KISSIMMEE, Fla. Jeff Freeman usually chases bad guys as a deputy sheriff. But he may have a future chasing little green fish.
Freeman, a deputy sheriff in Wythe County, Va., took another limit of bass into custody Saturday and locked up the BASS Federation Nation Championship on Lake Toho.
Freeman's Day Three limit tipped the scale at 8 pounds, 13 ounces, giving him a three-day total of 27-11, a $50,000 Triton boat/Mercury motor package and, most importantly, a berth in the 2008 Bassmaster Classic.
"Oh my god," said Freeman, who also qualified for the 2008 Bassmaster Elite Series by winning the Federation Nation Championship. "It's definitely a dream come true. I've always loved to sport fish, but competitive fishing adds so much to it. It hasn't sunk in yet."
Lake Toho made it hard for Freeman and everybody else this week, yielding none of the big limits for which the Florida fishery is famous. After producing BASS records in recent years, this week it produced misery. Anglers struggled to catch fish in the wake of a cold front, which put Toho's bass in lockdown mode.
But there was no misery for Freeman and the five other anglers who qualified for the Classic, which will be held Feb. 22-24 on South Carolina's Lake Hartwell.
The winners of each of the Federation Nation's six divisions earned spots in the Classic field. In addition to Freeman, who won the Mid-Atlantic Division, they were Brent Haimes of Mazeppa, Minn., in the Northern Division; Richard Watson of Plattekloof, South Africa, in the Southern Division; Jamie Laiche of Gonzales, La., in the Central Division; Chris Loftus of Bloomfield, N.Y., in the Eastern Division; and Mike Baskett of Salem, Ore., in the Western Division.
Freeman isn't the only cop who'll be fishing the Classic. Baskett is an officer with the Salem (Ore.) Police Department.
"My goal was to represent Oregon well, and represent the law enforcement community well," Baskett said. "This doesn't seem real, but it is."
"The cops finally win," Freeman said after the weigh-in.
Freeman used a drop shot with a Robo Worm in "margarita mutilator" color, tossing it in a most unlikely location just outside the lock at the southern end of Toho. He stumbled on the productive area while waiting to lock through to Lake Kissimmee during practice.
"I started fishing while I was waiting for the lock to open, and I caught a 3-pounder on my first cast," Freeman said. "I went to the other side of the lock door and caught a 2-pounder on my first cast on that side. I think 13 of my 15 keepers came from that spot."
Laiche, who finished second overall with 24-10, used a Lucky Craft RC 1.5 crankbait in splatterback color for Saturday's limit, including a 4-6 largemouth that was the final day's biggest fish. He threw it parallel to the bank, concentrating on cypress trees in a bayou between lakes Hatchineha and Kissimmee.
"I'm sure every bass fisherman in the world who's every picked up a rod wants to go to the Classic," Laiche said. "And I'm going there unbelievable."
Loftus finished third overall with 23-8, using a YoZuri lipless crankbait (chrome with blue back and orange belly) to catch schooling fish in a small cut in Toho's abundant vegetation less than ½ mile from the take-off location. The schooling activity started first thing in the morning and lasted about an hour.
"It was clockwork," Loftus said. "I knew if I didn't have them in the boat by 8 a.m., I'd be in trouble."
Haimes used a junebug-colored Yum Big Show Craw for his ticket to the Classic, Baskett threw a Rapala X-Rap and a 7-inch Angler's Edge hand-poured ringworm in junebug, and Watson relied on a gold Bomber Long A.
"Oh my heavens," Watson said of making the Classic. "After 16 long years, I've finally made it. It's an awesome feeling, an experience I'll never forget."
ESPN2 will air coverage of the Federation Nation Championship on Saturday, Feb. 16, at 9 a.m. ET.