October 04, 2022
On the first Saturday morning of October, It was interesting to peruse the news-of-the-day headlines dominating the airwaves and social media while enjoying a cup of coffee and preparing to watch some college football.
There were big college football game previews, hurricane recovery efforts, politics, soaring energy costs, inflation and the economy, and fishing.
Wait a minute. What? Fishing?
"You've got to see this," my wife said while college football coverage played on the TV.
She was referring to a viral Tik Tok video that would turn into a major national news story that literally blew up social media. By Monday morning, media outlets from Fortune to Newsweek to Fox News to the New York Times and the Washington Post had carried the intriguing story of alleged cheating during a fishing tournament on Lake Erie.
'We've Got Weights in Fish'
The story and its allegations all started on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, when a weigh-in took place at the season-ending Lake Erie Walleye Trail championship derby near the Gordon Street Boat Ramp in Cleveland.
It should have been a tight tournament since the fall seasonal pattern typically yields similar-sized walleye, something that Lake Erie Walleye Trail director Jason Fischer described to the Sharon, Pa., Herald newspaper site as "cookie cutter" fish.
But one fish that Fischer weighed didn't seem quite right. What looked like a typical 4-pound cookie-cutter walleye tipped the scale at 7.9 pounds, almost twice what it should have weighed.
"I thought, 'No way,'" Fischer told Herald editor Eric Poole.
Fischer looked a little closer at the walleye and that's when he knew there was a problem. As Fischer squeezed the fish he felt something unusual inside.
The fish was cut open, leading to the viral YouTube video where the pronouncement of "We've got weights in fish!" sparked an angry scene at the championship event.
One warning, if you've got young ears standing nearby when you look at the YouTube video or those on various social media platforms, you might want to cover them up because the language is intense at an event where the two anglers in question have been accused of cheating in the past and reportedly pocketed more than $300,000 during 2021 tournaments.
Tensions were undoubtedly high last Friday with the season's championship was on the line. There was reportedly more than $500,000 in total prize money at stake, and the two-day championship event turned into a one-day derby, thanks to rough weather and a small-craft advisory on Erie.
So when the walleyes in question were cut open—and 10 lead weights and various parts of fish filets were found stuffed inside—the crowd exploded in anger. Gene Merck's Facebook video of the scandal had been viewed 4.1 million times and shared 37,000 times in two days.
Fischer apologized to his tournament organization via a Facebook post. "Disgusted guys and gals, I’m sorry for letting you down for so long and I'm glad I caught cheating taking place in YOUR LEWT at the same time," said Fischer on the group's social media page.
"I hope you know now that when I say 'you built this LEWT and I will defend its integrity at all costs,' I mean it," he added. "You all deserve the best."
On Monday morning, Oct. 3, 2022, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was reported to be investigating. And Fischer said he was still at a loss for words and promised a social media live stream later in the day to speak about the scandal.
Cheating scandals in fishing tournament are unfortunately not new. They have rocked the fishing world since the first derbies were held more than a half-century ago. And sometimes, it has even gone beyond the tournaments and straight into the record books.
One involved an International Game Fish Association world record smallmouth bass that was the record, wasn't the record, and now is the record once again, thanks to the curious story of David Hayes' celebrated and ballyhooed catch of an 11-pound, 15-ounce smallmouth caught at Tennessee's Dale Hollow Reservoir on July 9, 1955.
With the details of that controversial catch reported by Game & Fish contributor Jack Vitek back in 2015, the fish was caught when Hayes trolled a lure in the famous bronzeback bass lake in the Volunteer State.
It held the IGFA's all-tackle record for 41 years, although Vitek notes that rumors swirled about the catch for most of that time period. When the rumors and an affidavit stating that the dock owner had stuffed lead weight into the catch (and apparently unbeknownst to Hayes), the record was disqualified for a period of time and replaced by John Gorman's 10-pound, 14-ounce Dale Hollow smallmouth caught on April 24, 1969.
According to Vitek, nine years later, the all-tackle world-record designation was returned to Hayes after it was shown through multiple polygraph tests that the affidavit questioning the fish's legitimacy had been falsified. For what it's worth, Hayes' world record has withstood the scrutiny of polygraph tests, too, and is the IGFA's benchmark for the species to this day.
Tournaments have seen their share of cheating scandals down through the years, including a crazy story out of Texas back in the early 1980s. Back then, the big Florida-strain largemouth bass that eventually helped create trophy bass fisheries all around the country were still relatively unknown in many spots outside of the Sunshine State. In Texas, the species was in the infancy of the state's stocking efforts.
So, it was big news when authorities announced a three-state cheating ring in which several men were arrested after an investigation found that they were bringing Florida bass into Texas and Louisiana, keeping them in a cooling tank, and staking them out in certain tournament areas the night before a derby.
The story involved five federal agencies, the Louisiana state police, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before it was done. One of the men who had reportedly won some sizable tournament money according to the New York Times was eventually found dead at a private lake in Grand Prairie, Texas, the day before he was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury.
