Gregory Burr, a state fisheries biologist, talks with fishermen and writes down information on fish they are entering into the Hancock County Ice Fishing Derby at a weigh station in Holden on Feb. 22. Burr, who has 33 years of experience as a fisheries biologist, can usually tell what body of water a fish has come from and has caught fishermen in the past who try to cheat at derbies by bringing in fish from a different body of water. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

HOLDEN — At the end of the day, a week ago Saturday, under a tent full of party lights, state fisheries biologist Gregory Burr lifted a monster togue out of a bucket and placed it in a scale to weigh it. Dedham fisherman Dan Sciacca was entering the fish, which he said he pulled out of Green Lake, in the G&M Family Market Hancock County Ice Fishing Derby.

Burr inspected the 8.59-pound fish and nodded in acknowledgement that it did, indeed, come out of the 3,100-acre lake, one of 120 in Hancock County. He could tell because it had a clipped fin, showing it came from a hatchery. Only two waters in Hancock County are stocked with togue, Burr said, and only one of them – Green Lake – has had the stocked togue long enough to grow to that size. Sciacca’s fish ended up being the largest in the derby, earning him hundreds of dollars’ worth of fishing equipment and gift cards.

Burr points to a bump on a togue that indicates to him that the fish came out of a hatchery. Because Burr knows that togue from hatcheries were only stocked in a few lakes in Hancock County, and because of the size of this fish, he knew even before the fisherman told him that the togue came out of Green Lake in Ellsworth. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

If Sciacca had caught the togue in another body of water, chances are good that Burr would have known. At derbies, fishermen are required to report where they landed their entries, in part to make sure they’re not coming from a lake where state fishing regulations prohibit keeping fish that size. Every so often, someone tries to flout the law, and the rules of the derby, by lying about where the fish came from. Burr has made it his job to catch these cheaters.

“You’re not going to put something past Greg. He’s as good as it gets,” said Greg Hawes, the G&M Market owner and derby director. “I have no fear of anyone cheating with Greg and his team here. That’s the only way I’d hold a derby.”

While not in his job description, each winter Burr works at the four to five derbies in his region with the biggest prize pools. First and foremost, he does it to gather reams of biological data that will help him determine the health of the fisheries he manages – some 400 in the Down East region. But having worked on these waters as a state biologist for 33 years – and fished them as a kid from Mount Desert Island – Burr usually can decipher which fish came from which water in Hancock County. As a result, he has a keen understanding of how to catch ice fishermen who cheat, and a desire to do so.

“I consider it my personal mission,” Burr said. “It’s like anything – there’s cheating in baseball, in football. It’s human nature. It’s about money and prestige.”

GIVING THE NOD

Maine plays host each winter to dozens of ice fishing derbies across the state. Several years ago, Burr started working the derbies in his region that had handsome prize money, as much as $300 for some categories. He looks for fishermen hoping to unfairly win the cash prizes by trying to pass off a fish that has been illegally weighted down to make it heavier or illegally caught in another water than the one they register in the derby.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has hundreds of fishing regulations on some of the roughly 5,600 lakes and ponds across the state to help state biologists manage game species such as togue (or lake trout), salmon, brook trout and smallmouth bass. The 70-page fishing law book is too voluminous for most fishermen, or derby directors, to memorize.

“The derby directors may not know all the regulations in their region,” Burr said.

When a fisherman brings in a fish from a water where that size fish is illegal to keep and claims to have caught it in another water, where it is a legal catch, Burr can often figure it out.

“Sometimes, it’s just a process of elimination,” he said. “When someone comes in with a fish from a different water and tries to pull the wool over our eyes, I give the warden the nod and they flash their badge.”

Burr lays a salmon on a table after measuring and weighing it at a Hancock County Ice Fishing Derby weigh station. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In recent years, Burr has teamed up with game wardens at the derby weigh stations to point out cheaters to the law enforcement officers. When Burr first started working the G&M derby each year, there were always a few cheaters, but it’s become less common. This year, he did not catch any at the derby, which typically draws more than 400 fishermen. However, among the other derbies he worked this season, with a combined participation of 1,500, Burr caught three people trying to enter illegal fish. (In each case, he said, the fisherman was not aware of the fishing regulations and was given a warning, and their fish was not registered in the derby.)

In those situations, if the wardens are present, he passes the fishermen off to them, and they decide whether to write a citation or give a warning.

