L ots of things about Bass fishing I will probably never fully understand.
Perhaps the most perplexing of all is how a guy can go strutting into a tournament weigh-in with a fish he didn’t catch, or one that has been altered to make it weigh heavier or, in some cases, appear smaller than it really is—all in the name of beating a bunch of other fisherman out of a few bucks.
It takes a pretty crooked individual with a warped conscience to commit such a selfish and deviant act. It also takes a pretty dumb one—especially to try it in Texas. Here, toothy laws meant to deter such fraudulent acts can cost you a bundle and even land you behind bars for a spell if you happen to get caught.
I can’t say cheating in bass tournaments occurs a lot more often that you might think, because it doesn’t. Or at least that’s the way I prefer to think.
I work closely with a bunch of anglers who compete on the professional level and have dozens of friends and acquaintances who are regulars at weekend and Tuesday night derbies. As a whole, guys who fish tournaments are an honorable group who live by a distinct code of ethics. They despise those who attempt to skirt the rules every bit as much as I do.
But there are always going to be a few bad apples out there. When one of them rises to the surface in a weigh-in line, it comes as a slap in the face and an attack on the integrity of anyone with ties to the sport.
That’s how I felt when word surfaced that another “tail trimmer” had been nabbed at Lake Fork, this one during the Sealy Outdoors Big Bass Splash held last September. This amateur derby, which drew about 2,400 entries, advertised a guaranteed pay back of $500,000, including $160,650 in hourly payouts for the 15 biggest bass of each hour, each day.
The top prize for the event’s heaviest bass included a boat, truck and cash valued at close to $100,000. There also was a $2,500 cash prize on the table for the angler who weighed-in the heaviest fish under the slot over the course of the event.
Fork has a 16- to 24-inch slot limit on bass; it is not legal to retain any fish that measures between 16 and 24 inches. Tournament anglers at Fork routinely target fish on the bottom side of the slot, because big fish are much harder to come by.
During the tournament’s final hour on the final day, an angler presented a fish at weigh-in that caught the watchful eyes of Texas game wardens. That’s because its tail looked a little odd. When wardens confronted the angler, he admitted to trimming the bass’s tail in order to make it appear as a legal catch under the lake’s restrictive slot limit.
Bizarre as it sounds, this isn’t the first cheating case filed at Fork for tail trimming.
“We’ve had them like that before,” said Wood County game warden Kurt Kelley. “It seems like it is a pretty regular occurrence.”
Lake Fork isn’t the only lake where cheaters have been nabbed in fishing tournaments. It happens on lakes all over the country in all sorts of derbies ranging from small jackpots to larger events with lucrative prizes and big cash on the line.
Tail trimming to alter the length of a fish is just one path to fishing’s dark side that cheaters have ventured down over the years.
They have also shoved lead weights into the bellies of fish to make them weigh heavier than they really are. In some cases, cheaters have even gone so far as to stake out fish in cages and crates or tie them to stumps before a tournament. The cheaters could then retrieve them while they were supposed to be fishing and then take the fish to the weigh-in.
As earlier mentioned, an angler who crosses over into the dark side of tournament fishing runs a high risk of losing way more than his or her reputation.
In 2011, Texas lawmakers passed legislation (HB 1806) aimed at cracking down on tournament cheats with a new law that packs some very sharp teeth. The law broadened the scope of existing fraudulent violations in fresh and saltwater fishing tournaments to include altering the length or weight of a fish and other deceptive acts.
As a result, anglers who commit tournament fraud in minor tournaments with small jackpots can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. They face up to a year in jail and fines up to $4,000.
The violation escalates to a third-degree felony if it takes place during a tournament offering a top prize worth $10,000 or more. A conviction packs a maximum fine of $10,000 and two to ten years in prison.
Cheating just isn’t worth it, any way you trim it.
Email Matt Williams at [email protected]