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Cheating in Fishing Tournaments Spawns High-Tech Safeguards

26 Jun, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Event Directors Using Polygraphs, Metal Detectors and More to Make Sure Rule-Breakers Don't Get Off the Hook

Sometime, people just need a high-five. In the face. With a fish. Preferably the one they’re trying to be sneaky and pass off as something they caught during a tournament in the pursuit of the big prizes that create an ever more competitive field.

And that has led to increased vigilance on tournament directors’ parts.

The problem of cheating in fishing tournaments is nothing new; in fact, it’s probably almost as old as fishing tournaments themselves. But as events – in particular those where the stakes are high, including not only cash prizes but boats, sponsorship contracts and media attention – become more lucrative, cheaters become more devious.

“Like all sports, bass fishing has had people who use illegal and unfair advantages to deceive the organization and their fellow competitors to try to make a quick buck,” says Joe Opager, director of public relations for FLW. “At the sport’s top-level professional tours, however, cheating is almost completely non-existent. Multiple safeguards are put into place to uphold the integrity of the sport.”

And while it’s an overall rare experience for unsportsmanlike conduct to mar an event, it’s the bad actors who make the headlines – and keep event owners on their guard.

Dishonest techniques take many forms, but over the years, a few have risen to the top of tournament directors’ notice:

Substituting previously caught fish for those caught during the tournament: Sometimes, unscrupulous anglers will fish an area in advance – or in a separate area entirely – then pull aside their biggest catches and try to pass them off as having been landed during the tournament. Wired2Fish cites the example of two Alabama residents who tried to win a bass fishing tournament using that very technique. Gary Minor Jr. of Albertville and Robert Gillaspie of Boaz were arrested and charged with Tampering with Sport Contest after authorities received a tip that they had been holding bass in an aquarium at a dock and using the previously captured fish to dupe competitors during weigh-ins at local evening jackpot bass fishing tournaments on the famed Lake Guntersville fishery. In Iowa, Aaron Lauber and Jason Schuttler had to face theft charges after winning the 2015 Clear Lake Yellow Bass Bonanza with a catch of 50 fish – many of which had been caught outside the tournament hours.

It’s not confined to bass tournaments, either; a Minnesota angler was found guilty of bringing two Northern pike to the Park Rapid American Legion Community Fishing Derby (yes, at a local tournament to benefit the Legion). Alfred Mead was convicted of catching the fish in another lake prior to the event. Mead was sentenced to one week in jail and had his fishing privileges revoked for two years.

Even tournaments invented for the ecological benefit of removing invasive fish species aren’t immune to cheating via anglers using imported fish. In 2013, Kentucky hosted a tournament for commercial fishermen for the purpose of ridding the waters of Asian carp. Officials disqualified the winner, Ronny Hopkins, who had the biggest carp of the day; he was found to have taken it from the aquarium where he previously worked.

Cheating at any level is reprehensible, but, says Opager, at smaller local tournaments, “guys are literally cheating their friends and neighbors. It’s actually very sad.”

Weighting legally caught fish: Tampering with a fish’s weight appears in multiple reports. Brian Hoyle of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, was caught weighing in a bass that had a hand-poured, 11-ounce lead weight in its gullet during a tournament on Wylie Lake. Robby Rose of Texas put an entire one-pound weight into his fish during a tournament on Lake Ray Hubbard. And in Wisconsin, a state appeals court heard testimony – and was quick to convict – fishing guide Michael Cefalu, who had put a one-pound weight into the throat of a Chinook salmon during a tournament. (Oh, and for the record, tournament officials didn’t buy Cefalu’s claim that the fish must have eaten the weight on its own).

Buying or getting a fish from another angler and passing it off as your own: Georgia anglers Ronnie Eunice and Brandon Smith went so far as to purchase an 11.5-pound bass from two recreational anglers, Dustin Miller and Sarah Dermott, during a tournament in Georgia. Eunice and Smith offered to weigh the bass – and upon discovering the weight, offered the other two anglers cash for the fish in order to win the big bass pot of $305. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division charged the group with "illegal buying and selling of game fish," as well as issuing an additional citation to Miller for fishing without a license.

