KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Sheron Brown excitedly showed off his ball cap following the Day One weigh-in of the BASS Federation Nation Championship. On the left side of the bill was the signature of BASS founder Ray Scott, an autograph Brown procured before the start of the tournament.
By the time the tournament ends, Scott may be seeking Brown's autograph.
While it's too early to anoint Brown as the Federation Nation's newest star, the energetic and charismatic angler from Shirley, Mass., took a step in that direction with Thursday's best catch, a five-fish limit weighing in at 10 pounds, 12 ounces. It was one of only 11 limits brought to the scale on Thursday and the only one that exceeded 10 pounds.
"It feels great to be here in this position," said Brown, a computer operator for a pharmaceutical company. "I cried three times this morning. My emotions are just all over the place."
Brown drew cheers from the weigh-in crowd as he pumped his fist and took the stage, showing off two sizable largemouths that anchored his Day One sack.
But he was one of the few anglers with cause for celebration: Lake Toho showed its stingy side on Thursday, yielding few limits — and even fewer lunkers. After producing BASS records in recent years, Toho instead produced misery for most of the Federation Nation field.
Of the 55 anglers, only 11 posted limits. Just four more brought four fish to the weigh-in, and eight anglers failed to land a single 12-inch keeper bass.
The harsh conditions are the result of a cold front that moved through the area earlier in the week, dropping air temperature into the lower 50s at night. Nobel Willets, the Florida Federation Nation representative from nearby Altamonte Springs, said water temperature fell from 73 degrees on the first practice day to 65 degrees Thursday morning.
Florida largemouth bass, a subspecies of bass native to the Sunshine State and Lake Toho, notoriously turn off in the wake of cooler weather.
"There have been a lot of changes over the past week," Willets said. "Florida bass tend not to bite too well when that happens."
Kurt Walters of Grand Junction, Colo., is second after weighing three fish for 9-3; Chris Loftus of Bloomfield, N.Y., is third with 8-6; and Leslie Kennedy of Fort Worth, Texas, is fourth with 7-11. Jeff Freeman of Max Meadows, Va., and Richard Watson of Plattekloof, South Africa, are tied for fifth with 7-10.
Federation Nation anglers are competing for six berths in the 2008 Bassmaster Classic, with the top finisher in each of six divisions making the Classic roster.
Division leaders after Day One are Brown (Eastern); Walters (Western); Kennedy (Central); Freeman (Mid-Atlantic); Watson (Southern) and Don Fowler (Northern). Fowler had 5-4 to take the Northern Division lead.
But Day One belonged to Brown, who used an undisclosed hard bait to catch four of his fish and a soft plastic lure for the other. He caught eight fish total in a span of about four hours, including his final fish with just a few minutes left in the day.
"I'm ripping [the hard bait] through weeds and throwing it open water," Brown said. "I'm really just throwing my shoulder out all day. But it's an afternoon bite, so [Friday morning] I'm going to go to my money spot and fish deep with the soft plastic. I'm wide open for about four hours in the morning, because my pattern is an afternoon bite."
Brown said his "money spot" is a large, open area that can accommodate other competitors, a possibility Ray Scott asked Brown about on the weigh-in stage.
"They're not doing what I'm doing, they're not thinking like I think, and they're not from where I'm from," Brown responded.
"I'm from humble means," Brown explained later. "I've got a 21-year-old boat, and it has broken down at every big tournament I've fished. I'm just happy to be out here fishing out of a new Triton in this tournament. It goes where I want it to go and starts when I want it to start. It's a luxury I'm not accustomed to."
Brown said he'd like to use the Federation Nation Championship as a springboard to a professional career on the Bassmaster Elite Series. The winner of this tournament automatically qualifies for the 2008 Elite Series.
"I want to try to go with the big guys next year," he said. "That's my dream, and I'll be there if I win this thing."
ESPN2 will air coverage from Lake Toho on Saturday, Feb. 16, at 9 a.m. ET. Streaming video coverage of the daily weigh-ins is available at ESPNoutdoors.com, and the site will also update fans with real-time leaderboards