“Life isn’t a competition.”
In every sport and walk of life, there are a few individuals destined to be remembered as the greatest of all time. Three of those individuals in the sport of bass fishing are Bill Dance, Hank Parker, and Jimmy Houston. We sat down with each of these legends to talk about their careers, experiences, and successes. Below is the second of the Bass Legend stories…
Hank Parker seems extremely comfortable with life, and why shouldn’t he? Parker started fishing in tournaments when he was 16 years old, and he retired from professional fishing 20 years later after twice winning the Bassmaster Classic, ostensibly the world championship of bass fishing.
He’s hosted a fantastically successful outdoors television show for 35 years. He’s part of a close-knit, successful family, and he has a multitude of friends, health, wit, good looks, Southern charm, and even a smooth Carolina accent.
He is a legend among legends. The rest of the world should be so lucky.
However, said Parker, that wasn’t always the case. There was a time a while back he veered slightly off course when he somehow lost his way. Everything seemed right on the outside, but he knew better. Then he heard a voice that changed everything.
“I have a lot of heroes,” said Parker, “but easily my No. 1 hero in life has been (famed Southern Baptist minister), Billy Graham. His words helped me prioritize my life, something I was missing. Faith is a big part of who I am and why I am. There was a time that my life wasn’t prioritized with the Lord. When that changed, my life became easier. There’s an Alan Jackson song (Song for the Life) that says ‘Somehow I’ve learned how to listen,’ and I feel like that could be me. I learned how to listen, and then I looked at life differently."
“I had to ask myself, how important is that next bass or that next tournament really going to be 100 years from now? They’re truly not important.”
Despite his current contentment, 26-year-old Hank Parker in 1979 – the year he won his first Bassmaster Classic title – likely would not have heeded the wisdom of that 1995 song by Jackson. Parker’s focus then was on winning, no matter what task he faced and what he had to do to win. And, through relentless dedication and commitment, he succeeded often. During his career, Parker placed in the money a record 76% of the tournaments in which he competed. In 1989, he collected his second Bassmaster Classic title, a feat only three others have accomplished.
“I never had a choice other than giving it 100%,” he said. “I remember some guys who might be sitting 40th before the last day of a tournament, and they’d just give up because it only paid 35 places. I was never done until the tournament ended. If I could finish 26th instead of 27th, I gave it everything. I truly hated finishing less than I could – 99 percent was never good enough.
“Money is nice, and it pays the bills, but it was never a motivator for me. It didn’t matter if I was fishing in a club tournament or the Bassmaster Classic, I wanted to win. And it wasn’t because I wanted to beat the other guys – those guys are my friends, not my enemies – I was competing against the fish and the lake.
“I was incredibly intense back then, but I don’t think I could ever get back to that physical or mental state even if I wanted to. I’m not as good as I once was. I’m more knowledgeable, but not as good.”
When asked why, at a time he was laser-focused on being the best bass angler in the country, he walked away from tournament competition, Parker’s answer was simple.
“You know, Moms do a wonderful job raising kids, both boys and girls,” he said. “But, the kids also need a Dad, and I was gone a lot. God revealed to me that I needed to spend more time at home. When that happened, I knew that, if I could win one more Bassmaster Classic, I’d be able to transition away from competing.
“Then I won the ’89 Classic, and I retired from competition. I knew it was time.”
Fortuitously, a few years before his last tournament, Parker had teamed with Michael Runnels to create Hank Parker’s Outdoor Magazine TV show, which first aired in 1985. Over the past 34 years, the show has featured Parker and countless guests – celebrities, athletes, friends, and family – participating in the outdoor activities Parker loves. Heading the list of those activities is bass fishing.
“When I say 99 percent is never good enough, that goes for my outboards too,” he said. “When I select my equipment, my only thought is to make sure I have the best so I can have the best chance at succeeding. No other engine comes close to Mercury in reliability and performance.
“I’ve had a lot of offers to change engines, but Mercury is the best, and I’ll stay with them. Always.”
Speaking of the best . . .
“A few years ago, a TV analyst fished with Kevin VanDam for the first time and came back saying, ‘If KVD would just slow down, he would be the best in the world,’” said Parker. “The second time they fished together, KVD didn’t slow down a bit, and he didn’t need to.
“There’s no way I could ever be as mentally quick as KVD. He’s so awesome it’s crazy. I have a pace that I fish at, and I don’t assume anything – I have to learn everything for myself. I’m certain that would drive KVD out of his mind. He is so mentally and physically quick when he fishes that I don’t think anyone can keep up with him. Watching him, I understood quickly that I couldn’t let KVD’s method be my method.”
Parker and VanDam came across one another a few months ago at the 2019 ICAST, the world's largest sportfishing trade show in Orlando, Florida.
“I saw KVD and watched from a distance as he talked to a million people and was pulled in a million different directions,” said Parker. “When he had a minute, I walked up to him, took him by the shoulders and said, ‘I have one piece of advice – don’t let this sport eat you up. It’s easy to get torn into a million pieces if you’re not careful.’”
“He knew what I was talking about. He didn’t say much but I know he appreciated that I understood and I cared.”
VanDam of Kalamazoo, Michigan, is the all-time money winner in professional bass fishing, having earned $6,261,476 through 2017. He’s won four Bassmaster Classic championships and seven Angler of the Year titles. He was also FLW Angler of the Year in 2001. VanDam has been a mainstay in B.A.S.S. events throughout most of his career but was also a founding member of Major League Fishing. In 2002, he was the first-ever recipient of ESPN’s ESPY Award for Outdoorsman of the Year.
The advice Parker offered VanDam this year was perhaps something Parker could have used back in 1979. Either way, he said, he’s thankful for the place he’s in now.
“I am good with life,” he said. “I don’t worry much about the future. And I’m content with not being Number 1. Life is not a competition.”
Maybe not, but Parker has competed successfully and broadly throughout his life and, in addition, to has tournament titles, has been inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, the Legends of Outdoors Hall of Fame, and the International Gamefish Association (IGFA) Hall of Fame.
“I’ve never gotten bored with fishing,” he said, “whether it’s largemouth, smallmouth, muskie, redfish, or any fish. I never get tired of fishing.
“There are still times that I’ll get home after being on the road and doing a show, and the next day I’ll get up, hook up the boat and my wife will ask “What are you doing,” and I’ll say, ‘I’m going fishing.’
“I still love it. I always will.”
*Parker is a native of Maiden, North Carolina, with a population of about 3,000 the last time they counted, but now lives in Union County, South Carolina. He’s married to Martha, and has five children – two are in NASCAR, one is in mixed martial arts, one fishes the FLW and one is a photographer. He also has a passel of grandkids.