Lester Notches First Bassmaster Win At Southern Open On Kissimmee Chain

Steady productivity paved the path to success for Bassmaster Elite Series pro Brandon Lester, who tallied a three-day total of 51 pounds, 2 ounces to win the St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open on Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.

Brandon Lester of Fayetteville, Tenn., has won the 2022 St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open at Kissimmee Chain with a three-day total of 51 pounds, 2 ounces.  Photo by Andy Crawford/B.A

Recording his first Bassmaster victory, the pro from Fayetteville, Tenn., placed 13th on Day 1 with 14-13, added a second-round limit of 18-1 and earned his Championship Saturday berth in second place. With a final-round limit of 18-4, Lester edged Joey Cifuentes of Clinton, Ark. (48-12), who led the first two days.

Lester won $52,500 and earned a berth in the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, to be held in Knoxville, Tenn., March 24-26.

“There were 225 hammers fishing this event — I feel like this is harder to win than an Elite Series tournament,” said Lester, who was fishing his 114th major tournament with B.A.S.S. “I’ve been close; I’ve finished second here, I’ve finished third here, I have I don’t know how many Top 10s in the Opens. I love fishing these events and it feels really good to finally pull one off.

“Now the Classic qualification is off my mind the rest of the year. I couldn’t be happier because it was just announced that the (2023) Classic will be in my home state of Tennessee.”

All three days, Lester locked down to the lower Kissimmee Chain waters and split his time between Lake Kissimmee and Cypress Lake. The latter yielded most of his weight and dominated his final-round productivity.

“Cypress had a ton of hydrilla; this is the first year with this much grass in it,” said Lester, who now has 22 Top 10 finishes with B.A.S.S. “When I went in there in practice, I noticed right off the bat that I was seeing empty beds everywhere. That was the whole key to me winning this tournament, there’s no doubt.

“I knew they were bass beds and I knew that with that many beds around and a warming trend coming, those fish would be coming in — and they did.”

Days 1 and 2 saw Lester catching his fish on a 5-inch junebug-colored Gambler Fat Ace (soft stickbait) rigged on a 3/0 Mustad Grip Pin Big Bite hook with a 3/16-ounce Mustad Tungsten weight. With an approaching cold front bringing cloudy skies, light afternoon rain and cooling temperatures, Lester switched to a reaction-based presentation.

“I knew if I was going to catch them today, I needed some type of moving bait, so I caught them on a 3/8-ounce Evergreen JackHammer ChatterBait in the golden shiner color with a 3.3-inch Keitech Swing Impact Fat trailer in Tennessee shad,” Lester said. “It was pretty much just a chunk-and-wind deal, but once I found the area where it went down, I just milked that one area all day.”

Lester spent the first two days on the north side of Cypress Lake, but when Day 3 brought north winds of 10 to 15 mph, he switched to the south shore.

“The spot where I had been catching them the last two days got blown out by the mud (from strong winds),” he said. “I just got on that south side because it hadn’t been getting much pressure, and I thought with that wind in there, maybe there’d be some bait in there and I was right.”

Cifuentes took the early lead by catching a Day 1 limit of 28-10, which ranks in the Top 15 single-day weights in Bassmaster Opens history. Retaining his lead on Day 2 with a limit of 10-13, he entered Championship Saturday leading Lester by 6-9. On Day 3, Cifuentes added 9-5 and ended with 48-12.

A key prespawn staging spot amid deep grass produced Cifuentes’ Day 1 weight by 8:30 a.m. But Day 2 found the spot devoid of bass, so he caught a limit by punching grass. On Saturday, Cifuentes gave his best spot another look, but it offered nothing and he ended up catching his fish on a Berkley Stunna jerkbait.

“That big bag did good; it just didn’t do enough,” Cifuentes said. “It was fun. I had a blast and it was a great way to start the year.”

In addition to a $25,500 second-place prize, Cifuentes also earned the $500 Garmin Tournament Rewards for being the highest-placing competitor using Garmin products.

Tom Frink of Southside, Ala., finished third with 47-8. He placed 19th on Day 1 with a limit of 13-9, rose to eighth by catching 17-3 on Day 2 and gained five more spots with a final-round bag that weighed 16-12.

While he spent some of his time throwing a 1/2-ounce Evergreen lipless bait offshore in Cypress Lake, Frink fared best when he focused on shallow reeds. Targeting clear, sandy spots in the reed lines with a beaver-style bait rigged with a Ryugi Black Bean sliding sinker.

“I’d go a couple hundred yards and not get bit, then I’d hit a 50-yard stretch where I’d catch three or four fish,” Frink said. “On Day 2, I got lucky and caught a 7-pounder doing that. Today, I started offshore for (a brief time), but I went shallow again and had one 50-yard stretch where I caught all my fish.”

Elite Series pro Frank Talley of Temple, Texas, won the $750 Phoenix Boats Big Bass award for his 9-7 largemouth.

As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Adam Neu of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., took home an additional $1,500 while John Soukup of Sapulpa, Okla., claimed an additional $750 for being the second-highest placing entrant.

Toyota will also award $1,500 to the highest-placing entrant in their Bonus Bucks program and an additional $1,000 to the second-highest placing entrant.

Additionally, the St. Croix Rods Rewards program will award an extra $500 to the highest-finishing Top 10 angler fishing St. Croix rods.
The tournament was hosted by the Kissimmee Sports Commission.
2022 Bassmaster Opens Series Title Sponsor: St. Croix
2022 Bassmaster Opens Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2022 Bassmaster Opens Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Berkley, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha
2022 Bassmaster Opens Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Huk Performance Fishing, Marathon, Strike King, Triton Boats, VMC
2022 Bassmaster Conservation Partners: AFTCO, Yamaha

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