McFeely: ND Game and Fish walleye investigation included video, witnesses that stripped angler of state record
Tom Volk not only doesn't hold North Dakota's coveted walleye record, he was also given a warning ticket by the Game and Fish Department for illegally keeping a foul-hooked fish.
Talk about adding insult to injury.
But that's small potatoes compared to what he's enduring on social media, he says.
Volk is the Lincoln, N.D., angler who took a 16-pound, 9-ounce walleye from the Heart River in Mandan on Easter Sunday and, aided by a premature press release and Facebook post from Game and Fish announcing the big fish, laid claim to having caught the biggest walleye in state history. The monster was much larger than the previous record fish, a 15-pound, 13-ounce walleye caught a year ago by Bismarck's Neal Leier from the Missouri River.
But blowback from other anglers began almost immediately. Videos appeared on Facebook purporting to show Volk's fishing partner Joe Gibbs pulling the hook out of the walleye's back and, according to Game and Fish enforcement chief Bob Timian, messages came into the department the same day Volk caught the fish saying it was illegally foul-hooked and therefore shouldn't count as the state record.
Game and Fish started an investigation the Monday after Easter, April 22, led by investigations supervisor Scott Winkelman. The results were made public Monday, May 13, when Game and Fish issued a press release saying the department concluded the big walleye was foul-hooked and would not be recognized as a record.
That reversed a press release and Facebook post from April 22 congratulating Volk "for reeling in a new state record walleye!"
Volk continues to maintain he caught the fish by the mouth, accusing Game and Fish of using inconclusive evidence to deny him the record and, in the process, dragging him through the mud.
"The whole character of my life is being questioned now," Volk said. "My entire existence in life is being judged based on five seconds of video."
The investigation report says Winkelman couldn't find any witnesses who could vouch for Volk's claim that the fish was hooked in the mouth. That includes Gibbs, Volk's friend who netted the walleye, who told Winkelman he never saw the hook in the fish's mouth and that he had "no idea how the hook ended up in the back of the fish."
The report also included video obtained from an angler standing next to Volk, showing Gibbs netting the fish from a sandbar in the river and walking back to the bank before pulling a jig out of the walleye's left side near the dorsal fin.
But Volk said the hook clearly wasn't embedded in the fish deeply enough to believe he could've fought the walleye for 10-15 minutes in a strong river current. He said there is no large wound on the fish where the hook was stuck, something Volk said would've been obvious had he battled a foul-hooked fish for a long period.
"The video Game and Fish has shows Joe netting the fish from a long ways away and then walking about 45 seconds before he takes out the jig," Volk said. "Anybody who fishes knows a walleye in a net can throw a hook and it gets stuck on things. That video is inconclusive at best."
Winkelman met with Morton County States Attorney Allen Koppy on May 6, providing Koppy with a draft report to review. The next day, Koppy sent a letter to Winkelman saying, in part, "Our team is of a consensus view that the walleye in issue was foul-hooked or snagged." Koppy's letter also gives Winkelman the option to charge Volk for possession of a foul-hooked fish.
Winkelman declined to charge Volk, but instead mailed him a written warning, citing the section of the governor's fishing proclamation related to foul-hooked fish: "Possession of foul hooked fish is illegal. Any foul hooked or snagged fish must be returned immediately to the water regardless of condition."
The 11-page report reveals that Volk retained a lawyer when he found out the alleged record catch was under investigation and that Gibbs disputed Volk's assertion that the walleye was wrapped in fishing line and that's why witnesses believed it was foul-hooked, a claim the angler made in two interviews with me.
"Joe is the one who netted it and he confirmed with me in writing that, nope, it was hooked in the mouth but it was wrapped closer to the tail and he said that's why it's coming in so funny," Volk said. "He said, 'nope that's legit. That's the record,' he said."
Gibbs, a Burleigh County Sheriff's Deputy who according to the report was advised against making a statement by his own attorney, told Winkelman he didn't "know why Volk would say the line was wrapped around the fish." Gibbs also guaranteed the investigator he gave no written statement.
"Some of Mr. Volk's initial statements turned out to be somewhat inaccurate," Timian said.
Volk, a community prevention specialist for the state Department of Human Services, said Game and Fish leveraged the threat of criminal charges against him and Gibbs because they are both public employees and getting charged with a crime could have dire consequences. Volk said that's why he hired a lawyer, who advised him and Gibbs to not meet with Game and Fish.
Volk later changed lawyers and on May 2 the new attorney advised Volk against making a statement or giving his walleye to Game and Fish without a search warrant.
"Volk stated he was 100% sure the fish was hooked in the mouth and that he had witnesses," the report reads. "Winkelman stated that he would be interested in hearing from those witnesses because everybody, including Gibbs, is saying the opposite. Volk stated again he was not going to provide any information."
Volk said his lawyers advised against giving any information before a criminal charge was filed and once Winkelman issued a warning, Volk offered his evidence to Game and Fish.
"They said they weren't interested and the case was closed. I offered the fish, I offered the video and they didn't accept my evidence," Volk said. "I don't want the record. I never submitted an application for the record because I knew it was going to be controversial. It's not about the record anymore, it's about clearing my name. I have no recourse. They are the ones who put out the press release saying I caught a record fish and now my name is tarnished. I can't believe there is so much hate going around about a guy catching a fish. Some of the stuff being said about me by adults on Facebook is just sad. I'm being cyberbullied. It's just astounding what people will say about you to discredit you."