The man had been cooperating with authorities and reportedly had indicated to others that he feared for his life if he testified. While his death was eventually ruled a suicide, it was originally investigated as a homicide, according to the report in the Times.
A few months later, on Dec. 11, 1984, a grantland.com story entitled "The Weight of Guilt" by author David Hill picks up the outcome of the story and notes that “… [Four men] pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to conspiracy to defraud and were sent to prison for the maximum term of five years for their roles in cheating fishing tournaments in Texas and Louisiana. Before sentencing, [one of the men] told the judge that he "realized my mistake and this whole thing has really messed up my life." The man denied he was motivated by greed. He said it was his competitive nature that compelled him to cheat."
Since then, every few years, stories of other fishing-tournament cheating scandals have come out, like one in 2005 when CNN reported that a Missouri angler was arrested in Louisiana for a felony contest fraud charge.
According to the report, the angler would catch his fish before an event, take them to the lake and tether them, and then reclaim them covertly after the competition began. He used that scheme to win the 2005 Red River Bassmaster Central Open near Shreveport, taking home $10,000 in cash and a new bassboat.
But, as the CNN story noted, "Unfortunately … another competitor found one of his ringer fish during a practice round and secretly marked it with the help of Fish and Wildlife officials. When [the angler] weighed in with his catch, authorities caught on to his fraud."
After the conviction, he reportedly received a suspended sentence of six months, a fine, two years of probation, 120 hours of community service, and a lifetime ban from B.A.S.S. competitions.
There have been other major cheating incidents in the bass fishing world, some discovered and prosecuted, and others only rumored to have taken place.
One of those included a scandal in 2010 that rocked the U.S. Open bass tournament on Lake Mead when California pro Mike Hart, who had won more than $200,000 in his career, was found to have stuffed lead sinkers down the throats of fish he had submitted for weighing in at the catch-and-release tournament.
But when one or more of the fish died, they were filleted so that the meat could be given away to local food bank charities, and that's when the weights were discovered.
According to an NPR story, Hart confessed after being caught red-handed. A subsequent investigation sought to determine if other co-anglers had been willing participants, according to a story by San Diego Union-Tribune outdoor writer Ed Zieralski. That investigation by tournament authorities came to the determination that others had not been involved.
The Ol' Bait & Switch
Examine headlines on Google, Yahoo, and other search engines and you'll find several other examples of cheating scandals, including one in Utah in 2018, when two men were transporting bass from another lake to be weighed in at a fishing derby being held on Lake Powell.
The two anglers were charged after officials with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources got a tip on the incident at the Lake Powell tournament after some noticed that the bass didn't quite look right.
"Some of the largemouth bass they'd turned in had little heads and fatter bodies, indicating a different diet than the fish at Lake Powell, which were more lean," DWR Lt. Paul Washburn said in a Utah DOW news release. "The fish also had red fins, which indicated they had undergone some stress."
The fish underwent biological testing at the University of Utah and were found to be from Quail Creek Reservoir. The two men pleaded guilty and were convicted in 2020.
In another case, a Bridgeport, Texas, man was charged with fraud at a freshwater fishing tournament, a third-degree felony in the Lone Star State, after participating in the popular McDonald Big Bass Splash on famed Lake Fork in September 2018 when he brought a fish in to be weighed.
Because of the famed trophy bass lake's strict slot limit that is in place, and the huge prize money offered for fish outside of that slot limit, the man was accused by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department of trimming the tail of the fish so he could legally bring it in and try to claim a prize according to the Wood County Monitor.
In similar fashion, an Austin man was charged by TPWD in May 2018 for trying to make his kayak catch-and-release tournament photos on a bump board look longer than they actually were.
According to several news reports, including one on the KXAN television news site, the kayak angler was reported to have used the cut tail from another bass to pull a sleight-of-hand on the photo and make his actual catches appear longer than they were. The incident was reported from a kayak tournament on Decker Lake, also known as Walter E. Long Lake, in the Austin area.
After the TPWD investigation was complete in that instance, the man received some jail time, was fined $3,000, had his fishing license suspended for a year, and was banned from additional fishing tournaments, according to various media reports.
Even one-time California big-bass catching legend Mike Long was exposed on many of his double-digit weight lunker bass catches over the years, which gained him sponsorships, magazine covers and outdoor press notoriety. That was until the truth was reported by the San Diego Tribune and others.
Keep It Honest
So what's an angler to make of all of this? Well, most anglers and tournaments are honest. Competitions often have numerous contest rules in place, in-boat officials at times, and even polygraph tests to catch cheaters. And individual anglers can fish ethically and honestly, and teach the same to children and fishing newcomers. Report anything to authorities when you see that someone else isn't playing by the rules.
And if someone yells out, "We've got weights in fish!," start the smartphone video camera rolling, because what you’re fixing to see unfold is sure to go viral.