KISSIMMEE, Fla. — On most days Jeff Freeman serves and protects the citizens of Wythe County, Va., as a deputy sheriff.
But Friday he was laying down the law in the BASS Federation Nation Championship on Lake Toho.
Freeman, 35, a 10-year veteran of the Wythe County Sheriff's Department, took the overall lead on Day Two of the championship with the tournament's heaviest catch so far, an 11 pound, 4 ounce, bag that pushed his two-day total to 18-14.
He went on patrol Friday in a Triton boat, making the rounds to a handful of key areas that produced his Day Two catch. Starting on the lower end of Lake Toho, Freeman caught a limit of keeper bass before moving to the middle part of the lake, where he hauled in three bigger fish that allowed him to cull the smaller keepers. Just before leaving for Friday's weigh-in, Freeman pulled in his biggest bass of the day to anchor his tournament-best catch.
"I'm fishing very, very small areas," said Freeman, who declined to elaborate on specific features of his hot spots. "They're maybe 12 feet by 12 feet — real small. I've got three of them that I'm rotating, letting them rest for about an hour, and they're replenishing."
Freeman, who lives in Max Meadows, Va., also leads the championship's Mid-Atlantic Division. The Federation Nation Championship features several mini-tournaments within the overall tournament, with the top six anglers in each of six regional divisions earning berths in the 2008 Bassmaster Classic.
Darin Doll of York, Pa., moved into second place, using a 9-4 bag, Friday's second-best catch, to jump from seventh. With a total weight of 16-11, he trails Freeman by 2 pounds, 3 ounces, in the Mid-Atlantic Division.
"Nothing really changed," Doll said. "The bite actually got tougher. I got into a funk and missed four fish in a row over about 40 minutes. But I got it back together and got back in the game again."
Doll used a finesse approach, throwing a junebug-colored centipede with a 1/16-ounce weight on 8-pound-test fluorocarbon line. It's a drastic departure from the way most anglers tackle Lake Toho, which is well known for big Florida bass and copious aquatic vegetation.
"I'm gambling big time, with all the big 8 to 10 pounders in this lake," Doll said. "But it's worth the risk, trying to make this Classic."
It was an especially difficult approach on Friday. While temperatures stabilized somewhat, a steady north wind blew all day long, making it extremely difficult to feel soft plastic baits.
"I used the bank as a prop. I let my boat drift into the bank, and then I threw it directly into the wind," Doll explained. "It's hard to feel it, but it's not impossible."
First-day leader Sheron Brown of Shirley, Mass., slipped to seventh place Friday after catching three bass that weighed 2-12. His two-day total of 13-8 also dropped him into second place in the Eastern Division standings.
"The water's getting muddier and muddier," Brown said, referring to the wind-whipped water in his key fishing area. "I'm going to have to make some adjustments. But mentally, I feel fine. It's a three-day tournament, and I think I'll see the culmination of my game plan [Saturday]."
Chris Loftus, a 36-year-old chemical engineer from Bloomfield, N.Y., who competed in the 2001 Federation Nation Championship, weighed in 7-13 Friday for a two-day total of 16-3 — third place overall and first in the Eastern Division. He relied on a lipless crankbait to catch schooling fish in a 1 ½-hour window Friday morning.
"I gotta do my damage quick in the morning," Loftus said. "It's away from the grass, kind of in the middle of nowhere, but they come up in the same place every day."
Jamie Laiche of Gonzalez, La., moved into fourth in the overall standings with 14-14, which also gave him the lead in the Central Division standings. Mike Baskett of Salem, Ore., is fifth overall with 14-4 and first in the Western Division. Brent Haimes of Mazeppa, Minn., is 18th overall with 8-6, but it's enough for first in the Northern Division.
Richard Watson of Plattekloof, South Africa, who traveled farther than anyone to compete in the Federation Nation Championship, took the lead in the Southern Division with a two-day total of 12-12. He's ninth overall but has a 15-ounce lead for the Southern Division's Classic berth.
"This tournament is the cherry on the cake," Watson said. "The Classic would be the cake."
Freeman, the tournament leader, is among the majority of anglers who are hoping for the weather to stabilize during Saturday's final round. A cold front moved through the area earlier in the week and quashed the bite on Lake Toho — Florida bass are notorious for turning off after a cold front — and a steady wind has also wreaked havoc on many anglers, staining the water in many normally productive fishing areas.
"I just wish the weather would stabilize," Freeman said. "The north wind is the only thing that's been consistent."
Freeman didn't hesitate when asked if bass fishing or police work was a tougher job.
"They're both pretty damn tough," said Freeman, who won the Co-Angler Division of the Bassmaster Elite Series stop at Smith Mountain Lake, Va., in June. "There's a lot of stress in both."
The pressure on Freeman and others figures to increase Saturday, as Federation Nation anglers attempt to make the field for the world's most prestigious bass tournament, the
Anglers will take off at 7 a.m. Eastern on Saturday, with the final weigh-in beginning at 3 p.m. Eastern.
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.