WALES — About 3,000 anglers filled Sabattus Pond on Saturday, vying for the top-prize during the fourth annual Oak Hill Boosters Pike Fishing Derby.

The winner? A 19.3 pound behemoth caught at 7 a.m. by Joshua Emery. Emery took home the $2,000 cash prize.

Scott Laliberty of Sabattus is the “fish master” of the derby. Laliberty has been in charge of weighing the fish caught at the derby since its inception.

“They just call me up and asked, ‘Hey do you want to be the weight master?’ … I’ve done it for four years in a row,” he said. “I keep doing it. I happened to have access to a scale and I know most everyone here.”

Laliberty said he’s noticed that the pike Sabattus Pond, oftentimes referred to as Sabattus Lake, produces have increased in size over the four years he’s been in charge of  tending the scales.

“We’ve been hearing a trend of a lot of bigger fish being caught. There’s rumors of fish as big as 28 pounds that have come out in the past two weeks,” said Laliberty.

That’s a real big fish. The derby has become a big funding source for the Oak Hill High School boosters club.

“It’s a big hit. This lake is pretty popular,” said Jim Waterman, a parent and Oak Hills Booster Club member.

According to Waterman, before the booster club began hosting its winter pike derby and summer golf tournament fundraising events, the annual budget for the club was about $8,000, raised mostly from snack sales during sporting events.

Joey Hinkley, derby organizer and head varsity lacrosse coach at Oak Hill High School, said the derby is expected to raise about $30,000 for the club this year. The derby has quickly become one of the most popular in the state, and with it’s rising popularity have come more expenses.

“There’s little things, insurance, gambling permits … people don’t realize you have to buy all that stuff,” said Hinkley.

But still, all the money raised goes toward student-athletes and extra-curricular activities. A team of 30 volunteers, many of whom are student-athletes, help make the derby happen.

“The different sports teams, they show up, depending on which ones have their licences, and parents bring them. Some of them showed up at 3 o’clock this morning,” said Waterman.

“The business class at the high school processes online tickets,” he said. “They worked until 9 p.m. on Friday.”

According to Waterman, having funding come from off campus is integral to the success of the booster club.

“It’s off campus, not only the community, but the entire state … their money is helping our community,” he said.

Waterman said a rumor floated around before the derby that the ice wasn’t safe for vehicles, but a few days of cold weather locked up the soft spots and made it safe for the many trucks that drive onto the lake. Still, he said he noticed a bit of a dwindle in the population of anglers on the lake.

“It was actually quiet this year. Last year, there was a complete city on the ice,” said Waterman.

Around noon, things were pretty quiet for Jeff Plourde and Jason Michel, both from Sabattus.

“I’ve been pretty unlucky,” said Plourde. Michel spent the night in his shack, complete with a wood-stove and two beds. He said he was thinking of spending another night on the lake after the derby.

“We might spend the night here tonight as well … we have so much food. Why not?” said Michel.

The parking lot, donated for the day by a private landowner in Wales, opened at 4 a.m. Around that time, Max Strickler of New Gloucester was unloading his truck in the pitch black, getting ready for a day of fishing.

“Getting out and seeing how many people are out, it’s crazy,” Strickler said. “It really shows dedication.”

For Strickler, the prospect of winning the $2,000 cash prize for the largest pike helped get him out of bed.

“Just get up and do it. It’s only going to hurt for a second,” he said. “It’s a good derby.”

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