Inky Davis remembers well his first guide trip to Santee Cooper one April more than 35 years ago, more as an amusing anecdote than a memorable day of bass fishing.
"I took out this veterinarian from Clemson, and he was using a rod with a push button reel," Davis said with his trademark giggle. "We were fishing along a tree line, and he made a cast, and I watched that worm go up, up, up over a cypress tree and into the lake on the other side.
"His line was 30-feet high with the worm in the water when a 5-pound bass took it and made a big splash on the other side of the tree. There was no way we could boat that bass."
There have been a lot of Aprils at Santee Cooper since then, and Davis, who was nicknamed "Inky" because he lived for a while in an incubator after being born premature, has seen to it that a lot of bass have made their way to his boat's live well.
The main thing to remember about Santee Copper is that it is a vast system, featuring two huge and distinctly different lakes connected by a seven-mile-long canal. Upper Lake Marion is relatively shallow, fed by numerous creeks, filled with stump fields and a lot of standing timber, and a massive headwaters covered by a swamp criss-crossed with meandering creeks from the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers to form the Santee River.
The lower impoundment, Lake Moultrie, by contrast, is a huge washbowl of a lake featuring much deeper and much more open water.
"The lower lake has much more submerged, man-made structure than the upper lake, like bridges, house foundations, cemeteries and others," Davis said. "The upper lake used to have large amounts of dead willow bushes in shallow areas and in some places on top of the riverbank in deep water.
"Over the years this type of cover has mostly disappeared, having decayed and fallen apart or run over or broken apart when people got hung up in it. Some remnants remain but not the large mats of them those that still existed in the 70s and held bass year round.
"In the springtime, there is one important thing to remember about the two lakes - the waters of the lower part of Lake Marion and all of Lake Moultrie tend to warm up sooner than most of the upper part of Lake Marion, mainly due to the high inflow of water from upstate South Carolina and part of North Carolina.
"As the water starts to warm into the 50s in late February, the bass will start a trip from deeper lake water towards shallower water. As the water temperature rises from 55 to 60 degrees, the bass will move closer to shallow water and by March, you'll be able to see the bass in the clear-water areas."
March is the prime month for the spawn at Santee Cooper, but it continues into April, particularly at the upper lake which warms slower than the lower lake, Davis said.
Top spots for bedding bass are at cypress and tupelo trees, grass beds, stumps, logs, lily pads, willow bushes and button bushes.
Backwater ponds off the main lakes and the Diversion Canal sometimes contain clear water and are prime spawning areas, Davis said, from March into April if the lake level remains high.
"When the bass are on the beds, the bite can either be very quick or dead slow," Davis said. "I use soft plastics, with and without lead, on these beds, and if I can't get the fish to bite I will use a spoon or a jig sometimes.
"If you can't see the beds, watch for movement under the lily pads, grass beds, button bushes and throw to these fish. You may have to fish slow and look for a certain fish movement, and you may have to fish a lot of shallow cover to find the fish.
"There are two ways to look for bedding fish at Santee. You can see the fish in the clearer water or look for the slightest movement up in shallow water, where the fish might bump a piece of grass or you see some movement under the water.
"You have to watch for that and assume it is a spawning bass. Just hope you don't snag a grass carp."
Because the fish are in constant transition, with some bass on the beds, some holding nearby to feed and some already moving out to a little deeper water, Davis follows the Scout's motto - Be prepared.
"Inky is of the philosophy, and I totally agree," said veteran Santee fisherman and outdoor writer Terry Madewell, "that it's up to the fishermen to give the bass what it wants to bite.
"Fish enough lures in enough water and depth situations, and you're more likely to figure out a daily pattern than by sticking to only one or two lures.
"I have 15 rods rigged with different lures. If they're not biting one thing, I pick up something else.
"I've pretty much got it down what I can throw and catch fish. I used to keep all those rods on my deck and got kidded about it."
Now, Davis will lay out at least eight or nine rods, all differently rigged, on the deck when he begins fishing.
"A lot of times when I'm guiding I will be throwing one bait and have my parties throwing different baits until we see what the fish want - a crankbait, a spinnerbait, a worm, a lipless crankbait, or something else.
"The main thing to remember about springtime bass fishing on Santee, is that your presentation must be precise. Don't be scared to throw back to a spot if it looks good. Sometimes that is what it takes to get the fish to bite.
