PORTAGE LAKES, Ohio – Local fishing enthusiasts say a cheating scandal during a Lake Erie tournament last week isn't representative of local anglers or the millions across the U.S. who participate in such competitions and noncompetitive fishing.
During a weigh-in of catches at the Lake Erie Walleye Trail, tournament director Jason Fischer discovered weights in the walleye of an Ohio-Pennsylvania team.
Videos of the discovery show an enraged Fischer and an increasingly restive crowd infuriated by the two men's deception.
New Franklin resident Maria Licht, who runs the Better Half Tour Bass Fishing Tournaments on the Portage Lakes with her husband, Erich Licht, said the reaction is understandable.
When she heard about the incident, she had a similar, visceral response.
"I was sick to my stomach," she said Monday. "It made me sick."
A feeling of betrayal
During tournaments and trails – individual tournaments that comprise a "tour," usually ending with a championship – competitors become familiar with one another, often developing friendships based on a shared respect and competition. That's one reason the Lake Erie Walleye Trail scandal is so painful for so many, said Aaron Futrell, co-owner of DeLong Lures in Canal Fulton.
It's like "guys cheating at your local poker table," he said in a phone interview, noting the wide popularity of fishing tournaments and individual angling around the Portage Lakes and throughout the U.S.
"Fishing is the second largest participation sport in the country," he said. "More people in the country fish than any other sports besides jogging."
So a scandal at the Lake Erie tournament level casts a wide net – wide enough to capture the interest of millions.
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Larger tournaments with big prizes have turned to lie detector tests to root out cheaters, but that doesn't always work, as last week's tournament revealed. For smaller tournaments, trust among competitors is essential.
So when two men competing for about $30,000 in cash stuff their catch with weights, it grates on fellow competitors and disgusts amateur anglers. It's the deflated football scandal of the fishing world.
"There's a lot that goes into a fishing tournament – a lot of time, a lot of money …" Licht said. "I can understand when people cheat why other people get so upset. These guys see each other weekend after weekend after weekend."
Tournament director promises to 'make this right'
Licht said tournament director Fischer is a client of her and her husband's non-fishing business, and she knows the national publicity from the scandal has been difficult for him.
"He is the hardest-working guy," she said.
On Monday, Fischer, who lives in Northeast Ohio, apologized for language he used as the scandal unfolded and promised to work to keep the tournament clean.
"I can tell you as a tournament director this type of behavior will not be tolerated," he said in a video statement released on Facebook. "I'll figure out a way to make this right for my anglers. I hope we can learn from this and make some changes in tournament fishing that protect the integrity of all circuits."
'Most anglers are good, honest people'
Fischer said that tournament documents had been turned over to authorities and that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources would investigate for possible prosecution.
But for smaller tournaments with fewer resources, even the lie detectors used by big competitions are a prohibitive expense, meaning they'll need to largely keep to counting on honor among anglers.
Futrell, whose company has sponsored tournaments, said it takes a leap of faith.
"I'd like to think that most anglers are good, honest people because I think that most people are good, honest people."
Reach Alan Ashworth at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconj.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Portage Lakes fishing experts react to Lake Erie walleye scandal