SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — When an organizer of several large fishing tournaments in South Dakota heard that two anglers had been accused of putting weights inside fish in an Ohio tournament, he felt sick.

“This incident is so tough,” said Curt Underhill of The Fishing Crew of South Dakota. The business sponsors several tournaments including the South Dakota Governor’s Cup and the Pikemaster and Cedar Shore Walleye Classic. The events draw hundreds of two and four person teams.

Underhill said the incident has given the sport a “black eye.”

Competitive angler Austin Early of South Dakota agreed but said the sport will recover.

“This incident is unfortunate for all of the fishing industry,” Early said.

Yet, “Most (anglers) are trustworthy,” Early said.

Fishing Crew tournament on May 15. Fishing Crew photo

Early has been fishing competitively for about 28 years, mostly in South Dakota. He can’t recall an incident as severe as the one apparently done in the Ohio tournament.

“When you bring in the caliber of what they (are accused of ) in Ohio. That’s the next level,” Underhill said. He’s been working with tournaments since 2008.

“We never…caught weights in fish,” Underhill said.

Alleged cheating puzzles anglers

“I was flabbergasted,” Scott Lewis said when he saw the video of the event organizer cutting the fish open to find weights and fillets in the Ohio tournament. Lewis is the organizer of the spring and fall Lake Francis Case Walleye Tournaments.

His question is the same as it is for Early and Underhill: How did they do it?

“I’d like to know myself, not to do it but (to understand),” Lewis said.

The weights that were found were not small weights, Early said. That would have made it more difficult to get them inside a fish, he said.

All three anglers said the size of the weights and the fillets, to them, indicate that the accused anglers may have experience.

“It’s hard to believe they haven’t been at this for awhile,” Early said.

Money can be a factor

Underhill said tournaments, even smaller ones, can pay out thousands of dollars.

He’s paid out at least $200,000 in cash this season and that does not include prizes. The Governor’s Cup paid out about $113,000 in cash this season, Underhill said.

The anglers accused of cheating in Ohio were competing for thousands of dollars. Anglers can also win prizes as expensive as boats.

Money and prizes, “will bring out a couple of rotten apples,” Early said.

“Greed does things to people,” Lewis said. While he said his fall tournament paid out much less than a big tournament, at $4,200 for first place it’s still “fair money.”

Underhill said for perspective, the public needs to consider that families have had severe disagreements over $4,000, so that can be a lot of money.

How do tournaments prevent cheating in South Dakota?

While the three anglers said competitors and the sport are relatively free of cheating, they also know it can happen.

 “When you writing checks like we are, we gotta be on our toes,” Underhill said.

Tournaments have rules but the state also has rules or laws that tournaments follow, he said.

There is a no-culling rule for walleye in South Dakota. A two-person team for example can keep a total of two fish over 20 inches per day.

It’s different from a bass tournament where anglers can switch the fish throughout the day.

If an angler catches a walleye of 22 inches and another at 24 inches and keeps those fish, they can’t keep another, even if it’s larger than 20 inches.

“It happens all the time,” Underhill said of anglers catching a larger walleye after keeping the maximum of two. It’s part of the competition, he said.

Underhill uses numbered tags that must be placed in the fish’s mouth to track those caught and entered in the tournament. The teams get seven tags per day and all seven must be returned. That helps prevent anglers from discarding one fish for another once the fish has been tagged, he said.

Underhill also does spot checks on competitors’ boats. An official will check the live wells, coolers and other areas on the boat to make sure there is no inappropriate behavior.

Media has reported that the Ohio tournament organizer felt hard objects when he was inspecting the fish.

Multiple hands feel the fish caught in his tournaments, Underhill said. Every single fish is measured so that the fish are handled, he said. “We run our fingers down the belly,” he said.

Lewis said he mainly relies on the honesty of competing anglers for his tournament.

The tournament waters stretch for more than 40 miles from one end to the other. “We don’t have near the manpower (to cover that),” Lewis said.

Still, he’s had people who do check angler’s boats including one year where a boat check discovered fish without tags, he said. Those tagless anglers have not been allowed back in his tournaments, Lewis said.

(Getty Images)

Early said tournaments may also use the protest process where an angler can file a protest but must pay a certain amount to do so. The fee requirement keeps anglers who are jealous of each other from filing unjustified protests, he said.

When an angler files a protest they should be confident in the wrongdoing, Early said. If they are wrong they lose the fee.

The GFP can be contacted for violations or suspected violations.

Underhill said he’s contacted Game Fish and Parks once because he thought a fish’s tail may have been altered. GFP determined the fish was not altered.

He has also contacted GFP when anglers are over fishing limits. If he measures fish over the 20-inch limit, he has contacted the GFP. The GFP will determine if a ticket is justified, Underhill said.

Underhill said when an angler has too many fish over 20 inches, generally, it’s a mistake because they may have measured it at less than 20 inches. Yet, he doesn’t allow any gray areas because it keeps the tournaments honest.

What can happen after the incident in Ohio?

Underhill said the entire industry is talking about the Ohio incident.

It will likely lead to some new rules or laws in the tournament industry, Underhill said.

Early said he expects new rules and new ways to patrol tournaments.

One question Underhill said should be answered is what the impact is of paying the money out and then, discovering evidence of cheating. If an accused angler receives the tournament winnings and then is accused of cheating after apparent evidence is discovered, is that grand larceny or what applies, Underhill said.