South Carolina is loaded with private ponds that often provide better action than big lakes, not to mention state-record catches.

During a family gathering at the family's pond in northern Anderson County last summer, 5-year-old Marshall Gilmer wasted little time in turning a low-key family outing into a veritable fishing free-for-all.

Marshall and his mother, Kristine, decided to have some fun by paddling around the pond in a small paddleboat. Marshall casually picked up his miniature Scooby-Doo rod-and-reel combo and tossed his lure - a pumpkinseed lizard - out behind the boat.

It didn't take long for things to get interesting.

"The next thing we know we hear my wife screaming," said Marshall's father, Dave Gilmer, who was sitting on a nearby dock with a group of family members and friends.

"When we saw that he had hooked something, we all said, 'that's cute, that's real cute.' Then it got serious. All of a sudden, the fish jumped - the picture-perfect largemouth trying to throw a worm - and we all freaked out."

With Marshall holding onto his rod for dear life, his father hopped into a nearby ski boat and motored out to his wife and son. He tightened the reel drag as best he could, then helped Marshall hold on as the big bass swam back and forth, eventually tiring itself.

"The stars must have been in perfect alignment," the senior Gilmer said. "It felt like it took 30 minutes, but it was probably just 4 or 5."

The dad eventually lipped the bass - a chunky 8 1/2-pound largemouth - for his son, then the excited trio headed back to the dock to an ecstatic crowd.

"Everybody wanted to hold it, everybody wanted to touch it," Gilmer said. "They all patted Marshall on the back. Then, of course, everybody on the dock wanted to go fishing."

Chalk another one up to the power of the pond.

Big bass and small ponds have that affect on many people, particularly in South Carolina, where the nearest pond isn't far from anyone's back yard. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has estimated 60,000 "small impoundments" scattered across the Palmetto State, which translates to 1,300 ponds per county - or roughly two ponds per square mile.

Numbers such as these help ensure that many an aspiring angler's first catch - for this generation and beyond - is likely to take place at one of these small waters.

"Many people start fishing on ponds because they have access to one or their neighbors invite them," said Val Nash, freshwater fisheries chief for the DNR. "Fishing is usually pretty good at these ponds, and it's not as daunting as going out and looking at a 50,000-acre reservoir."

Ponds also provide the perfect outlet for anglers who don't own a boat or simply prefer to have both feet on the ground when launching that oversized buzz bait.

"We try to promote bank fishing as much as boat fishing, and small impoundments are much more user-friendly for bank fishermen," said Gene Hayes said, a fisheries biologist at the DNR's Greenwood office.

While private ponds comprise the bulk of angling opportunity, the DNR has supplemented the "small-water" mentality by providing 18 well-stocked, well-managed ponds in its popular Public Fishing Lakes Program. These small lakes range in size from a couple of acres to almost 300, but most are less than 50 acres. Located in 14 of the state's 46 counties from the Upstate to the Lowcountry, almost all of these ponds have fishing piers, are handicapped accessible, and are limited to boats equipped only with electric or low-horsepower motors - perfect ingredients for a low-key yet potentially productive day on the water.

"They're more accessible, particularly to the non-boating public," Nash said. "They're easier to get to and require less equipment, and those are advantages not to be sneezed at. When you're on a pond, things are at a much easier pace and more relaxed because usually it's just you and your family anyway."

That intimacy is indeed a powerful drawing card. At most Palmetto State ponds, you're more likely to encounter a heifer in search of a cool respite than you are a competing angler.

"Interaction with other users is a lot less," Hayes said. "Keep in mind that the human dimension portion of our angler surveys indicates the primary reasons that people go fishing are for relaxation and to be with family and friends.

"For some people, it's difficult to be relaxed on a large reservoir. If you're uptight the whole time due to the expanse of water, not knowing where you're going, not knowing where to fish, and conflicts with other users such as water skiers and jet skiers, you're not going to enjoy yourself as much."

South Carolina's ponds - which range from cool and clear stream-fed ponds in the mountains to cow pasture reservoirs in the piedmont and black-water ponds in the heart of the coastal plain - provide productive angling hot spots for a variety of species. An added bonus is the catch rates at ponds often greatly exceed those of nearby reservoirs, and the potential for fishing success increases greatly if you happen to be blessed by access to a well-managed pond.

