would have been enough to win the tournament but he didn’t know that — but kept casting, searching for that “kicker fish” that would ensure him winning the title.
A few minutes past one o’clock that September afternoon and with a No. 11 Uncle Josh pork chunk (fat trimmed) on the hook as bait, Dowden threw his line in the water near a boulder-strewn area near the entrance to the Chippewa Bay.
A minute or so later, Dowden felt a tug on his line and he fell to his knees, starting to reel it in, and he prayed that the catch wasn’t a pike.
“I remember saying, ‘Please Lord, let this be a bass,’ ” Dowden said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
He hauled in a beautiful 6-pound, 6-ounce bass which earned him “Big Bass” honors for the day, giving him 10 pounds for the final round and a three-day haul of 54 pounds and 10 ounces — besting Martin, the runner-up, by more than 10 pounds.
Dowden’s wife — who says she heard her husband scream after that last fish — wasn’t surprised that Bo won that year’s classic.
“When we got off that airplane in New York, Bo said that he was going to win this tournament,” Gladys recalled. “He went there to win it and that’s what he did.”
So how did Dowden celebrate winning the Super Bowl of bass fishing? He went back to work, of course.
“The reaction was to get back to work and start putting boats and motors together,” Dowden said. “This whole thing revolved around me selling boats and motors.”
Dowden would compete in a total of 14 Bassmaster Classics, including finishing in third in 1982. When he retired from competitive fishing in 2001, he had collected career winnings of $235,261.79 in sanctioned BASS events.
ESPN Outdoors and BASS named him among the 35 greatest anglers of all-time in 2004. Now he will be enshrined into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame joining his good friend, the late Grits Gresham, a Natchitoches icon.
“I was pretty amazed,” Dowden said. “Most of the people I have known that have gotten in were basketball players or football players. It is truly an honor.”
Dowden’s competitive bass fishing days are behind him as he retired in 2001. These days he spends his days fishing Toledo Bend Reservoir — where he has lived since 1980.
“I have become a normal weekend fisherman,” Dowden said. “I still love bass fishing. I always have. I still have my tackle box packed up and ready to go.
“I can still catch fish, I can guarantee you that,” Dowden said. “I am old, I am tottery and I have a hard time getting around the boat — but I still can catch fish.”