Burr cuts a notch off the fin of a small togue so that it can’t be re-entered into other fishing derbies while working a weigh station at the Hancock County Ice Fishing Derby in Holden. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It’s not widespread. It’s more spotty. But there is always an opportunist,” said Game Warden Shannon Fish, who worked the G&M Derby. “Sometimes they look at you and say, ‘You bleepin’ bleep, you can’t prove that.’ And I say, ‘Actually, we can.’ Then we explain how Greg knows.”

Cheating at derbies is not unique to the Down East region.

Years ago, the Sebago Derby organizers caught and disqualified a fisherman trying to enter the same fish at two different weigh stations around the 28,800-acre lake, because every fish entered was given a ticket for a prize drawing. Sebago Derby Founder Tom Noonan said it’s helped having wardens who typically work at the 20-year-old derby.

And at the Long Lake Derby in Aroostook County – now Maine’s richest derby with more than 1,600 fishermen vying for $50,000 in awards, including $20,000 in cash prizes – a committee scrutinizes every fish to keep the derby clean, said derby director Paul Bernier. Last year, they disqualified two fishermen – a married couple – for entering fish that clearly had been caught days before the derby, Bernier said.

“You can tell from the glaze in the eyes of the fish and the skin color, the wrinkles,” Bernier said. “There’s a breed of people out there that will do just ’bout anything to catch a fish – and make money.”

UNDER THE BIG TENT

The two-day G&M derby started 10 years ago after Burr suggested Hawes, the market owner, host a countywide derby to thin certain species from certain waters to help the fisheries. In return, Burr has worked the derby’s weigh station, as he had been doing at other derbies in his region.

Burr takes a togue caught by Victor Quint of Topsham, left, off the scale after weighing it at a Hancock County Ice Fishing Derby weigh station in Holden. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

He once caught a fisherman who pushed tire weights – those narrow weights the size of a finger found on pickup truck tires – into a fish’s stomach. Burr could feel them from the outside.

“The fisherman said, ‘But the fish just ate it when it was lying in the truck bed.’ He was being facetious,” Burr said.

Another time, a man fishing with his girlfriend said he caught a 17-inch togue in a wild fishery. But the man’s catch had a clipped fin, the telltale sign of a hatchery fish. And in the stocked fishery where the woman caught a pickerel, there was an 18-inch minimum length for togue.

At the G&M derby this year, there were a record 500 registered fishermen competing for a total of $700 in cash prizes and new ice augers. Sciacca, who had never won a derby, was glad Burr was there.

“He obviously knew where the fish came from,” Sciacca said. “It seems like sometimes you see the same names winning at derbies year after year. What are the chances of that? I’ve never won in 35 years of doing derbies.”

Tyler Strassenburgh of Blue Hill came in to weigh his 3.08-pound salmon, hoping to get on the leaderboard for the first time. His fish ended up in second place. And once again, Burr knew immediately where Strassenburgh caught the fish when he saw it.

“The nose is all smashed in,” Strassenburgh said as he held up the long, frozen salmon, “because it had been in the raceway of a hatchery, because it was brood stock. It was one of the (female) breeders used in the hatchery. He remembered stocking the same fish in Eagle Lake last fall.”

NO TOLERANCE FOR CHEATERS

Meanwhile, at Green Lake, where dozens of ice fishermen from around the state worked to catch big salmon or togue to enter in the derby, competitors spoke with anger about the idea of someone cheating.

Among a group of six older fishermen was Pete Cyr of Allagash, who said, “We’d shoot them and put them at the bottom of the lake.”

Cyr said at the Long Lake Derby, where the prize pool has soared, there now is a healthy amount of community policing that goes on.

Farther up the lake, in an ice shack full of six friends in their early 30s, Mike Cloud of Ellsworth said they’d stop talking to anyone who cheated. The six grew angry while discussing the likelihood of cheaters in the derby – then said they were glad to have Burr keeping watch for them.

“Greg is the best. He protects us. He protects the fishery. He will make sure it is here for when our 3-year-old son fishes,” Jaimie Sargent of Ellsworth said. “We all grew up fishing this lake. Now we all live around it. People who cheat are fishing for the wrong reasons.”

James Smith of Plymouth drags his sled of ice fishing supplies over the snow on Green Lake in Ellsworth as he gathers his tip-ups at the end of the day at the Hancock County Ice Fishing Derby. Fishermen spoke angrily about the idea of people trying to cheat in the derby. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


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