Ohio walleye scandal deals big blow to tournament fishing

They fish tournaments for a living so Canadians Jeff Gustafson and Chris Johnston aren't surprised by the public backlash created by the disqualification of two anglers from an Ohio walleye event after lead weight and fillets were discovered in their catch.

On Friday, Jacob Runyan and Chase Cominsky were disqualified from a Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament when egg-shaped lead sinkers and fish fillets were found in the fish they'd brought to the final weigh-in Friday.

Had Runyon and Cominsky won the tournament — they were considered the team to beat — they would've received almost US$30,000 in prizes. They'd also won several other competitions in recent years, the disqualification now bringing those previous victories into serious question.

Video of the discovery — along with a group of competitors heckling and verbally lambasting a stoic Runyon — quickly went viral on social media over the weekend. The incident made headlines across North America — including in the New York Times and Washington Post — and prompted many to not only question the legitimacy of fishing tournaments in general but speculate about the amount of cheating that goes on in events.

Gustafson, of Kenora, Ont., learned of the scandal while competing in a tournament in northern Ontario.

"We were headed back to where we were staying and got cell service so I saw the videos and stuff and it was pretty crazy," Gustafson said. "It's not good, not good at all, that's for sure.

"I've seen posts from some people who believe this stuff happens at every tournament but I don't believe it does. Anyone listening to the people in the background of that video, I don't know what better deterrent there is than that. Most people do it (fish tournaments) because they love it and love competitive fishing. Most don't get to do it for a living, I'm very lucky. It's very hard to believe, it really is."

Gustafson and Johnston, of Peterborough, Ont., and Johnston's brother, Cory, of Cavan, Ont., are the lone Canadians competing on the Bassmaster Elite Series, the top professional bass fishing circuit in the U.S. In 2020, Chris Johnston became the first Canadian to win an Elite Series event before Gustafson followed suit in 2021.

All three Canadians have competed in the US$1-million Bassmaster Classic — the circuit's top event — the last three years and qualified to do so in 2023.

On the Elite Series, anglers fish from their own boats during tournaments. But the only time they're alone is during practice sessions as marshals sit in each competitor's boat once the events formally begin.

Elite Series tournaments are also broadcast on television (FOX), with many of the top competitors often also having a cameraman in their boat.

What's more, Elite Series competitors not only agree to submit to a "truth verification test" — a polygraph — but also abide by its conclusion. Tests are conducted at every tournament and a failing result can't be appealed.

"But it (Ohio scandal) just tarnishes the image of tournament fishing, be it bass or walleye," Johnston said. "People spend a lot of money to get into these tournaments and have a lot invested into it with equipment and stuff like that.

"Many book their holidays around going into a tournament, they might only get three or four weekends off and they're using them for tournaments. They see people are cheating and it's like, 'Why would I waste my time and money if this can happen?' You like to think it doesn't but …"

Force-feeding fish lead weight and fillets isn't the only underhanded approach some have taken to in order to boost their chances of success. There have been incidents of caging, where fish are caught before the start of a tournament and kept in underwater cages until the anglers come for them once competition begins.

There have also been instances of anglers force-feeding fish ice cubes to make them heavier at weigh-in, with the evidence of tampering quickly melting away. There have been some competitors offering to buy other anglers' fish.

Gustafson said the adoption of a polygraph test could be a possible avenue for tournament officials to explore.

"I've been polygraphed several times for tournaments we've won and it's never been an issue," he said. "It's expensive to get them done but maybe more events have to go back to polygraphing the winners."

Neither Gustafson nor Johnston believe cheating is widespread in fishing tournaments.

"Obviously you must respect the rules and I believe the vast majority (of tournament anglers) do that," Gustafson said.

"I don't think it will tarnish the top level of tournament fishing," added Johnston. "But the majority of people who are weekend anglers, that's where it's probably going to hit (hardest)."

According to the Post, Ohio tournament organizers contacted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources afterwards and a report is being prepared for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office.

"They (Runyan and Cominsky) won't be able to fish tournaments anymore, obviously," Gustafson said. "As far as what law enforcement does, I'm sure they're going to do whatever they're able to do."

Added Johnston: "I hope they're made an example."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press