Grand Forks man carves niche administering polygraph tests for major fishing tourneys
Derik Zimmel owns True North Polygraph and administers the tests for some of the country’s largest fishing events, including the National Walleye Tour and Masters Walleye Circuit
GRAND FORKS – When Derik Zimmel started his polygraph business in 2009, he didn’t anticipate that fishing tournaments would become an important part of his workload.
“I had hoped for it,” Zimmel said. “I was aware that they were out there, but trying to get into that is sometimes easier said than done.”
A lieutenant with the Grand Forks Police Department, Zimmel owns True North Polygraph and now administers the tests for some of the country’s largest fishing events, including the Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s National Walleye Tour, the Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit and the U.S. Open National Bass Fishing Championship, a one-time tournament series Bass Pro and Cabela’s launched last year.
The championship for the nationwide series was held on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo.
“That was really an incredible experience, and I’m very fortunate to have been involved in that,” Zimmel said. “It’s kind of neat to be involved in a tournament where it’s amateurs only, so no big-money pros are involved in first place.”
The amateur tournament awarded $1 million as the first-place cash prize, and the two anglers on the winning team also each landed a new Nitro boat and a new Toyota Tundra pickup. Millions of dollars in cash and prizes were ultimately awarded during the series.
“There were a lot of very, very excited people down there, plus being able to meet people like Roland Martin, Bill Dance, Jimmy Houston, and all of the folks that I grew up watching on TV on the fishing shows who were all down there,” Zimmel said.
As owner of True North Polygraph, Zimmel also holds the state and federal contracts for post-conviction sex offender testing in North Dakota and conducts pre-employment polygraph tests where applicable. He earned his polygraph certification as a law enforcement officer, training at the Texas Department of Public Safety’s law enforcement polygraph school in 2007.
“It’s an ancillary duty at the police department,” he said. “So it’s a specialized assignment that you can apply for, and I was lucky enough to get selected.”
In the news
Fishing tournaments have been in the news since late September, when anglers Jacob Runyan and Chase Cominsky were caught cheating in an Ohio walleye tournament on Lake Erie after shoving lead weights and several walleye fillets into the five walleyes they brought to the scales.
The anglers, who would have won the tournament had they not been caught, have pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted grand theft, possessing criminal tools and unlawful ownership of wild animals.
In the context of fishing tournaments, polygraph tests aren’t conducted to catch someone cheating, Zimmel says. Instead, the goal is to never catch anyone cheating because everyone is following the rules.
“We want to ensure a level playing field,” he said. “If someone wins, we want the rest of the field to be able to look at them and congratulate them and know that they won fair and square.”
Zimmel’s foray into fishing tournaments began in 2015, when Grand Forks catfish guide and tournament organizer Brad Durick hired him to administer a test for the inaugural Scheel’s Boundary Battle Catfish tournament on the Red River.
He since has conducted polygraph tests for tournaments in Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and New York state. In addition to the Boundary Battle, Zimmel administers polygraph tests for the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament in East Grand Forks and the Catfish Capital Challenge in Drayton, N.D.
He charges a flat fee, plus any travel expenses, for administering the tests.
‘Not even a question’
Durick, who also runs the Catfish Capital Challenge, says a dispute he witnessed during a Cats Incredible event prompted him to implement the polygraph requirement for his tournaments.
“After watching that, it was like, ‘This is not even a question, we’re going to do polygraph (testing),’” he said.
The requirement may have discouraged some anglers from entering the Boundary Battle tourney, Durick says, at least the first year.
“I noticed some common faces sitting in the crowd at the awards waiting to see if I would do it,” Durick said. “And I made it very public — ‘Congratulations, you’ve won a polygraph test. Your check will be waiting when you pass.’
“And some of them have warmed up, and some of those faces have never been seen again.”
Ray Lee of Grand Forks took Zimmel’s polygraph test in late July after he and fishing partner Eric Thompson won the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament.
The process was painless, says Lee, who owns Thunder Ray’s Auto Repair in Grand Forks.
“He just kind of goes through the process, sets you up and then he starts asking questions,” Lee said. “It’s not a real big deal. I mean, everyone’s so worried about the polygraph test, and it’s simple.
“I would have no problem doing another one.”
The test took “probably 15 minutes,” Lee says, much of which was spent getting hooked up to the equipment and being informed about how the test was going to work.
“Until you’ve done one, you think, I’m going to take a lie detector test, and you’re going to be in a dark room and they’re going to start hitting you in the head until you confess,” Lee joked. “But no, it’s very simple.”
The components of the polygraph machine that are fitted to the person taking the test are “designed to capture a certain aspect of a physiological response,” Zimmel says.
“Scientifically, it’s activation of the autonomic nervous system,” he said. “In practical terms, we look for relative changes in blood pressure and volume, changes in capillary blood flow and pulse amplitude at the very extremities — (the) fingertips. We look for changes in sweat gland activity. We look for changes in breathing patterns, and all of these different components target one of those. The tracings on the screen are variations in those and we score the responses that we obtained numerically to arrive at either a response indicating deception, no deception or something in between, which is inconclusive.”
Lee’s test after winning Cats Incredible may have been relatively short, but Zimmel says he won’t “shortchange the process.”
If a test takes 30 minutes, 55 minutes or an hour, so be it.
“We try to keep it to 45 minutes or less, but it’s still going to be time spent in that room,” he said. “We’re not just going to have someone come in, run a five-minute test and put my name and reputation behind it. I need to ensure that I have their attention, that they’re prepared to be psychologically and physiologically successful on the test.”
Only one fail
Zimmel says he’s had “a grand total of one person” fail a polygraph test in a fishing tournament, and that was a team member disqualified in the fall of 2021 during the first day of the U.S. Open amateur bass event in Missouri.
When that happens on the first day, word spreads fast, Zimmel says.
“It wasn’t an obvious violation, but it was a clear violation that caused a clear response on the polygraph — and ultimately led to a clear disqualification,” Zimmel said. “It’s very unfortunate, but that’s why we’re there.”
Anglers who follow the rules shouldn’t worry about failing a polygraph test they should have passed and ruining their reputation — a concern voiced numerous times on social media after the incident that occurred during the recent Ohio tournament on Lake Erie.
“I can’t say that it doesn’t happen, but the one deceptive test that this company has run associated with a fishing tournament was validated,” Zimmel said. “And that’s all I can say on that.”
Durick, the Grand Forks catfish guide and tournament organizer, concurs.
“We’ve proven year in and year out that if you’re playing it straight, you’re not going to lose your reputation, and if you do get caught, it’s going to be something blatant, based on the rules and parameters we have set aside, and you probably should lose your reputation,” he said.
Bottom line, Durick says: If you’re going to cheat, don’t cheat good enough to win.
“I think more often than not, in the big picture, people are pretty honest, all things considered,” Durick said.
Nerves will never cause someone to fail a test, either, Zimmel says; everyone is nervous.
“That’s one of the greatest fallacies, and it’s totally wrong,” he said. “If nervousness caused the failed polygraph, it wouldn’t even exist because there’d be no diagnostic value, and the outcome would be the same for everybody.”
As an avid fisherman, Zimmel says his enthusiasm for working fishing tournaments likely reduces the anxiety for anglers taking his polygraph test.
“I understand the mindset that they’re in when they’re coming in, and the amount of pressure, excitement — just the confluence of emotions going on within them at that particular time — can pose quite a challenge to polygraph,” Zimmel said. “So, a big part of my job is to get them calmed down, get them focused on the task at hand, try to capture their attention for just long enough that we can get a valid result and be the first one to shake their hand officially, and congratulate them on winning and send them on their way.”
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