Craig Provost is accused of breaking derby rules by entering a friend’s fish for $13,500 in prize money.
The fisherman denied a felony charge of false pretenses, after police accused him of tricking a non-profit tournament into paying him prize money he didn't earn.
Provost, 44, of Plattsburgh, New York, participated in the Lake Champlain International (LCI) Father's Day fishing tournament in June 2015, and reported a record-smashing 10.26-pound walleye. He collected more than $13,500 in prize money.
However, police in Colchester, Vermont, where LCI is based, now call that trophy a fish fraud. They say Provost broke tournament rules because he didn't even catch the fish, adding that a buddy actually landed it.
In court paperwork, the investigating officer, the appropriately-named Det. Sgt. Michael Fish, wrote that Provost's friend was not eligible for the tourney's top bonus payouts, which require add-ons to entry fees.
Provost was eligible for those bonus prizes, Sgt. Fish noted. The officer stated in an affidavit that Provost pressured two others on the boat into lying about who landed the walleye, to cash in and split the pot.
Police said when the money was split, Provost took a larger share, supposedly to cover the payment of income taxes.
The friends have not been charged. They have cooperated with the investigation, according to the police affidavit.
The alleged crime came to light following conversations among members of the fishing community, LCI said.
Sgt. Fish wrote in the affidavit that Provost admitted he entered his buddy's catch in order to benefit from the tournament's bonuses.
However, Provost's attorney entered a not guilty plea for his client Thursday morning.
Before entering the not guilty plea, defense attorney Leroy Yoder implied his client has been railroaded by "Deflategate-style hype."
"Oh, I thought it was Tom Brady for a moment, your honor," Yoder joked as he introduced Provost to the judge.
As he left the courtroom on conditions including that he attend future court dates, necn asked Provost if the police description of the scheme was true. Provost claimed it was not.
"If he's found guilty, he doesn't deserve the prize," said fisherman Bill McSweeney of Milton, the runner-up in the walleye category of the LCI tournament last year.
Pending the outcome of the court case, McSweeney could be considered the real winner of the 2015 walleye category for his 9.6-pound catch. "He could possibly be owed thousands of dollars," LCI said.
"I'm not saying he's guilty," McSweeney told necn. "It's not for me to judge. But if he is, yeah, I hope I get what I've got coming."
McSweeney said he and his wife would use the additional prize money to take a vacation, if it is awarded to him.
James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, said he would like to see restitution so that McSweeney and other top-placing anglers in the walleye category can receive prize money they earned.
"This is serious," Ehlers said. "Everyone jokes about fishermen and fisherwomen telling lies and exaggerating their catch. Actually doing it for money is not something I'm accustomed to. But, apparently, it happens, and allegedly, that's the case here."
Craig Provost told necn he still enjoys fishing, and sticks by his not guilty plea. A conviction on the false pretenses charge could bring prison time and fines.
Necn asked Provost if he is still friends with the men he fished with the day of the 2015 LCI tournament. He did not answer the question.