A fishing tournament weigh-in in Cleveland last month, an event most often attended by anglers, family, friends and passersby, sent the Lake Erie walleye scene into worldwide news after several videos went viral.
They appeared to show two consistently winning tournament anglers get caught cheating red-handed after 10 lead weights, tipping the scales at about 7 pounds, were removed from their five walleye at the final 2022 event for the Lake Erie Walleye Trail.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office announced earlier this month that the pair, Jake Runyan, 42, of Broadview Heights, Ohio and his partner Chase Cominsky, 35, of Hermitage, Pennsylvania were indicted on three felonies and one misdemeanor each after an investigation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. Investigators allege the pair attempted to win the tournament’s $28,760 in top prizes by cheating.
Each was charged with cheating, attempted grand theft, possessing criminal tools and unlawful ownership of wild animals. The men could face up to three years in jail and fines of more than $7,500 if convicted on all charges. According to the prosecutor’s office, local authorities in Mercer County and officers with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission executed a search warrant at Cominsky’s home and seized a fishing boat.
The indictment seeks the forfeiture of a Ranger boat likely valued in excess of $100,000, which is registered to Cominsky.
The pair has had success in previous fishing competitions. In December, Runyan told Plain Dealer special reporter D’Arcy Egan he estimated their take from winning their three last events at $306,000. In one of those events, a subsequent polygraph test disqualified their fish.
But the pair have already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. Jason Fischer, director of the LEWT series, cut open the five winning fish after he became suspicious, and produced lead weights and walleye filets from fish stomachs. Instantly, tournament anglers became enraged. According to a witness, Runyan remained trapped inside a mob-like ring of swearing anglers just moments after Cominsky had left the weigh-in area, before the fish were cut open, and locked himself inside his truck.
By the next morning the video of that scene went viral on multiple social media platforms, and in the coming days Lake Erie walleye and competitive fishing had become worldwide news. The videos and memes the weigh-in spawned have been viewed and shared more than 60 million times and the event made newspaper, Internet and broadcast news at thousands of outlets.
Making lemonade out of lemons
Ross Robertson, a full-time Lake Erie charter captain and podcaster, has about 10,000 subscribers to his Bigwater podcast. In about a week’s time, an interview he aired with Fischer and another Lake Erie walleye event director the day after the event received more than a half million views.
“I wish I hadn’t gotten a half million views for this, I wish we’d been getting views talking about fishing because I think about 90 percent of the people who watched the podcast don’t fish,” he said. “I don’t want to sound too tree-huggy, but you want people to be drawn to the world by good things, and there are a lot of really good things – but there’s always these crazy headlines or whacky sh– that actually get people all fired up.”
And fired up people were, with a torrent of online comments by anglers and non-anglers alike. While many were upset by the cheating, some asked questions about the tournaments.
Robertson said he believes that in the end, the cheating scandal will be a good thing for Lake Erie fishing tournaments and fishing tournaments in general.
“I think the majority of this will be a positive because while people that are into fishing and around it know there’s cheating, we’ve just been reminded it’s probably more rampant than people think. It’s going to cause a change in the rules, not just here but in other fishing circuits as well.”
Craig Lewis, director the Walleye Slam, a six-week Lake Erie fishing derby said change is definitely afoot.
“There’s no possible way for me to guarantee that no one will ever cheat again, it’s just not possible,” he said. “But we’re going to try our best. I do see change, but honestly don’t know what kind of change we’re going to see. I know for my group it’s going to force me to look at what’s out there, what kind of technology is out there. It’s still fresh and there’s been dozens of phone calls made.”
Tournaments (which run set hours during each day) and derbies (which run longer periods of time such as days or weeks) all have very specific rules for anglers. Some rules may include hours fished, locations fished, tackle used, how fish are kept or released, how fish are measured, whether fish can be dead or alive, who may fish and other requirements or restrictions.
Everything is clearly spelled out in rules before the fishing takes place, and enforcing rules and catching cheaters can be difficult.
Dishonest anglers are persistent and creative
“I’ve been fishing tournaments all my life and as far as weight tournaments, there’s a lot that goes on that’s ‘fishy’ so to speak,” said Tim Thomas, director of the Great Lakes Salmon Showdown, a derby that runs season long and covers all the Great Lakes. “Soaking is one thing that’s done in the salmon realm. If you put them in water, they will soak up some and gain weight.”