"I like to use a variety of lures this time of year because you are going to have to fish in every element.
"Fish the beds with different types of soft plastics and work spinnerbaits around lily pads and in the grass. I like to throw spoons on top of the grass. The buzzbait should be working good then, along with other topwater baits. Just about anything you can fish with probably will work at some point during the month of April."
During early April, he said, anglers might find bass spawning near the shallow end of docks, and as the spawn ends they'll move out under the deep end of the dock or into brush that might be in front or around the dock.
"There will be spawning going on all through April, much more the first couple of weeks than at the end of the month," Davis said. "By then there'll be some fish that have spawned and moved on out to the cypress trees, but some will remain in the shallow water. With all the bait in the area, there is no reason for them to leave.
"The bass will stay in the shallow water around the cypress trees after spawning until it gets hot. By early May, they'll move to the deeper cypress trees or out on points and ledges."
As the water warms more and some of the bass complete their spawn, the top-water bite will improve, he said.
"You can catch them using about any method you want," Davis said. "The fish that have spawned will be hungry.
"Watch the shad and fry movement and fish topwater lures and buzzbaits, mainly in the early morning and late evening. As spring progresses through April and into May, these bass will finish their spawn and backtrack the same way they entered the shallow water, as they head towards deeper water and their summer patterns.
"Top spots for April at Lake Moultrie include the Hatchery, Angels Cove, all along the north shoreline. The Hatchery has always been known to be good in April with spinnerbaits.
"As the fish move back into the feeder creeks that lead into the flats if you can find some good grass beds the fish will hold in them. If the water is deep enough, 5- to 6-feet deep, they can live there. Angels Cove in the lower lake is an area that has begun to develop some large beds of eel grass.
"Once they finish spawning and the water gets hot, they move off the cypress trees, and I don't mess with lower lake. I stay on the upper lake then, and in Lake Marion I like to fish Jacks Creek, the Packs Landing area, Low Falls, Stumphole and Sparkleberry.
"The swamp is an excellent area for those who know how to fish it. This past fall the bass fishing was crazy in the swamp, and we should have a good spring if there is not an excessive amount of current."
During mid-April the weather starts getting hotter, and the bass will move out to scattered trees in 3 to 5 feet of water, Davis said.
"The hotter it gets the deeper bass want to go, unless they can get up under a big grove of cypress or tupelo trees with a lot of shade.
"A lot has to do with the lake, too. If they draw the lake down you have to move further away from the shoreline."
Besides the loss of grass, because of the introduction of grass carp, another thing that has changed April fishing at Santee Cooper, Davis said, is the proliferation of major bass tournaments, which have put a tremendous amount of pressure on fish. This April the lakes will be covered up in tournaments, from Bassmasters events to FLW tournaments and other competitions, including the Fishers of Men and the Stratos Open Trail.
One of the main things to remember about April bass fishing at Santee Cooper, Davis said, is the bass are doing a variety of things, and they don't always follow the calendar. A case in point is a memorable guide trip in late April last year when Davis' party caught seven bass with the largest weighing more than 8 pounds.
"We're catching those fish shallow at cypress trees, lily pads and different kinds of native grass," Davis said, noting the 8-pounder was a big female, still full of eggs, that hadn't gone to a bed.
"We caught those fish on Zoom centipede and finesse worms, Texas-rigged with a light lead," Davis said. "We also had a few strikes on a spoon, working it on top. They missed it, and we threw back in there and caught them on the worm or the centipede. That spoon, by the way, is a Strike King Timber King. They don't make them anymore, but I have a few, and they're going to have to last me the rest of my life."
Davis, one of the most well-known guides at the Santee Cooper Lakes, is also one of the most-respected bass anglers in the area, having been featured in dozens of magazines and newspaper articles and on numerous television fishing shows. The author John Weiss dedicated his book, "Advanced Bass Fishing," to Davis.
Recognized by his trademark giggle when he gets excited, Davis can be found at the Summerton Diner, enjoying a home-cooked meal when he isn't on the water.
Anglers can check out the Inky Davis Guide Service at his web site, www.inkydavis.com. To book a bass fishing trip, call him at (803) 473-3783, "preferably after 9 p.m."