The 2006 B.A.S.S. Elite Series Santee Cooper Showdown put the exclamation mark behind the fantastic largemouth bass fishing that the lakes support.

This is what was overheard by some of the pro anglers fishing that tournament last year.

"I was passing up 6 pounders," said Alabama pro, Aaron Martens.

"Once you've kissed 99 pounds of fish, you know you've had a heck of a tournament," said Kevin Wirth of Crestwood, Ky.

"I didn't win, but I broke the century mark and that's a cool club to be in," said Kelly Jordan of Texas after weighing in a four-day stringer of 20 bass weighing 103 pounds, 3 ounces.

Statements like those would be enough to make any bass angler salivate about fishing a lake that was described that way. But those were just the appetizers to the main course.

Preston Clark shattered the previous four-day catch record for a tournament by winning the Elite Series Santee Cooper Showdown with a weight for 20 bass of 115 pounds, 15 ounces. That's nearly a 6-pound average during four days. During day one of competition, Clark had a stringer that was 10 ounces shy of an 8-pound average.

These sorts of numbers make bass anglers as excited as when a bucketmouth blows up on a Devil's Horse. Here's why Santee Cooper is the top bass lake in the Palmetto State and one of the best all-time bass-fishing holes in the country. It's also possible that it's only getting better.

"There are a number of reasons why Santee Cooper is home to such big largemouth bass," said Scott Lamprecht, a fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. His office has been located on the shore of the famous lakes for almost two decades.

"You have to look at the lakes first," Lamprecht said, referring to Marion, often called the upper lake, and Moultrie, the lower lake. Together, these two lakes comprise 170,000 surface acres of water.

"Santee Cooper is the only large reservoir located in the Coastal Plain," he said. "The other big lakes in the state, such as Murray, Wateree, Hartwell or Jocassee, are all located in the Piedmont and Mountain regions. Santee Cooper's location gives it the longest largemouth growing season of any South Carolina reservoir."

But being at the end of the pipe has its trade-offs.

"Despite draining a large watershed, Santee Cooper isn't as fertile as other reservoirs," Lamprecht said. "As pollution controls have been implemented over the last two decades, we're seeing even less nutrients entering the system from large cities. The fertility that's entering the system is sucked up by other reservoirs farther upstream.

"Santee Cooper has a very high flushing rate, too. Lake Murray has a retention time of about 300-plus days, whereas Santee Cooper runs about 67 days. So when nutrients enter Santee Cooper, they're not available for too long of a period."

Anglers might think all of this would spell doom and gloom for a reservoir, but Santee Cooper is able to overcome its one handicap.

"Among S.C. reservoirs, Santee Cooper largemouth bass are genetically distinct," Lamprecht said. "Further, they more closely resemble the Florida subspecies, which is known for its better growth rates and larger potential sizes, than populations in the upstate reservoirs."

Lamprecht also mentioned the lakes support a diverse prey base that's favorable to largemouth bass.

"Largemouth bass were designed to eat high-bodied sunfish, such as bream and redears, which are found in good populations throughout the lakes. The bass get their biggest energetic benefit from the sunfishes.

"They also have the opportunity to eat winter-stunned shad. While not the preferred forage, they offer the bass a meal without having to spend much energy."

A long growing season, genetics and diverse forage base combine to produce the fastest growing largemouth bass of any reservoir in the state. A fingerling can reach almost a foot by its first birthday, and by 5-years old that fish will be almost 4 pounds.

Lamprecht said the fastest-growing fingerlings can reach the magical 10-pound mark in nine years, but it takes a combination of genetics and luck.

"The factors are in place for Santee Cooper fish to get big, that's obvious, but there is some luck too," he said. "You can grow fast but you have to get old to reach your full potential."

That's where Santee Cooper excels when it comes to largemouth bass.

"Santee Cooper largemouth bass have low mortality," Lamprecht said. "Bass-fishing pressure, on a per acre basis, is lower on Santee Cooper than on other major reservoirs in the state. Seasonally, it can be very high and heavily concentrated but overall it's low.

"After the spawning period, the fish spread out and are deeper. They are not affiliated with much visible structure, which makes them less vulnerable to fishing pressure."

Compared to other reservoirs in the state, Santee Cooper largemouth bass are long lived. About 25 percent of the adult bass population is comprised of bass greater than 5-years old.

When you have the ingredients to make a bodacious bass you have to allow those fish to get old. That is what's happening on Santee Cooper.

Many bass anglers think the glory days of Santee Cooper were during the hydrilla years. The invasive exotic plant appeared in the lakes in 1980, and eventually covered about 25 percent of reservoir's surface.

Data shows that bass-fishing success, measured as number caught per hour, and angler participation peaked when hydrilla was abundant. However, the tradeoff of more fish is smaller ones.

"With dense vegetation, like hydrilla, bass are typically more numerous, but growth is slower and the average fish is much smaller than in habitats with healthy native plant communities," Lamprecht said. "Anglers caught more bass but they were nowhere near the sizes we are seeing today."

Grass carp were stocked in the lakes to control hydrilla, and by 1997 hydrilla was declared controlled. Since then, the number of grass carp has been declining as the fish die out, and bass recruitment is beginning to increase. However, you cannot make a direct cause-and-effect relationship related to grass carp disappearing. Another factor is at play too.

Santee Cooper withered through a drought from the summer of 1998 through the fall of 2002. During that time, lake levels fell.

