Dowden’s Hall of Fame career more than a fish story

By Raymond Partsch

Special to the American Press

EDITOR’S NOTE: Third in a series of stories about the eight inductees to be enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday in Natchitoches.

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.”

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. “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 Saturday in Natchitoches.

ESPN Outdoors and BASS named him among the 35 greatest anglers of all-time in 2004. He will be enshrined into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame joining his good friend, the late Grits Gresham, a Natchitoches icon.

Dowden’s love affair with fishing began as a small child growing up a short cast from the Cane River in Natchitoches.

He was taught how to fish by his grandfather as the two would spend as many afternoons and weekends fishing for bluegill and redear sunfish on nearby Black and Saline lakes. Dowden used a cane pole from the age of 4 to snag those early stringers of fish before moving on to rod and reels.

Dowden graduated from Northwestern State in 1965 with a degree in industrial arts, but his pursuit to become a professional bass fisherman didn’t come right away. His first pro bass tournament wasn’t until 1972 on Sam Rayburn Reservoir.

In the interim he worked as a drafting surveyor plotting land lots for several years before getting a job as an outboard motor mechanic.

It was his 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,” Dowden recalled. “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, but he did catch four fish on Lake Eufala in Oklahoma that year and was hooked on becoming a professional fisherman while running a successful maritime business.

“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.”

Dowden developed 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 BASS tournaments.

Dowden’s low-key and patient approach helped him become one of the best anglers out there. The only thing missing was a tournament win despite several near misses.

He came to be known as the “bridesmaid and never the bride.” But that all changed in 1980.

That year the Bassmaster Classic was held along the Thousands Islands region of the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, the farthest north it had ever been held.

There was the strong current, the traffic along the river 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, a negative for some anglers.

Dowden said he felt at right home as its vegetation reminded him of his days fishing on Saline Lake.

“I know how to fish vegetation,” Dowden added. “I don’t fight it. Those who fight vegetation are the dumbest people in the world.”

Dowden led after the first and second days. The conditions changed for the worse for the final day when an unexpected cold front blew in.

Despite that Dowden managed to haul in four bass — which would have been enough to win the tournament, although he didn’t know it — so he kept casting.

A few minutes past 1 p.m. that September afternoon and with a No. 11 Uncle Josh pork chunk (fat trimmed) on the hook, Dowden threw his line in the water near a boulder-strewn area at 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 6-6 bass that 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.

So how did Dowden celebrate winning the Super Bowl of bass fishing?

He went back to work, of course.

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