March 08, 2016
By Keith Sutton
I attended a national fishing tournament recently as a media observer. When the weigh-in was over, the tournament participants were taken one at a time to a room where they were given a polygraph test.
In this particular case, each of the anglers who placed in the money was hooked up to a lie-detector and asked a series of questions aimed at determining if they had fished according to the contest rules.
No one failed, but the simple fact that each had to submit to the test or risk losing their winnings exemplified for me a disconcerting fact: As long as there are fishing tournaments, there will always be a few shady individuals who will cheat to win, whether the prize is nothing more than a trophy or as substantial as thousands of dollars. As a result, tournament directors and organizations will always have to be vigilant to keep cheaters out of the sport.
It is believed that polygraph tests help deter cheaters much as “Speed Checked by Radar” signs help discourage speeding. Many fishing competitions now have a line in their rules that reads something like this: “By the submission of their entries, all contestants, at any time, may be subject to a polygraph test. All prizes will be subject to the results of the test. Any contestant refusing to submit or abide by the results of a polygraph test is subject to immediate disqualification and withholding of any prizes won.”
Another often-used anti-cheating tool is the draw-partner system. Different partners, often complete strangers, are paired during each day of fishing, lessening the opportunities for rule bending. Each angler watches the other and, at the weigh-in, must sign a document testifying to the fish being legally caught. Invitational formats, on-the-water surveillance of suspected cheaters and strict rules also are employed to combat cheating.
Law enforcement officials also are increasingly involved. Several states have passed laws against tournament fraud, and the involvement of police officials or game and fish wardens ranges from administering polygraph tests to winners or those submitting suspect fish to shadowing suspected cheaters on the water.
Texas, for example, passed a law against fishing tournament fraud in 1985 and expanded it in 2011 to make altering the length or weight of a fish a violation and to include tournaments for saltwater fish, which are some of the biggest in that state. Violations at small tournaments are Class A misdemeanors, but offenses committed at tournaments with prizes worth $10,000 or more are third-degree felonies, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.
Unfortunately, even with all these safeguards in place, cheaters continue to cheat. But there are other methods we can use to help deter these frauds. We can discuss their misdeeds and hope that seeing the punishments they received will keep others from following in these charlatans’ footsteps. We also can show their methods of cheating so law-abiding anglers can be vigilant on the water and report possible infractions.
Toward that end, here are some recent cases of tournament fraud reported in the press. Each comes with an admonition: Cheaters beware. Honest folks will not tolerate your bad behavior.
Tournament: Sealy Big Bass Splash, Lake Fork, Texas, Sept. 18-20, 2015
Method of cheating: An angler allegedly trimmed the tail of a bass so the fish would measure under the local slot limit and be eligible to win a cash prize.
Details: Lake Fork has a 16- to 24-inch slot limit. Any bass between those measurements must be immediately released. However, anglers can keep bass over and under those measurements. Tournament organizers established “over and under” hourly prizes, in addition to a grand prize of a fully-rigged boat, truck and $7,000 cash.
On the last day of the tournament, an angler presented a fish for weigh-in that was under the slot. That fish, like all others over and under, was given to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) game wardens at the tournament to inspect and release. The wardens determined the fish’s tail had been shortened, so they questioned the angler. He admitted to doctoring the fish to win the $2,500 prize. The angler was subsequently charged with Fraud in Fishing Tournaments under Texas Parks and Wildlife Code Sec. 66.023.
Penalty: The charge is considered a third-degree felony because the grand prize in the event was more than $10,000. As this was written, the case was still under investigation, and it was unclear how severely the angler would be punished.
Tournament: The two alleged perpetrators won several “wildcat” tournaments on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville in 2014. In these events, competitors placed money in a pot at the dock, and the one who caught the largest bass won the pot.
Method of cheating: Investigators allegedly observed the two men removing previously caught bass from two 55-gallon drums in a boathouse and bringing those fish to the weigh-in of a fishing tournament in which they were competing.
Details: Competitors became suspicious of men after the duo won six tournaments in a row. The two were arrested after someone tipped officers with the Alabama Department of Conservation that the men were keeping fish in a pen in the water and using those fish for the tournament weigh-in. The officers conducted an investigation and got “enough evidence to be confident of a conviction,” according to conservation officer Lt. Jim Kirkland. The men were arrested on May 8, 2014 and were not at a tournament when taken into custody.
Penalty: In September 2014, a judge found the pair guilty of theft by deception and tampering with a sporting event. He sentenced them to one-year suspended jail sentences, provided they serve 30 days in jail and perform 400 hours of community service. They also received two years of probation and were each ordered to pay $1,000 and court costs. The men appealed the verdict and were allowed to bond out of jail. But upon making bond, a condition of their release was that they give up their hunting and fishing licenses for the two years of their probation. Some tournament organizers have banned the men from future events. Their conviction was appealed, but the results of that appeal are uncertain.
Tournament: Southern Bass Busters Association Tournament, Banks Lake, Georgia, July 12, 2014
Method of cheating: Two tournament anglers allegedly purchased an 11 ½-pound bass from two recreational anglers not involved in the competition so they could use the fish to win the tournament.
Details: According to a Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) incident report, two anglers competing in the tournament as a team were approached on the water by a recreational fishing boat. The two recreational anglers said they had caught a big bass and wondered if they could use the tournament boat’s scales to weigh it. After they learned the largemouth weighed 11 ½ pounds, the tournament anglers struck a deal to purchase it for $250. The tournament anglers later weighed the fish in the tournament as their own and won first place and the big bass pot for a grand prize of $305.
On July 15, a GDNR ranger received a complaint from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge officer that a subject was involved in buying and selling a trophy bass at Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The ranger began an investigation into the complaint and interviewed witnesses. On July 18, after confessing to their crimes to the interviewing officer, the four anglers involved were issued citations, and the trophy bass was confiscated.
Penalty: The ne’er-do-wells were cited for illegally buying and selling gamefish. The angler who actually caught the bass was given an additional ticket for fishing without a license. The actual amounts of their fines were not publicized.
Tournament: Walmart Bass Fishing League North Carolina Division event, Lake Wylie, N.C., May 5, 2012
Method of cheating: Inspection of a 5-pound-plus bass weighed by one tournament angler found an 11-ounce, hand-poured lead weight in the fish’s gullet.
Details: Reports indicate that FLW, the organization running this tournament, had already been taking extra precautions to be sure no fish brought for weigh-in had lead in their bellies. They were actually on the lookout in this particular tournament, and when a tournament official felt a hard object in the fish the angler in question brought to the bump table, the angler, who had won $4,394 at a BFL event on the same lake the previous year, was asked to forego receipt of his third-place $1,082 check until the fish could be examined. When officials opened the bass, they found the lead weight inside. It is believed the man secretly added the weight while being trailered into the weigh-in area. Ironically, he would have placed third even without the weight, but had he not been caught, he would have won an additional prize for the biggest bass weighed in the tournament.
Penalty: The man was disqualified for violation of BFL rule No. 9 (Sportsmanship). He had to forfeit his tournament winnings and has been banned from participating in all future FLW tournaments.