With an exposed shoreline, cypress trees, other woody vegetation and various native vascular plants were able to take advantage of the low water and colonize the shoreline. With more normal water levels now, these areas are inundated, which produce a cornucopia of nutrients for the food chain, benefiting largemouth bass production.

"We are seeing a tremendous increase in largemouth bass recruitment," Lamprecht said. "The 2003 and 2004 year classes were exceptionally high, with some of our catch rates the highest in 10 years of sampling.

"The inundation of flood-tolerant terrestrial and emergent vegetation, the steady decline in grass carp and increase of beneficial native submerged aquatic vegetation appears to be fueling the increase in bass recruitment."

This is good news for the future of the Santee Cooper largemouth bass fishery.

In an interview with Preston Clark about his record-setting win last year on Santee Cooper, he commented about his lack of experience before coming to the lakes.

"Who would think you could almost weigh in a 30-pound bag at the Classic with an 11-pound, 10-ounce fish to go with it?" which Clark had done a few weeks earlier. "And then come to a place you've never been in your life, and on the fourth day you've ever been on that water weigh in a five-fish limit close to 40 pounds. It's crazy."

After hearing about Clark's experience on Santee Cooper, bass anglers probably think beside every cypress tree there are trophy bass waiting to jump in your boat.

While there are plenty of big bass, which the data prove, landing them is another issue.

"Bass fishing on the lakes has really changed," said Ray Sedgwick, a pro angler who has logged many, many hours fishing Santee Cooper and whose house in Cross overlooks Lake Moultrie. "For the longest time, we always had tea-colored water. After the hydrilla, the water cleared up, and it's stayed clear. We haven't had a flood in awhile either, which always helped keep the water a little dingy.

"I would compare these lakes with any lake in the country when it comes to bass fishing, but these fish are hard to catch."

Sedgwick said during January and February, largemouth hold in late-winter areas about 8- to 12-feet deep. He and others would stack brush in the water between 5 and 7 feet for the bass to stage on before heading to the beds.

"It used to be that you could have consistently good fishing by finding pre-spawn bass hanging on the brush," Sedgwick said. "Now with the water so clear, a lot the fish just head straight to the beds from the late-winter areas.

"One day they're not on the beds, and then the next they're there. You know they are coming to spawn, but in the past we used to get a head's up by getting them on the brush ahead of time. Now, they just show up."

Sedgwick said by the full moon in March the bass will be in a hard spawn at the trees, but they've gotten very wary.

"You have to downsize your technique and stay away from them on the bed," he said. "If you get too close, you are going to spook them. The sun can be wrong, and you can scare them without even making a cast. You have to have patience.

"It is to the point now where if you see a fish on the bed you're better off going past the fish and continuing on before circling back to make a cast."

Sedgwick said some anglers have gone as far as actually placing a 4-foot plant stake near the bed to mark it. This is especially true in areas with lots of vegetation, where it's possible to get too close to the bed before you see it and spook the fish.

"Because you have to remain so far off of the bed without spooking the fish," Sedgwick said, "you need a target to aim. In many instances, you won't be able to see the bed from the boat. It's only when they're really spawning hard that you can get closer."

Besides having the restraint not to cast at a bedding fish but to set up correctly from a safe distance, Sedgwick said angler patience comes into play after the first cast. He added anglers need to be able to accurately cast a long distance.

"Since you may not be able to see the fish in relation to the bait, you have to have confidence in what you're doing and not want to ease up closer to see what's happening to the fish," he said. "Work your bait right and repeatedly, and she'll eventually bite it."

Because of having to downsize, Sedgwick said many anglers have switched from bait-casting equipment to spinning rods.

"You have to use light stuff in the clear water," he said. "I normally fish a 7-foot All-Star spinning rod outfitted with a Pflueger Medalist 35 reel that's spooled with 8-pound line. That's a fairly typical setup at the lakes."

Keeping in concert with the stealth approach, Sedgwick said he fishes with finesse worms in natural, crawfish, green pumpkinseed and June bug colors during the spawn. After the spawn when there's a fair amount of bass fry around, he'll start using silver spinnerbaits with a white skirt and crankbaits in Tennessee shad and baby bass patterns as well.

"After the female spawns, she goes into a 'no-bite' mode," Sedgwick said. "She doesn't lose much weight from spawning, only about a half pound. I think she loses more weight because she doesn't eat.

"She'll retreat to deeper water until she's stabilized again. You can find them at creek channels and on the edges of depressions at that time.

"They'll be that way for about a week, and then it's back to the pre-spawn feeding pattern. You could even find them up in the shallows feeding again."

Sedgwick said once the full moon in May rolls around, there will be a lot of fry and larvae in the water column. He said that's a good time to start using some topwater baits, such as a Devil's Horse, 3/8- to 1/2-ounce buzzbaits or a Zoom Horny Toad Frog - bringing them across the top of floating vegetation.

Despite lakes Marion and Moultrie being right next to each other, the spawns for each lake are on different schedules.

"The earliest spawns will be found in Lake Moultrie along the north shore," Sedgwick said. "From Duck Pond all the way around to Bonneau is where you'll see it first. It's protected from the wind and gets a lot of sun.

"The spawn starts at the north side of Lake Marion too, in places like Potato and Wyboo creeks, but it's two weeks behind Lake Moultrie.

"Even the south side of Moultrie, around Pinopolis and The Hatchery, is one to two weeks behind the north shore."

Now you know the big bass are there and why and how to catch them. See if you can't add to Santee Cooper's legendary status this spring.