CLARKS HILL, S.C. - David Willard will tell you he has a stressful, high-pressure job - and sometimes you can almost believe him.
"It's a hard life," he insists. "Anything to do with fishing is hard work. Really."
Indeed, on some mornings, by 8 a.m., the full-time fishing guide has already been awake five hours catching bait, preparing his boat and chasing fish. On ideal days, the cooler is already full and his clients are exhausted from landing fish.
"If you do everything right, the bait is good, you find the fish, it goes off without a hitch," he said.
But when things go awry, the pressure is on.
"You have to produce," he said. "When you can't, you just try harder. But we don't like to talk about those days. That's where the stress comes in."
Willard, 52, was a firefighter/paramedic for two decades before narrowing his focus to full-time guiding. During his firefighter career, he guided on his off days. This summer marks his 20th year as a Clarks Hill guide.
"My dad loved to fish, and he had me on the lake every Saturday morning," he said. "I grew up watching the sun come up - either from the lake or a deer stand."
Willard traveled during his younger years as part of a military family and ended up living in Clarks Hill, S.C., where his family remains today. His wife, Shirley, is a ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers, and they have two daughters.
Willard is mostly a bait fisherman, and his clients usually pursue stripers and hybrid bass.
"A lot of people think bait is the easy way to go and that it's better to use artificials," he said. "I would challenge anyone who thinks that way to give it a try."
Clients like Jane Jacobson - who also owns a fishing boat - fish with Willard often.
"We went out one time and caught 42 fish in two hours - right across the cove from where we put in," she said. "We love it!"
Who hires a guide? Almost anyone.
"The people you take fishing is what makes it really fun," he said.
Clients have included visitors from as far away as England, Saudi Arabia, China and Korea - many of whom were in Augusta for professional training at local corporations or hospitals.
Willard's favorite celebrity client was Spanky McFarland, who as a child starred as Spanky in the Little Rascals series.
"I fished with Spanky in the late 1980s," Willard said. "He was here for the Masters, and I got to hear all his stories about all the things that happened to all the kids in the Little Rascals movies."
He later told his daughters he had fished with the famous child star, and they didn't believe him.
"When my kids were real little, they watched Little Rascals and they loved Spanky. I told them I'd taken him fishing. They thought it was one of my fish stories, so I went and got the picture and brought it up and showed it to them. My stock went up a little with my kids that day."
Children are a big part of Willard's clientele.
"Kids who enjoy fishing seem to stay out of trouble," he said. "They learn patience, they learn respect and they learn how to enjoy being outside."
Catching lots of fish in a lake with 70,000 acres of water is easy, but only sometimes.
"There are certain things you do, noises you make, scents you put in the water," he said. "Some things work some of the time, but there's no silver bullet. You just have to work at it til you get what you're after."
One of Willard's favorite tactics is "fish whispering," which involves rhythmically tapping a wooden net handle softly against then floor of his boat while simultaneously watching his fish radar screen for movement. Does it work? "Of course," he said.
The best live bait is always the natural forage fish of the waters being fished, which means blueback herring for Clarks Hill anglers.
"You have to find them, catch and - most importantly - you have to keep them alive," Willard said. "Some days the fish just eat us alive," he said. "Other days, they run from us."
Willard likes windy days. The wind moves the plankton, which in turn moves the herring.
When you find the herring, you've found the bigger fish.
The electronics on his boat, he added, are second in importance only to the boat's motor.
"I couldn't live without it," he said.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or email@example.com.
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