Cheating incident causes black eye for fishing, anglers

The ugly scene that played out recently at a walleye tournament on Lake Erie spotlighted the vulnerability of competitive fishing’s reputation in the mindset of many who know nothing about the sport.

The YouTube video viewed by millions last week shows a tournament official slicing open the bellies of walleyes presented by two competitors to be weighed in the big-money competition. The knife revealed what the tournament director hoped he wouldn’t discover: heavy lead balls.

A crowd of anglers and onlookers reacted strongly at the discovery. The two men who presented the fish are suspected of stuffing their walleyes with the metal balls to make the fish weigh heavier than their natural weight. As of Friday, no charges had been filed, although it was reported the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office was investigating.

The two anglers were disqualified on suspicion of cheating and the incident has gained attention far beyond the world of those who fish. News coverage has been extensive, with The Washington Post and CNN among the media reporting on the incident.

One result of the alleged cheating is that competitive fishing has suffered a black eye. Even before the Lake Erie incident, many non-anglers assumed the sport was rife with cheating.

I’ve heard their comments directly. Tournaments are held weekly on Mosquito, Berlin, Milton, Shenango, Pymatuning, West Branch and many other lakes in our area.

When acquaintances learn I fish in bass tournaments, many comment how easy it must be to slip sinkers into the fish’s mouths to add weight. That’s what they think.

The recent Lake Erie incident underscores the need for competitive fishing to strive to be squeaky clean. Cheating is nothing new, of course, but the fact a graphic video circulated worldwide has exacerbated the negative fallout. Everybody is talking about it.

Other sports have survived major cheats. Baseball and football have moved forward after numerous athletes boosted their performance with drugs and hormones. Automobile racing continues to be popular despite revelations that teams souped up their cars beyond what the rules allowed.

Tournament fishing will survive, but its practitioners must be careful to keep their noses clean. One bad apple can damage the reputation of the sport and its competitors.

That means competitors must always be aware of how their interactions with the public are being perceived.

Tournaments create an overload at launch ramps and courtesy docks. Non-tournament anglers often become frustrated when they discover a tournament launching out of their favorite ramp.

Anglers must always be courteous when fishing near other boaters and shoreline fishers. We also must be careful to avoid damaging the property of those who own the land and docks.

Competitors must heed speed limits and no-wake zones and navigate in a manner that gives extra room for sailors, kayakers, canoeists and swimmers.

Tournament weigh-ins often attract onlookers curious about the catches. Competitors should be mindful of their language and attitude as they are the face of the entire tournament community.

Above all, competitive anglers must obey wildlife and watercraft regulations as well as the ground rules of their sanctioning organization.

Finally, tournament anglers must remember their sport isn’t universally hailed as a good use of natural resources. What we enjoy today could easily be regulated out of existence.

Jack Wollitz’s book, “The Common Angler,” explores the fun stuff that makes fishing a passion for so many people. He appreciates emails from readers. Send a note to jackbbaass@gmail.com.


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