Pa. fishing experts weigh in on Lake Erie walleye fishing tournament cheating scandal

When two fishermen tried to cheat in a Lake Erie walleye tournament, it sent shockwaves around the country, but it’s not the first time an angler was caught cheating.

Tournament organizers and anglers have voiced their aggravation about two fishermen, Jacob Runyan, 42, of Cleveland, Ohio, and Chase Cominsky, 35, of Hermitage, Mercer County, who are accused of placing close to eight pounds of weights inside their five fish in the Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament held Sept. 30 in Cleveland, Ohio. They were disqualified after the event’s organizer cut open the fish in front of the duo and a group of fellow competitors. They are facing a criminal investigation regarding fraud.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported the two men were indicted in Cleveland on felony charges of cheating, attempted grand theft, possessing criminal tools and misdemeanor charges of unlawfully owning wild animals. They're due to be arraigned Oct. 26.

Officers from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Hermitage Police Department and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission seized a boat, trailer and fishing gear belonging to Cominski on Tuesday in Pennsylvania. The anglers had used the boat during last month's tournament, the affidavits said. Runyan and Cominski would have received $28,760 in prizes for winning the tournament.

While the story has made national headlines, Pennsylvania fishing experts realize that some people can’t resist the urge to cheat when money is on the line.

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Erie pro fisherman Dave Lefebre has lost thousands to cheaters

An Erie professional angler believes he has lost more than $100,000 by placing second and third behind a fisherman who was caught cheating by placing baskets of captive bass in lakes and then “catching” them during tournaments across the country.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Dave Lefebre, 52, of Harborcreek Township, Erie County, said about the weighted walleye scandal.

“I’ve been severely affected by cheating. I’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars by a cheater that got busted in the FLW (Fishing League Worldwide) tour.” An angler was banned from bass fishing tournaments about 20 years ago for the incidents involving captive fish.

“That was the first wake-up call,” Lefebre said about people doing unscrupulous things to get an edge over the competition.

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He travels about 40,000 miles a year competing in bass fishing tournaments across the United States. “The pro bass fishing world pioneers all the rules and stuff like that. We’re the ones who really have been fighting against that stuff for years and years.”

He believes the other leagues aren’t as focused on stopping cheating as much as the major bass tournaments like Major League Fishing and Pro Bass tours have been in recent years.

“You can’t do what those guys did (on Lake Erie) in our tour. It’s not even possible. Because we just catch (the fish) on live camera, there’s a referee in our boat.”

Smaller tournaments don’t have similar protocols to reduce the chances of people being tempted to cheat. “Everybody is a human, when you get prize money and stuff like that. People are desperate and comprised, they just do stuff.”

When people are fishing out on the lake, Lefebre said, people are just having faith the other competitors are as straight as you.

In the recent Lake Erie incident, he said the men involved have been winning many tournaments in recent years, which makes people wonder if this is the first time they tried something like weighing down their catch. If they won by cheating in the past, the true winners lost out on the prize money.

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Other types of cheating he’s aware of involved anglers catching large fish before tournaments and tying them on a line to a stump in the water to be retrieved during the competition.

He said tournaments need to think about improving the requirements similar to what he experiences in his Major League Fishing.

Unless tournaments can find a way to implement that level of screening, he feels there will always be an opening for a cheater to try something. “It’s a shame.”

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'Nobody wins that much'

Another northwestern Pennsylvania angler who has participated in walleye tournaments isn’t surprised about people breaking the rules in tournaments that have cash payouts. “It boils down to the same old thing," said Keith Esbaugh, 55, of Cochranton, Crawford County. "Guys will do anything when fame and fortune is on the line.” He owns Dutch Fork Custom Lures and operates a charter service on Lake Erie.

“All the anglers knew something was up for the past three, four years with them guys (two men in the Lake Erie walleye tournament) because they were winning too much. Nobody wins that much,” he said about speculation of cheating in the past.

For walleye tournaments there is a boat inspection in the morning and they check your fish in the afternoon. “It’s more of an honor system,” he said.

Other tournaments have switched to a system based only on the length of a fish with a special ruler and tag that has to be photographed on the waterway. The fish can then be released to swim another day. “That seems to be pretty popular. I think some of the bass guys are doing it and I think that’s what they should switch to in the future because you can see from the past (Cleveland fishing scandal), not everyone’s honest.”

If the tournament circuits provided the rulers, they can gauge a weight if needed. “I’m sure we are going to see some changes,” he said about the future of competitive fishing.

“Nobody is happy about what happened, but we just got to learn from it and move on. I believe the LEWT tournament circuit I believe is going to be stronger than ever next year,” he said.

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Changing to winning on length, rather than weight

Chad Foster of New Castle is the tournament director for the Kayak Anglers of Western PA that’s held across five different areas in Western Pennsylvania like the Pymatuning Reservoir, Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie.

Anglers competing in these tournaments use tourneyx.com to score their top five bass of the day. “It’s all based on length. There’s nothing that happens within our tournament realm that deals with weight or anything like that, so we really don’t have to worry about overweighted fish or someone trying to cheat the system.” The web app uses the location services information from the angler’s phone to make sure the fish is caught on the proper lake and day.

He said the participants receive an identifier number at the beginning of the event that must be included with the fish and photographed on the tournament’s unique measuring boards.

There are photography rules regarding hand placement and not covering the fish’s eyes or having the fish’s mouth open.

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When there is a larger pot of money or prizes offered, Foster said the rules do allow the use of polygraph testing.

He said the recent cheating scandal will be something all tournament directors will be keeping in the back of their minds and he hopes it will prevent anyone who would consider doing something as egregious as stuffing fish with weights from taking the chance on ruining their reputation.

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Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Tournament anglers discuss weighted fish, other forms of cheating