Dennis Anderson
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For the first time since the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza was launched in 1991, a major investigation is underway to determine whether some of this year’s competing anglers, including the winner of a new pickup truck, deceived contest organizers.

Contest officials confirmed this week that they are investigating whether three men from Ohio, a father, a son and another relative, legitimately caught the fish they say they did, earning first, third and 98th places among the 150 prize winners on Jan. 27.

The men have told a lawyer for the group they caught the fish according to contest rules and are willing to take lie detector tests.

Winning anglers who decline to take polygraph tests if asked must forfeit their prizes.

The Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza is billed as the largest ice-fishing contest in the world. An estimated 12,000 anglers were on Gull Lake a week ago Saturday, attracting local, regional and national media attention, including from Sports Illustrated, which published a major online photo spread of this year’s contest.

Event chairman Shane Meyer of Brainerd stressed in an interview that organizers have no proof anyone cheated. Still, the title to the new GMC pickup that Stephan Lyogky of Hartville, Ohio, won for catching a 3.10-pound northern pike during the three-hour contest is being withheld pending the investigation’s outcome.

The pickup is in Lyogky’s possession in Ohio, Meyer said.

The Brainerd Jaycees have contracted with a local lawyer, as well as a lawyer in Ohio, to conduct an investigation, Meyer said.

“We’re not only the biggest ice fishing contest in the world, we’re the best,” Meyer said. “We want there to be no question whatsoever by participants that the contest is legitimate and on the up-and-up.”

A hold also has been placed on the contest’s third-place prize, a $1,000 check, won by Ivan Lyogky, 52, Stephan’s father, and on the 98th-place prize, a certificate good for an ice auger, won by a relative, Rostik Lyogky, 23.

Ivan, Stephan and possibly relatives of theirs have registered fish in previous Brainerd Jaycees ice-fishing contests.

Ivan and Stephan Lyogky told contest organizers they caught their fish near one another in the northwest corner of the 2-square-mile fishing area on Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay.

Efforts by the Star Tribune to reach the men in Ohio were unsuccessful.

“I was targeting walleye,” Stephan Lyogky told the Pine and Lakes Echo Journal newspaper after winning the contest. He was fishing in 40 to 50 feet of water, he said. “I was paying attention to the guy next to me who caught a pike at 10 feet [deep]. I saw that and pulled up, and sure enough it was there.”

He caught the 3.1-pound first-prize fish about a half-hour into the noon to 3 p.m. competition.

Fishing nearby, Ivan Lyogky also registered a northern pike, weighing 2.89 pounds, to win third place.

Of the 150 fish that won prizes, only three were northern pike. Fully 135 were tullibees, with 11 walleyes also registered and one perch.

The perch, a 1.07 pounder — a whopper by Gull Lake standards — was registered by Rostik Lyogky.

Ivan Lyogky told the Brainerd Dispatch the fishing contest is “a gathering for the family, with cousins and uncles fishing alongside the father and son.” Ice fishing has been a Lyogky staple for generations, he told the newspaper, a pastime Ivan’s father shared with him when he lived as a child in Ukraine.

“When I was raised in Ukraine, my father took me as little boy and we ice fished every day,” Ivan Lyogky said. “That’s how I fell in love with that.”

Policing is difficult

Usually, a significantly larger fish wins the contest. A 4.73-pound walleye won in 2014; a 6.73-pound northern pike prevailed in 2015; a 5.33 walleye won in 2016; and a 5.54-pound northern was the biggest fish last year.

In the contest’s 28 years, two other anglers were investigated for possible cheating, Meyer said. “In those two cases, one person took a required lie detector test and passed it, and the other person declined, which was his right. When he did, he forfeited his prize.”

The contest is a charity event organized entirely by volunteers. Since its founding, the event has raised more than $3.3 million for charities in the Brainerd area, with Camp Confidence, an outdoor center for people with disabilities, being the primary beneficiary.

Volunteers patrol a cordoned-off area where anglers must fish, but the presence of so many anglers makes the task challenging. And while competition doesn’t begin until noon, countless anglers begin lining up as early as 7 a.m. to ensure they get their choice of the 20,000 holes volunteers drill in the fishing area the day before.

Toting armfuls and even sleds full of gear, including portable heaters, depth finders and coolers, anglers rush the fishing area once entry is allowed beginning at 8 a.m.

Ryan Ruttger of St. Louis Park and his group of about 30 friends were among those lined up at 7 a.m. at one of four fishing-area entry points this year. “We get in line early in the morning because we want to get to a certain spot,” Ruttger said.

Entry-point volunteers attempted to check anglers’ equipment and coolers, Ruttger said. But the vast number of contest participants made the job difficult.

“It wasn’t like they were checking everyone,” Ruttger said.

Anyone trying to sneak a fish into the area would have to keep it alive long enough to get it into the water without being seen by other anglers or contest volunteers. To be counted for a prize, the fish must be alive when registered.

It’s also possible, Meyer said, that someone could sneak onto the ice the night before the contest to leave a live fish in a hole.

“We’ll have additional security protocols in place next year,” he said.

Date of the 2019 event, which is already being planned, is Jan. 26.