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Do Fishing Tournament Cheaters Deserve Jail Time?

Do Fishing Tournament Cheaters Deserve Jail Time?

Posted 2023-06-09  by  Joe Balog

Realtree fishing editor and longtime competitive angler Joe Balog weighs in with his opinion

Image: IllustrationBy_Vector_Tradition_cheating_fishing_jail

Illustration by Vector Tradition

By now you probably know of the recent fishing tournament scandal and of the cheating anglers who were found guilty by an Ohio court. In case you missed the details, Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan were caught red-handed during a cheating attempt at a professional walleye fishing tournament held last fall in Cleveland. After swift legal proceedings, both men were sentenced to 10 days in jail each, as well as forfeiture of a $100,000 boat, additional fines, and loss of their fishing licenses. They were led out of court as convicted felons, in handcuffs. Their lives will never be the same.

That’s a pretty stiff penalty for sure. But was the judge too harsh? Here’s my opinion.

First, it should be known that I have considerable tournament fishing experience myself. For 20 years, I made my living casting for cash, competing in everything from a weeknight wildcat to a $200,000 Tour event. My foray was bass tournaments — not the same as walleye events — but similar enough that the basic rules and standards of sportsmanship apply to each.

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The formats of most big-money fishing tournaments (in this case, Cominsky and Runyan were competing for about $30,000) fall into two categories. In some, anglers are paired randomly, while in others, friends compete as a two-person team. Cheating is rare when anglers are paired randomly, since they can police one another, but there have been instances when cheaters have tried, and even pulled off, heists before their boat partner’s eyes. These have come in the form of payoffs and even accusations of holding pens and staked-out fish that were caught beforehand. But to my knowledge, none of these events have made it to national headlines or landed anglers in jail.

Cheating in “team” or “buddy tournaments,” like the walleye event in question, happens more often. A few cheaters have been caught in the past, and were mostly banned from future events or handed down community service mandates. Still, I don’t remember any who were given jail time. Now it’s practically impossible, in light of the recent hijinks, to research the subject. Any attempt to link the words “fishing” and “cheat” simply takes a reader to dozens of pages of reports on Cominsky and Runyan.

That should be a consideration in itself, I think.

In the olden days, a guy could be a cheater and simply walk away from that aspect of his life. Maybe get out of fishing and take up golf, a game where recreational cheating is much easier.

Not anymore. Not only are the two walleye wannabes kicked out of competitive fishing, they’ll be carrying a felon tag around, making it difficult to find a job, a home, or even travel. And we haven’t even touched on the jail time. This, combined with the impossibility of ever getting out of the public’s eye, thanks to a media wildfire, and they have a black cloud circling for life.

Does that go too far? These guys are ruined, with lives that will never be the same. What does 10 days of jail on top of that prove?

As the judge put it, “There is a consideration for deterrence, which I think is also equally important.”

Deterrence. Maybe the possibility of going to jail will be a major factor in keeping future would-be cheaters honest. Maybe.

I doubt our deceitful duo ever considered jail time when they stuffed lead weights and (even more disturbing) the fillets of other walleyes down the throats of their tournament catch. There’s no way a guy does that thinking he may spend a week and a half in the big house, all for about 10 grand after expenses. I’d hope.

So, getting jail time on the record is a point well taken. The sentence, combined with our aforementioned media frenzy, combines for a penalty that everyone who enters a fishing tournament of any kind, for the next decade or more, will remember.

That’s deterrence for sure.

But still, all of this for a fishing tournament? Is it really that big of a deal? I mean, fishing tournaments aren’t real sporting events, right? Fishing is a game of chance. A hobby, not a job … right?

No. Absolutely wrong. Consider that there are more fishing tournaments in America each year than there are golf tournaments. There are more professional bass tournaments than professional football games. The leading professional anglers have all surpassed $3 million in career winnings — some by age 40 — and likely carry just as much in endorsement earnings. The big leagues of fishing are just that.

And consider the event developers themselves. The major tournament organizations employ hundreds of people and gross millions each year. Tourism bureaus report millions in economic impact from championship fishing events. Hotels, restaurants, gas stations — all find windfalls when the big tournaments come to town. All depend on those tournaments having a professional reputation, a reputation that everyone involved in the sport has been fighting for since the inception six decades ago.

And all of this doesn’t even consider the demand for the highest standards of professionalism in the tournaments themselves, the unwritten code that all decent competitive anglers live by each day they go out on the water. Win some, lose some, but never, ever cheat.

The sport deserves better, as do the other competitors and the fish themselves. I can’t imagine the mindset of someone more concerned about money than anything else. Because these guys have, literally, lost it all. The boat, the money, and the capacity to be called honest sportsmen.

So, should you go to jail for cheating in a fishing tournament? Yes, and 10 days isn’t enough. Because for everyone involved in fishing, the multi-billion dollar industry that leads the charge of all outdoor activities in America, it will take 10 years to recover what was taken.

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