Lehtonen Claims Lead In Bassmaster Southern Open At South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell

With another successful day on his home pond, Derek Lehtonen is one day away from the biggest win of his angling career.

With 15 pounds, 5 ounces on Day 2, Lehtonen took sole possession of first place at the St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Hartwell presented by Mossy Oak Fishing with a total of 33-2.

He began the day tied for the lead with Shane Lineberger with 17-13, but now the Woodruff, S.C., native holds nearly a 3-pound advantage over Tristan McCormick and David Gaston, who both have 30-3.

“It would be amazing (to make the Classic),” said Lehtonen, who would earn a berth to the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic with a victory this week. “I would love it. I just want to have fun and to say I did it.”

After struggling the morning of Day 1, Lehtonen got off to a much better start on Day 2 and filled his limit of largemouth around noon. He caught two of his bass on one cast.

“I did catch two fish on one cast and that helped,” he said. “But after 2 o’clock I didn’t get another bite. I was fortunate to catch what I caught. I tried to leave a lot of stuff alone. I was trying to do a semi-milk run to keep fish for tomorrow.”

While he went offshore for a short time on Thursday to calm his nerves and secure a limit, on Friday he focused solely on largemouth. Lehtonen has picked apart very specific areas and targets with two baits in his primary area.

“It is structure oriented. I am making very specific casts,” he said. “It is not just going down the bank and fishing. It is a specific throw.”

McCormick entered the day in sixth place with 16-2 before landing 14-1 on Day 2 to secure a spot inside the Top 10 cut. With conditions nearly identical to what he experienced on Day 1, the Tennessee native was expecting the spotted bass bite to come easier.

That was not the case, but he made key moves later in the day to land his bag.

“I rolled up to my primary area and started throwing at them and they weren’t reacting as much,” McCormick said. “I had 8 pounds pretty quickly, but I knew right then I was going to start running new water. From 11 a.m. to check-in, I ran new water.”

On Thursday, two 4-pounders lifted last year's College Classic Bracket champion up the leaderboard, and while he caught nearly 60 fish Friday, he struggled to get the size he wanted.

“I couldn’t ever catch a big one,” McCormick said. “I got lucky and had two 4-pounders in my bag and those are what separate you. Whoever finds those tomorrow is probably going to win.”

Using his electronics, he found his spotted bass locked on the bottom. But the ones that are willing to eat will come up and investigate his drop shot. After leaving his primary area, he was able to find a section of lake where he could bounce around easily and quickly.

“I’m not really focusing on the cane and the brush,” he said. “I have caught some out of it, don't get me wrong, but I am looking for two or three roamers. If I make a cast, it is at a fish.”

Following up his 15-5 Day 1 bag with 14-14, Gaston jumped from 12th to third and secured his fourth Top 10 finish of the season.

This week, Gaston is sight fishing for cruising largemouth in shallow waters with a topwater popper. If he sees a bass, he casts to it, but he has to be sure not to get too close.

“I’m fishing secondary points, little rolling points and little white sandy beaches,” he said. “I’m pulling up and looking for one swimming. I’m looking for wolf packs. You might see 10 fish in one school or two fish in one school. The shallower they are, the better they will bite.

“You have to make sure a little one doesn’t bite first, and that has been the problem two days in a row. The little one always bites first and it is irritating.”

With a later boat draw Friday, the Alabama angler struggled to find momentum early in the morning. His fortunes turned around as the morning wore on, however, landing a 5-pounder around midmorning before upgrading throughout the day. Although he was scheduled to fish until 5:45 p.m., battery troubles forced him in early.

Jon Jezierski from Troy, Mich., remains atop of the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Tournament race with a 6-6 largemouth he caught on Day 1.

Sakae Ushio won the co-angler division with a two-day total of 15-8. On Day 1, the Tonawanda, N.Y., angler secured a three-bass limit weighing 10-0 and followed that with 5-8 Friday. Mike Spears from Jasper, Ala., finished second with 14-14, and Jacob Thompkins from Myrtle Beach, S.C., was third with 14-11.

Clifton Overstreet of Dothan, Ala., earned the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Tournament honors on the co-angler side with a 5-10 largemouth he caught on Day 1.

Thanks to a 19-0 Day 2 sack that lifted him into the Top 10 cut, Elite Series pro Bryan New from Saluda, S.C., is the Southern Opens Division champion with 572 points. Bryant Smith from Roseville, Calif., finished second with 547 points, followed by Canadian Cooper Gallant with 546 and Joey Cifuentes III with 536 points.

Since New is already a Bassmaster Elite Series pro, Smith, Gallant and Cifuentes earned invites to the 2023 Elite Series.

In the overall points race, Alabama pro Keith Poche continues to lead with 1,321 points. Gaston is second with 1,289, and Gallant is now third with 1,262.

The Top 10 boaters will launch from Green Pond Landing and Event Center Saturday at 7:15 a.m. ET and return for weigh-in beginning at 3:15 p.m. FS1 will broadcast live with the leaders beginning at 8 a.m. with continuing coverage on Bassmaster.com.

The tournament is being hosted by Visit Anderson.