In over three decades of serving as a weigh station captain at the Lake Champlain International Fathers’ Day Fishing Derby, Don Tobi has seen a lot of big fish. Here are his stories.
BY ELSIE LYNN PARINI
When did Don Tobi start helping out as a weigh-station captain for the Lake Champlain International Father’s Day Fishing Derby?
“I think I started on the third year of the derby,” he said, wrinkling his forehead trying to remember if that was the same year his oldest daughter Jaclyn had been born.
Jaclyn’s 33 and the LCI Derby’s now in its 38th year, so that math doesn’t quite work out. But, whatever… the point is, Tobi’s been at this weigh-station business for over three decades — that’s a long time.
What keeps him in it?
“It’s the people,” said Tobi, who used to have at least one or two of his four kids helping him out every Father’s Day weekend. “Like there is this one family from Milton (the Halls) and the guy — who is my age (late 50s) — used to fish it with his father; then he fished it with his wife for years and years; then they fished as a family: mom, dad and two daughters; now one of the daughters has a baby. That’s four generations! It’s awesome, but it makes me feel like an old man.”
These people follow Tobi, even when his weigh station moves. For the past 10 years, his station has been at the Apple Island boat launch in South Hero, Vt. Before settling at the boat launch, Tobi’s weigh station moved around Malletts Bay, testing different locations.
“I like where we are now,” he said. “It’s easy to walk down to the lake to put the fish back once we’ve weighted them.”
Plus Tobi is one of two stations with a big aerated tank, which draws a lot of attention and conversation.
“When a fish comes in we quickly measure, weigh it in a basket and then tip it into the tank,” Tobi explained. “I always try to keep a couple different kinds of fish in the tank — large and small mouth bass, pike, salmon, lake trout and everyone loves a bowfin.”
Tobi, a forest entomologist who worked at the University of Vermont for almost 30 years and now works full-time for Burlington Electric Department as the wood procurement forester, loves the conversations that spring up around the tank.
“One of my favorite memories, was when Jaclyn was about 10 years old,” Tobi remembered. “She had this great big spitting gap between her teeth and was standing at the back of the tank working a salmon back and forth to revive it. The salmon had lamprey wounds and a non-fisherman walked up and asked, ‘What are those spots?’ Without missing a beat, Jaclyn answered confidently, ‘They’re mantaray bites.’”
Tobi corrected her, “you mean lamprey.”
“Meh,” replied young Jaclyn, tossing up her hands. “Mantaray, lamprey… what’s the
“We still laugh about that today,” chuckled one proud papa.
Beyond the countless memories like this one, the tank also serves a very functional purpose.
“It helps the fish recover better,” Tobi said. “I’d say about 95 percent or more of the fish that are brought in to my station are live, we’re able to put them back into the lake successfully.”
And Tobi sees a lot of fish.
“About 500-600 fishermen come through my station,” he estimated. “They’re all excited. A lot of people bring in fish just to have the experience of weighing-in a fish caught during the derby, even if it’s not 1st-10th place.”
That also means Tobi meets a lot of different anglers.
“One of the great things about this derby is that you’ve got all levels of socioeconomic backgrounds,” he explained. “You can fish from the shore with a forked stick and a night crawler and catch a winning catfish and do just as well as the guys in $50,000 boats.”
Tobi is a fisherman himself — he fly fishes and trolls with flies for salmon in the lake from his 18-food Lund aluminum boat — but he can’t fish during the derby because that’d be a conflict of interest.
“I tell people that ‘I can’t fish the derby because they won’t let me; I’ll catch all the big fish,’” he joked. “That’s my excuse anyway.”
In all seriousness though, if anyone knows the secrets of where the big fish hang out in the lake, it’s probably Tobi.
“I know people’s secrets,” he said. “But you can only take about half of what someone says as true when you ask, ‘Where did you catch it and what did you catch it on?’… Some people will spill their guts and some won’t say a damn thing. Others just look at me… and I say, ‘I know, I was just kidding.’”
When the big ones come in, Tobi takes his job seriously — there are some pretty big prizes on the line, after all.
“I’ve never knowingly had someone cheat,” he said, explaining that you could stuff lead weights into the fish’s belly. “The weigh captain has to be the boss, you have to exhibit some type of authority… I’ve gained that over the years, so there’s never been an issue.”
Tobi also like to see everyone win. That’s why the lottery at the end of each day of the derby (Saturday and Sunday at 6 p.m. and Monday at 4 p.m.) is one of his favorite parts.
“I like to see everyone go home with something,” Tobi said. “And I always save something small, like lures, for all the kids.”
Featured Photo Caption: Don Tobi and his two daughters, Jaclyn (left) and Emily (right), hold up bass at the Apple Island weigh station during the 2018 LCI Derby. Tobi has been a weigh station captain for the LCI Fishing Derby for over three decades, and his kids usually lend a hand. Photo by Jack Rowell.