Star Fort Pond, one of the small impoundments in the DNR's Public Lakes Program, quickly has emerged as a favored fishing destination for many anglers. This 27-acre pond near Greenwood also shines in creel surveys, with a black crappie catch rate of three fish per hour.

"When we looked at the statistics, we found that the catch rates at Star Fort were many times higher than (Lake) Greenwood, which is considered very productive and has historically high catch rates for a large reservoir," Hayes said. "At most reservoirs, the catch rates aren't half of what you'll find at Star Fort."

The average pond in the piedmont is between 3 and 7 acres, according to Hayes, and he considers this to be "the perfect size."

"A small impoundment is a much more manageable entity," Hayes said. "They can be managed through fertilization, through stocking, through fishing. Things such as water quality, water level and aquatic plant management also can be handled much more easily when you're dealing with a smaller pond."

And perhaps the most enticing prospect? Small ponds can mean big fish.

Three current state-record fish were pulled from ponds, including the football-like 16-pound, 2-ounce largemouth bass wrestled from an Aiken County pond by Mason Cummings in 1993. Other pond-produced state standards include a 3-pound, 4-ounce bluegill from Lancaster County and a 2-pound, 2 1/2-ounce warmouth bream caught in Clarendon County. That these record fish were products of a pond habitat should come as no surprise.

The typical S.C. pond contains largemouth bass - the upper-tier predator - as well as healthy populations of bluegill and shellcracker bream (redear sunfish), and channel catfish. Although not recommended for a "well-balanced" pond, crappie often find their way into many smaller impoundments, and provide another viable angling option.

"The problem with having crappie is the first thing people think of when fishing for crappie is shiners (as bait)," Hayes said. "And that's something we don't like to see happen because shiners can have a devastating effect on bass and bream population dynamics."

Not surprisingly, the use of minnows (shiners) is banned at the majority of the state's public ponds. Hayes suggested anglers instead opt for mini-jigs or doll flies when crappies are their quarry.

For anglers not content with fishing from the bank, ponds offer the perfect location to break in those new waders. Float-tube fishing continues to gain in popularity and is an effective approach for pond anglers hoping to reach out-of-the-way honey holes and other hard-to-reach casting locales at a distant shoreline. Canoes, kayaks and simple john boats also are desirable alternatives.

Gear selection can be as varied and complex as you wish or as simple as a cane pole and a can of night crawlers. Beetle Spins and a wide array of in-line spinners are effective fish finders, and smaller plastics - such as 4-inch worms and lizards - often produce hits from bass when worked parallel to the weed line.

Ponds also are perfect locations for honing one's fly-casting skills, and everything in the fly box - from streamers to caddis flies to topwater poppers - can and will draw voracious strikes from bass, bream and crappies.

For those anglers who annually chomp at the bit to wet that first line come spring, ponds can be a godsend.

"Because there's less volume, the water temperature increases faster and earlier in a pond, therefore spawning occurs a bit earlier, too," Hayes said. "Most ponds are spring-fed or fed by general runoff water, whereas big reservoirs have rivers feeding them - in other words, a constant flow of water that's going to be cool."

What that means is pond fishing can prove quite rewarding as early as February, particularly on the heels of a mild winter or in the midst of periods of unseasonably warm weather. Such is the case this year, meaning big bites from largemouth bass and crappie can't be far behind.

"If you're fishing for bass, March and April are probably the best months traditionally," Hayes said. "For crappie, February, March and early April are best - the timing's a little bit ahead of what you'll see in most reservoirs.

"Channel catfish are very catchable for much of the year, but April and May seem to be the time when they're most vulnerable. Then, when you get into May and that water temperature creeps on up, that's when the bluegill start spawning. They'll go on to spawn every 30 days into September, so that translates into plenty of good fishing."

Hayes also shares the belief there's no bad times to go fishing at one of the state's 60,000 ponds. His best days of fishing, he said, have been spent with his teenage daughter - at a pond.

"When we go to a pond, she really likes to fish," Hayes said. "And I've seen that in a lot of kids. It's a good place to have a relaxing time and time to bond.

"We talk and laugh and that kind of thing, and that's as much of the fishing experience as anything. It's great to catch stuff, too, but that's really the essence of why we go."