Tom Mead is known as the "Fishing Magician."
According to media reports, he's run a fishing guide business out of Long Prairie, gives talks to public groups and won many regional fishing contests.
Now Tom Mead is being called a cheater. He was escorted off the ice Feb. 2 at Park Rapids' American Legion Community Fishing Contest.
Mead allegedly tucked a frozen fish between the layers of his custom Otter Sled, placed it in a fish pail and tried to present it as newly caught.
Mead's explanation acknowledged his actions probably looked suspicious, but he denied cheating. Because he is disabled, he is allowed to drive out onto the ice and evade the strict scrutiny other anglers go through at the gates.
As soon as the Enterprise story ran Feb. 6, the phones began ringing, the Internet wires and wireless connections heated up. Rumors of him cheating at the Park Rapids tournament have been around for years. No one could prove it.
"He finally got caught," American Legion officials said of his 2013 departure.
Tom Mead is well known in angling circuits. Mead is no longer speaking to the Enterprise. He has not returned phone calls since his initial interview Feb. 4 and now his phone automatically goes to an answering machine.
In that Feb. 4 interview he vigorously denied cheating.
Mead's history of winnings dates back to at least 2004.
The Alexandria Echo Press, which ran the Enterprise story, added this paragraph:
"Alexandria residents may remember Mead. He won the Ice Fishing Challenge in Alexandria in 2004 with a 7.14 pound walleye he brought to the weigh-in station during the contest's final seconds. He won a Ford F150 pickup with the catch."
Reaction to the accompanying photo was swift. The fish was stiff as a board, prompting many to question whether it was frozen. Facebook pages were full of angry comments accusing Mead of cheating in that tourney.
In 2005, Mead placed 15th in the Brainerd Ice Fishing Extravaganza, turning in a .96 ounce crappie. He won a $2,500 vacation package from Cragun's Resort.
Mead was not arrested Feb. 2, but Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes escorted him off the Fish Hook Lake ice. The DNR is investigating the case.
"In 2008 he won a Vexilar (sonar system) for a 1.89 (pound) Northern," said Park Rapids tourney director Jerry Benham.
"In 2009 he won two prizes," Benham added. "He won the rock bass prize of $400 cash and a crappie for $400 cash.
"In 2011 he won a Polaris ATV with a Northern. Last year he wasn't here," Benham said with obvious relief.
"I know he's won stuff in a lot of different tournaments in Brainerd and Alex."
Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne acknowledged he's looking into the local cheating allegations.
"I've not seen a report yet," Dearstyne said. "I'll make that decision once I've seen what the reports are.
"Unfortunately there's nothing you can do about what he's won in the past."
Dearstyne said the 2013 case could involve "a gaming violation there, a charitable gaming violation."
But there may be a gaming violation of another sort. A DNR officer not involved with the tournament said it's a violation to transport fish from one body of water to another because of the possible infestation of Aquatic Invasive Species.
In 2011, Mead and a partner, Tim Elms, won fifth place in the 3rd Annual Fishing Challenge for adults and teens.
Mead and Elms won in the Sportech Mixed Bag Division (1 each: pike, bass, panfish, walleye). Their haul weighed 8.63 pounds. Their prize is not listed on the tournament's website, nor was the location of the event. Elms could not be located for comment.
Mead in 2005 was listed as the featured performer in another event, the Lake Assault Open House at the boat manufacturer's plant between Elk River and Ramsey.
"Tom Mead, a guide from the Long Prairie area, will be helping out at the Lake Assault Open House April 23-24, by providing demo rides in his 18' Lake Assault with a 90HP Suzuki Tiller with Enginesteer," the program read.
Increasingly, big ticket fishing tournaments are attracting anglers who don't want to play by the rules, regardless of security measures taken to prevent cheating.
In the Feb. 4 interview, Mead denied he was one of them.
Angry Park Rapids residents, including Larry Stromback, who won an ice house this year, don't want to see Mead return unless he abides by the rules.
"I posted his picture all over my Facebook page so people will know what he looks like," Stromback said. "If he hadn't gotten caught I might not have won the fish house."
Stromback questions the timing of Mead's catch a few weeks ago. A loudspeaker system on ice was making announcements of fish caught.
A few minutes after Stromback's catch, a police scanner crackled on the ice that Mead had pulled up a lunker. The catch immediately smelled fishy to those who heard the transmission and those fishing near Mead.
"They were really giving him the business," Aukes said.
But Stromback recalls a similar scene in 2011.
"When he won the four-wheeler the guy sitting next to him said he pulled the fish out of his pickup," Stromback said. "He tried to say something but nobody believed him."
If the cheating allegations are proven, Stromback said Mead should lose his fishing license "for seven years, eight years. Whatever the penalty is for transporting illegal fish. He could have possibly infested this lake with zebra mussels."
Mead insists that as a professional angler who catches big fish and wins big prizes, jealously is driving the allegations against him and that he will be vindicated when the facts come out.