Thus, rules require fish to be dry and for anglers to use block ice in their coolers. Thomas said some anglers have been caught putting ice inside their fish.
A film producer working in Minnesota told GLN that during an ice fishing tournament, he found anglers inside their shanty utilizing of collapsible laundry basket suspended beneath the ice which contained a number of larger fish that had been previously caught and stashed there. In other instances, anglers have been known to catch fish and keep them in a basket hidden somewhere like a cove or a slough, where they could be retrieved the next day during a tournament.
“It is money that motivates,” Thomas said, “but also just the drive to boost yourself and puff your chest. We’ve seen people cheating in youth tournaments, parents catching fish and passing them off to their kids to enter.”
First-place prizes in many of the tournaments Thomas runs are between $15-20,000, while some can pay out just several thousand dollars.
Lance Valentine is a former tournament angler, a Lake Erie charter captain and also produces educational media on fishing. He’s seen the not-so-honest side of tournaments, too.
“In a Wisconsin pro-am tournament (a professional angler and boat owner is paired with an amateur angler often called a co-angler) one of the guys was disqualified after his co-angler came forward,” he explained. “They had a tough time catching fish and so the pro took a pair of pliers and extended the jaw of a fish so it met minimum size and could be weighed in.”
In another incident a suspected Saginaw Bay cheater was having some work done on his boat, Valentine said, when the dealership techs found a completely hidden live well beneath a deck.
“This stuff goes on all the time, but 99.9 percent of the guys are legit about everything,” he assured.
Robertson said if it hadn’t been for the videos, the weigh-in event would be just another outdoors story.
“We definitely wouldn’t be having this conversation because two years ago three of five people failed the lie detector test, and they put up no resistance, so assuming they were cheating or breaching rules in some way shape or form,” he said, referring to the disqualification of anglers from three top prizes in the Lake Erie Fall Brawl. “That made just a hiccup of what we have now, with fish in the parking lot and weights rolling out of them. It really made a media sensation.”
Competitive fishing events have charitable, youth angles
Frank Murphy founded the Lake Erie Fall Brawl more than a decade ago with a couple dozen people in a friendly, casual tournament. While he got out of the Fall Brawl business recently, it’s expected to attract up to 15,000 entrants this year vying for more than $400,000 in prizes for the top five spots. And Murphy said his event, and the anglers that compete in it along with sponsors, have helped support numerous causes over the years.
“Like Blaster Corporation, they weren’t able to donate fishing products, but they helped out in other ways, they helped me generate money for a lot of donations for causes like no-kill animal shelters, food pantries, Wounded Warriors in Action,” Murphy said. “For the last few years, we’ve given away scholarships to kids if they were in high school going to college.”
Murphy said he’s proud of what the Fall Brawl has accomplished.
“We utilized the Fall Brawl business to help other people and to me that’s what it was all about,” Murphy said. “I know that’s not as exciting as cutting open a fish and doing twelve and a half million views on TikTok in a day and a half. They don’t want the good guy part of it.”
While raising cash and grocery donations are common in the tournament world, so is fresh fish. On lakes Michigan and Huron, salmon is commonly cleaned and donated. More than 1,700 pounds of fresh, fileted salmon were donated by anglers in the 2022 Naucratius Big Lake Charity Tournament this summer. And virtually all walleye tournaments donate their fish to local food banks. The fish are processed, cleaned and bagged.
“This tournament represents so much more of than is being represented on social media,” said LEWT director Jason Fischer. “The things my anglers do to serve the community astound me. They get involved, they donate time and they constantly look for ways to give back to the community.”
Fischer and LEWT tournament anglers are especially fond of six-year-old Levi Lynch, of Sandusky. He’s got leukemia and is a frequent visitor at LEWT events, including fishing on a boat and participating in a youth fishing clinic.
“This very tournament on Friday perfect strangers came together to raise awareness and money for a family that has a six-year-old who is battling leukemia,” Fischer said. This year alone I can safely say our local anglers raised around $10,000 for different families and last year, these guys started a charity event behind my back, didn’t tell me, and they raised funds in my name and made this an annual event each spring.”
Some tournaments have gone completely digital
“My tournaments run on a new platform which is fish entries by length and so everything is done with photo and video evidence which is one advantage over other tournaments,” Salmon Showdown director Tim Thomas explained. “It’s all done in real time so you know there’s no issues that are typically seen in kill tournaments such as holding fish over, putting sinkers in fish, altering fish. It’s a non-issue.”
