ANDERSON, S.C. — It is a battle of the Carolinas at the top of the St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Hartwell presented by Mossy Oak Fishing.
With 17 pounds, 13 ounces, North Carolina pro Shane Lineberger and South Carolina’s Derek Lehtonen are tied for the top spot after one day. The two anglers hold a 1-pound advantage over Michigan boater Jon Jezierski.
On top of having an extensive history on Lake Hartwell, Lineberger said it sets up exactly like his home waters of Lake Norman which has helped him find success. He targeted largemouth, anchoring his bag with a 5-3, although he did weigh one spotted bass.
“I started out throwing some topwater around. I think I’m doing something different than everyone else,” he said. “The fish I am fishing for are a lot less pressured than these brushpile, canepile fish.
“It sets up just like Lake Norman. Everyone is so keyed in on the offshore stuff that they leave the other stuff alone. I hope it stays that way for two more days.”
Lineberger used two primary baits as he ran through several areas. Three of his five bass were caught before 8:30 a.m., and he made several key culls.
“I kind of backed off what I was doing when my small fish was a 2 3/4-pounder,” he explained. “It is kind of pointless to sit here and catch 2 1/2-pounders and throw them back when you are going to need them later in the week. Hopefully, I can get another lucky 5-pounder. If not, we are going down swinging.”
As many of the other boaters in the field are focusing on spotted bass, Lineberger is committed to his largemouth game plan. With the largemouth in their fall feeding phase, he has found his bass are keying in on a particular type of forage.
“I tell everyone, it doesn’t matter where you are at this time of year, the biggest fish in the lake eat bream,” he said. “And that is what I am fishing for, the ones that are up there eating bream. This place is full of fish and one of the best fisheries in the Southeast. This lake patterns so well.”
Lehtonen is also mostly targeting largemouth in an area where he’s found success in the past. Fishing in a crowd, his local knowledge helped him secure a better quality bite while anglers around him struggled.
“It was very slow,” Lehtonen said. “I caught my first fish around 10 a.m. From there I slowly started upgrading. I was targeting brush and hoping for a bite.”
With such a slow start, Lehtonen ventured offshore and fished for spotted bass, one of which made the final tally. He filled his limit around 1 p.m. while his biggest bass, a 5-3 largemouth, came with about 10 minutes to go before check-in.
Similar to Lineberger, two baits produced most of Lehtonen’s weight. While he is tied for the lead, Lehtonen said the lake has turned over and that has made the fishing a lot more difficult than it was even a week ago. Last weekend, he caught just over 17 pounds in a local tournament and that resulted in a ninth-place finish.
“The turnover has ruined it and the drawdown from where they are pulling water,” Lehtonen said. “It has moved these fish big time. They are sucking it out every day. There are less and less filtering in where I am fishing.”
Lehtonen hopes the calm conditions on Day 1 will continue into Day 2, saying cloud cover will hurt his bite even more.
Anchoring his bag with a 6-6 largemouth that earned him the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day, Jezierski caught 16-13 to land in third place. After spending most of his practice attempting to fish for spotted bass offshore, he went back to his Michigan roots and targeted largemouth on tournament day.
“I caught one 3-pound largemouth in practice and I told my co-angler we would go for some spots in the morning to get a limit and then target largies later,” he said. “My co-angler told me that the largemouth would probably bite in the morning. So, we went largie fishing.”
Jezierski landed the big bass in the first 30 minutes on a Z-Man Evergreen JackHammer before filling his limit around 10 a.m. and then wrapping up his bag before noon. His final limit had four largemouth and one spot. Fishing around wood, the JackHammer produced big bites, as well as a Berkley Power Hawg flipping bait.
With very little fishing pressure around him, Jezierski feels confident he can catch another limit Friday.
“I found this area last year with a buddy of mine,” he said. “I went back there this year and there was just baitfish everywhere and fish busting. It was just the backend of a creek as far as you can go, and I caught the big one in a foot and a half of water.”
Sakae Ushio leads the co-angler division with 10-0 followed by Clifton Overstreet in second with 9-5 and Thomas Crosswhite in third with 8-13. Overstreet also landed the Big Bass of the day on the co-angler side, a 5-10 largemouth.
With two days left in the Southern Opens season, Arkansas pro Joey Cifuentes leads the Southern Division standings with 556 points while Tennessee pro Brandon Lester is second with 555. California pro Bryant Smith is third with 539, followed by Kayden Tanner with 533 and Cooper Gallant with 521.
The full field will launch from Green Pond Landing starting at 7:15 a.m. ET and will return for weigh-in at 3:15 p.m. The co-angler champion will be crowned at the end of Friday’s weigh-in.
The Top 10 boaters after Day 2 will earn a spot on Championship Saturday and compete for a potential berth in the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic scheduled for March 24-26 in Knoxville, Tenn.
The tournament is being hosted by Visit Anderson.