In a 2016 tournament in Vermont, Craig Provost collected over $13,000 — including $3,000 from a “super bonus pool”— for the 10.26-pound walleye he submitted in the Lake Champlain International Father’s Day (yes, really) Fishing Derby. It was revealed, however, that one of Provost’s boatmates, who didn’t enter the bonus pool, actually caught the fish. 

As far back as the 1980s, Florida resident Elmo McNeil would purchase black bass in South Florida and deliver them in aerated tanks to fishing tournament competitors in Texas and Louisiana. He would then split the prize money with the “winners.”

Physically altering the fish: Just last year, during a kayak bass fishing tournament in Texas, Brent Taylor was charged with fraud after cutting off the tail off one bass and holding it over the body of another in order to make the fish look longer. (Because kayaks lack livewells to hold fish, tournaments are typically won by an angler amassing a greater total catch length than other participants; as proof of each catch, the angler uses his or her phone to take a photo of the bass on an approved bump board and sends it to tournament officials – showing the marking on the angler’s hand that tournament officials put there prior to heading out to fish. This process allows the bass to be released immediately after recording the length.)

In this case, however, tournament officials noticed the cut-off tail of a bass in Taylor’s kayak when he came back to the docks. And just as with Cefalu’s claim about the salmon eating a one-pound weight for fun, officials weren’t feeling the love for the tale that Taylor had found the tail floating in the water and had brought it back to show them. Oh, and he was busted for having marijuana in his kayak as well.

It certainly wasn’t the first time someone tried to change the appearance of a fish. In two other Texas incidents, Bridgeport resident Terry Keith Long allegedly trimmed a fish’s tail to meet fishing regulations at the lake east of Dallas, which allows fishermen to keep only largemouth bass 16 inches and smaller or those 24 inches or longer, according to the department’s website. David Neal Prickey admitted to game wardens that he had altered the caudal fin of a largemouth bass caught on Lake Fork during the Sealy Big Bass Splash tournament so the fish would fit within the lake's slot limit.

Altering the measuring system: Kayak anglers are required to use a bump board in all photos to verify the length of their catches. The Minnesota Star Tribune noted that an official with the state kayak fishing association had discussed the fact that a kayak fisherman in another state was caught trying to game a similar security system by doctoring several bump boards to exaggerate the size of his catch.

And those are not all of the methods cheaters will try. ESPN notes, “fishermen have been caught using frozen fish, fish hidden in secret compartments, fish tied to hidden lines... a Kentucky man received a suspended sentence for hiding bass in a submerged fish basket. He and his partner, who also was charged, had tried to walk away with a $30,000 bass boat at a championship on Lake Barkley, Kentucky.”

Freshwater fishing is not the only setting for those trying to circumvent the rules; deep-sea fishing, fly fishing and other disciplines also see their fair share of cheating.

Tony Forte, secretary/treasurer of the US Angling Confederation, says that in the international fishing arena where prize money is not associated, “the temptation is still there because national pride is on the line. The various international fishing sports work very hard to discourage cheating through rules and format. The general rule is whether something is both relevant and enforceable. Rules that have no practical way to be enforced invite confusion and conflict.”

In international fishing, yellow and red cards (similar to those in soccer) are used. If questionable behavior is displayed, an anger gets a yellow card for a first offense. A second offense, however, leads to a red card, which results in expulsion from tournaments that year as well as the full year following.

So with all the fishy behavior, tournament owners are staying ahead of the con-game by using ever-evolving techniques, including the following:

Metal detectors (to find lead and other weights in fish): Tournament directors, becoming wise to the problems of those who weight down fish, are now routinely scanning them with metal detectors when conducting weigh-ins. (In fact, the Chinook salmon in the Wisconsin incident was scanned – then, when metal was detected, was cut open over the protests of the contestants, who claimed they were saving it to be mounted.)

High-tech safeguards: In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reported that an ever-increasing level of technological options was being considered for use on the tournament circuit. In fact, one tournament official noted, winners might be asked to submit to a voice stress test for lie detection. Another method already in use for kayak fishing was having all e-mailed fish photos (taken during the course of the tournament and sent to the tournament director) embedded with GPS tracking information to show where and when the picture was taken. Polygraph tests are also used. Forte notes that on-board video can help eliminate cheating by recording the entire fishing session.