With the FishDonkey online platform, he explained, anglers document fish they catch, then upload them onto the platform using their cell phone. A real-time leaderboard is in place where anglers can monitor other fish being checked in and see where they stand instantly.
But can there still be cheating? GLN asked.
“We always have to keep in mind cutting boards, other ways anglers might be trying to get around it,” Thomas said. “So for us, since we deal in pictures, things as small as the angle of the picture, does it make much of a difference? Does the fish have an open mouth?”
That’s why a very specific set of images is required to check a fish in, he said. Exact angles, exact placements and specific photos. All are meant to establish consistency, congruency and to help verify the fish were legitimately caught. And while there’s no traditional weigh-in, there is a steady stream of fish appearing on the tournament feed from competing anglers throughout the event, Thomas said.
And there have been disqualifications, though mostly technical: not having the required photos, not taking the photo immediately after the catch, less nefarious things than lead weights in fish bellies.
Thomas said he’s already spoken to several tournament directors that have called him in the past few days asking about FishDonkey and online platforms.
“This will absolutely, 100 percent offer a boost for online platforms,” he said. “Once I ran an online tournament and experienced the benefits, I switched all mine over. We’ve actually been on the forefront of helping develop the platform with FishDonkey.”
What about the real winners?
The real tournament winners weren’t near the stage when the Cominsky and Runyan were disqualified, and so the win was kind of a second-hand affair. Steve Tyszko and his partner Chris French caught the heaviest five fish (not including lead weights) but actually missed the drama.
According to Tyszko, an ODNR fisheries biologist, not winning was kind of a ho-hum affair not just for him but for many LEWT anglers.
“I was disappointed coming in second probably mostly when I heard it was Cominsky that took the win again because that would have been his fourth in a row,” he said. “The odds of that are astronomically low, so I was pretty disappointed.”
But disappointment quickly turned to vindication.
“I heard the yelling and I heard people start to say they found weights in fish, I didn’t even know what to think,” he said. “I was just blown away. It was so blatant, the amount of weight they weighed those fish in at. You can plainly see in one video our fish are clearly larger than theirs.”
Tyszko said they won the LEWT in 2017, and had some money finishes since then. And he said, he was happy when GLN contacted him about the tournament.
“All the media stories I’ve seen it doesn’t seem like anyone cares who actually won, the only big story is about the cheating,” he said.
Tyszko said he and French, when tournament fishing troll exclusively, always with boards using snap weights and crank baits. Keep it as simple as possible, he said in true tournament angler fashion: light on details. Except that they don’t cheat.
“We use plenty of lead weights,” he said. “It’s just that it goes on the line and not inside the fish. I guess we’ve been doing it wrong the whole time.”
The future of tournaments looks good. And strict.
No doubt Great Lakes fishing tournaments will continue, and with enthusiasm. The Walleye Slam and Fall Brawl are beginning about now. Ice tournaments will come over winter and spring tournaments soon after ice-out.
“Those guys have no clue, but they destroyed their lives,” said Mike Rogers, president of the Sodus Point Bass Club and director of numerous Lake Erie and upstate New York tournaments. “They have no idea what they did. They hurt their wives, their kids, their sponsors.”
Rogers said he doesn’t expect to see Runyan and Cominsky on the water anytime soon.
“What those guys did, they’ll never be able to fish another tournament again. They could go to Alabama where there’s a tournament seven days a week, they’ll never fish again,” he said.
Thomas said he thinks everything was well-played by Fischer.
“There have been events where people have been caught cheating and it was swept under the rug like it never happened,” he said. “In this event they put it out there and let everyone know and didn’t try to bury it. In the long run it’s going to be a lot of positive exposure.”
In an updated Fall Brawl rules memo titled “EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY” Fischer says fish may be scanned for metal and foreign objects and that all fish weighed in may be seized and inspected.
“If something happens, let people know,” Fischer implored. “Guys do a good job of policing themselves but they don’t do a good job of reporting, and then it just turns to gossip.”
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Featured image: In a driving snowstorm on the last day of the 2021 Fall Brawl, Captain Mark Kahlik takes friends onto Lake Erie for a shot at the big prize. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)