With a live cricket at the end of his line, Tim Cooley stood on the bank of a Sumter County fishing hole with his eyes on his bobber, hoping a large bream would bite.
He was focused on his line, unfazed that state prisoners sometimes work in the fields around him.
“They don't bother you,” Cooley said. “I come here and even if you don't catch anything, it's a great day. Because you just relax. No hustle. No bustle.”
Cooley, 58, of Sumter fishes at Wateree River Correctional Institution – a medium-security men's prison with a 6,700-acre farm where many prisoners work outside the razor-wire fence.
For decades, the S.C. Corrections Department has allowed people to fish the property as long as they have a fishing license, pass an agency background check and sign a “release of liability” form.
Ninety-three residents and 110 state employees have been approved to fish there for 2008.
Most hear about the opportunity by word of mouth.
Inmates, former inmates and visitors of inmates are prohibited from fishing at the prison in Rembert.
While state employees and their guests, such as Cooley, have access to six fishing areas, the general public is restricted to fishing in an area called Big Pond/Spillway, unless there is a tournament.
That's where anglers have caught largemouth bass, gar, bream, bowfin and jackfish, said 75-year-old Bennie Watts of the Lugoff area, who has fished there for seven years.
While Watts said some fishermen exaggerate their feats, he caught a 7-pound largemouth bass in Big Pond during the spring. Honestly.
Bass like to hide in lily pads and growth and there's plenty in there, Watts said.
“It's a beautiful body of water,” Watts said. “It's a good deal.”
Watts wishes he could fish other ponds, but Lt. Leon Laborn, the prison's resident fishing expert, said security comes first.
Residents must be kept in one area in case prison officials need to evacuate the property, Laborn said.
Only 15 people are allowed in at once, and they must sign in at the gate and consent to searches of their vehicle on the way in and out.
No alcoholic beverages are allowed, only trolling motors can be used on boats and people are expected to pick up after themselves.
Residents can fish half-days on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from March 1 through Oct. 31. Most consider it a privilege, Laborn said.
“Where else can you go to a prison and go fishing?” he asked.
Laborn, who generally uses rubber worms to fish for bass, caught an estimated 12-pound largemouth bass from the Saw Mill pond at the prison a couple of years ago, he said.
The designated fishing holes are there because the property was mined decades ago for sand and gravel.
“They had a choice,” Laborn said, “either fill it back in or you can make fishing areas out of it.”
Shane Kirkley, 22, of Lugoff has fished at the prison. He said “it's kind of weird” to think that people working the fields around him have been convicted of crimes.
“I guess you just get used to it,” he said. “I think it's great letting people come out there.”
This spring, the annual Corrections Department fishing tournament at Wateree raised $600 for the S.C. Correctional Association to fund college scholarships.
During the tournaments, which are open to the public, there is broader access to fishing areas.
Sgt. Elbert Williams, a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, finished a yearlong tour in Iraq in May and one of the first things he wanted to do when he returned was to fish at the prison.
He spent two weeks with his wife, as promised, then picked up the phone and called Laborn.
The two went out on Laborn's boat and caught 22 largemouth bass and bream in an hour and a half. Of course, Williams would not disclose the secret spot.
“There were many days when bombs were falling and bullets were flying and I was sitting there thinking about those fishing holes,” Williams said.
Warden Don Beckwith said allowing people to fish there is the right thing to do.
“We put them in an atmosphere that's safe,” Beckwith said. “And the fishing is just so darn good.”