In 2019, Opager adds, “FLW implemented the rule that all FLW Tour competitor boats must be equipped with a functioning POV camera focused on the front deck so as to provide a clear view of the pro fishing. The camera records throughout each tournament day. Each day’s recording must be preserved until the next FLW Tour event and must be turned over to FLW upon request.”

A blind-draw system so two like-minded anglers can’t try to game the system together:Game and Fish Magazine notes, “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.”

Despite what seems at first glance to be an overwhelming number of examples to the contrary, tournament fishing remains largely clean. Most events are conducted well, with contestants following rules and enjoying being out on the water with their colleagues in the sport.

“As a general rule, cheating is not a primary concern,” notes Forte. “Our recent Pan American Bass Kayak event had no complaints or yellow cards issued. Cheaters get weeded out pretty quickly and there is a no tolerance policy as part of our USA Team selection process and code of conduct.”

FLW also uses a system of co-anglers and Opager notes, “In 2019, at FLW’s top level, the FLW Tour, FLW implemented a new system – the marshal program. Similar to the co-angler program, marshals are randomly paired with a different pro each day to observe the pro, assist with live coverage of the event and ensure that all rules are being upheld.”

Unfortunately, say event owners, it’s the exceptions to the rule – the bad guys – who get the most attention.

So what tips off event owners, outside of their investigative tactics? A few things:

A history of suspicious behavior at tournaments: Sometimes, those who try to circumvent the rules have already put themselves under the microscope, making it easier for tournament directors to focus on them. Minnesota’s Alfred Mead (he of the American Legion Community Fishing Derby and the imported Northern pike) had two prior gaming convictions and a decade-long trail of suspicious tournament winnings. In Alabama, Gary Minor Jr. and Robert Gillaspie had won six tournaments in a row, raising eyebrows in the fishing community.

Eyewitnesses: Anglers are an observant bunch and they’re not about to let bad behavior go unchecked. It was FLW Tour professional angler Richard Peek who saw Minor and Gillaspie’s suspicious activities at the dock and alerted authorities. And in the 2016 tournament in Vermont, it was Craig Provost’s ex-girlfriend who turned him in after he claimed his boatmate’s whopping walleye as his own catch.

Strange hand placement on the bump board: Tournament officials became leery when they saw the image of Brent Taylor’s hand covering up his fish’s tail (over which he was holding the tail he had cut off another fish). Add that to the tell-tale tail that was still in his kayak and tournament officials had their man. To head off any potential problems, Kayak Bass Fishing has exacting standards concerning the placement of the fish, as well as the placement of the angler’s hand, when photos are taken.

Sometimes, the fish itself does the talking: So to speak. In Texas, when Robby Rose’s fish was put into the livewell, it fell straight to the bottom, as opposed to the others which were swimming around the aerated tank. That alerted officials to check why it had sunk, well, like lead.

…And event owners should expect plenty of bluster: The first prize in the tournament Rose tried to cheat was a $55,000 boat. But Rose claimed he didn’t really cheat, saying that even with the lead weight in his fish’s gullet, it would have been good only for second prize:

“Second place was mine to do with as I pleased....It was a right cross to their jaw," Field & Stream quoted Rose as saying. "I wanted to embarrass the sport." Rumors about how he had won other tournaments in his 10-year fishing career are all based on jealousy, he said. "I've been bullied by tournament officials for the last eight years," he said. "I've passed more polygraphs than any other fisherman." Rose said he passed four tests in 2009 alone. "I have never done anything like this in my fishing past," he said. "I do apologize. I snapped. I lost my mind."

Tournament officials, game wardens and Rockwall County prosecutors were unimpressed with Rose’s histrionics.

"Cheating is cheating," said lead prosecutor Alex Imgrund. "And neither the fishing community nor this office will tolerate it."

At its highest level, says Opager, the sport stays honest, thanks in part to all the safeguards in place. “With the implementation of the co-anglers, polygraph tests, and now the POV action cameras, cheating is extremely rare in professional bass fishing. In my eight years at FLW I have heard of one instance of an angler cheating (at a one-day amateur BFL event), and he was caught in his second attempt and promptly banned.”

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