People will cheat at anything: Deer camp poker, grandmaster chess, Irish dancing, heck, there was even a ballot-stuffing scandal during “Fat Bear Week” recently. So, it should come as no surprise that fishing tournaments, where fancy boats and high-dollar payouts are often at stake, attract their fair share of scammers, flimflammers, and double-dealing deceivers. In fact, the big-time bass tournament circuit that Ray Scott launched in the 1960s was built, in part, on the belief that fishing tournament cheating—then assumed to be rife in the small-time local tournaments that dominated the scene—could best be discouraged by charging substantial entry fees that only serious professionals could afford.
Yet anglers, like the gamefish they pursue, have a way of adapting to pressure: In fishing tournaments large and small, local and national, professional and amateur, cheating has endured—sometimes in ways so devious and desperate you have to wonder: What were they thinking? Here are five of the most outrageous fishing tournament cheats ever perpetrated.
The Great Walleye Fishing Tournament Cheating Scandal of 2022
Arguably the fishing story of 2022 was the widely covered news of two professional walleye anglers caught red-handed at a Lake Erie tournament weigh-in after stuffing multiple fish with lead sinkers. The chaotic scene captured on video showed fellow tourney anglers jeering at Jacob Runyan and Chase Cominsky after Jason Fischer, director of the Lake Erie Walleye Tournament series, sliced into the walleye bellies and discovered ten lead weights and several fish filets. The duo was in the running for $30,000 in prize money and a “Team of the Year Award.” Instead, they earned several felony charges of cheating, grand theft, and possessing criminal tools. Authorities also seized a boat, trailer, and fishing gear used during the tournament. The co-defendants, who pleaded not guilty at their October 26 arraignment in Cuyahoga County Court in Cleveland, face up to 12 months in prison and $2,500 in fines for each felony charge. A misdemeanor charge of unlawful ownership of wild animals—which is reportedly connected to the raw fish filets found in the walleye—could lead to long-term suspension of their fishing licenses. In the meantime, Cominsky racked up another criminal charge—this time for using counterfeit cash.
An Infamous Bass Cheating Ring Comes Crashing Down
When Elro McNeil set out to rig a 1983 fishing tournament with a largemouth bass purchased in Florida, he had to stop off at his Louisiana home first to thaw the frozen lunker in his bathtub before rendezvousing with his co-conspirator, an angler named Terry Isam who was competing in the Roadrunner Bass Tournament in Tyler, Texas. Over the next year and a half, McNeil would upgrade his con, outfitting his truck with an aerator to haul live fish and recruiting half a dozen anglers to scam $350,000 from the Texas bass tournament circuit. After an angler involved in the scheme turned up dead at his favorite fishing spot from a shotgun blast (the death was investigated as a murder, but eventually ruled a suicide), federal authorities launched an investigation. In 1985, McNeil and three anglers received fines and five-year prison sentences after pleading guilty. Isam—the government’s star witness—received a lighter sentence for a lesser charge.
A Familiar Fish
The first-place finisher in an English fishing tournament was busted for cheating after the runner-up recognized the top bass from a local aquarium. Matthew Clark was declared the winner of Guernsey’s 2012 Ballwick Bass Club tournament for a 13-pound, 13-ounce bass that topped by three pounds the second-place fish, caught by Shane Bentley. But as Clark posed for photos with his prizewinner, Bentley realized he’d seen the fish before—on a visit to the local St. Peter Port Aquarium. “It stood out because it had very distinct markings on its head,” Bentley told The Express. “When the bass was lifted out of the tank for the photo I thought ‘that’s the fish from the aquarium’. The next morning I went to the aquarium. I looked in the tank but I couldn’t see the fish, then the woman looked and she couldn’t find the fish.”
Clark copped to scaling a cliff and climbing a rope ladder to break into the aquarium, where, it turns out, he’d previously worked. He told the police he’d planned to return the fish after the contest but dropped and injured it as he made his getaway. “He took it to a fish seller who didn’t realize it was stolen and chopped it up,” an aquarium spokesperson told The Express. “All we got back was the head and tail.” Clark got 100 hours of community service for his deceit.
Tails of Deception
Sometimes a tail is all it takes to cheat. In 2020, Brent Taylor was charged with fraud after a severed fish tail was found in his boat during a kayak fishing tournament at Texas’ Decker Lake. Since kayak tournaments award prizes based on overall length rather than weight, anglers document their catches by photographing fish stretched out on an approved measuring board. After tournament officials questioned Taylor’s photos, game wardens with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department searched his boat and discovered the tail, which he initially claimed he found in the lake and planned to turn in when he returned to shore. “Later the violator confirmed to have used the tail to place over another bass, using his hand to cover the questionable area, to make the fish look longer on multiple occasions,” TPWD said in a statement. He was arrested for fraud.
Texas wardens foiled a similar finagle at a Lake Fork tournament in 2018. Terry Keith Long was charged with fraud after he allegedly used scissors to trim a bass’s tail to make the fish’s overall length fit the lake’s slot limit. A grand jury indicted him on a third-degree felony charge. Wardens were no strangers to the attempted sleight of hand, having uncovered the same ruse at a Lake Fork tourney in 2015.
An International Carp Fishing Tournament Cheating Scandal
Fishing tournament cheating is not distinct to the U.S. In fact, Romania’s national carp fishing team was accused of cheating after they won the 14th World Carp Angling Championships in 2012. England’s national team lodged a formal protest against the Romanians, who were also the hosts of the event, after discovering that the home team had spent several months leading up to the competition at Lake Corbu feeding carp a secret bait that gave them an advantage during the tournament. Romania took first place in the team and individual categories. Bulgaria, Siberia, and Portugal, which discovered the ruse while practicing at the lake and secured a supply of the secret bait for use during the fishing tournament, rounded out the top four. Back in America, anglers questioned why there was an international carp fishing tournament in the first place