By Todd Ceisner
Zell Rowland fished his first B.A.S.S. event in 1970 when he was just 13 years old. In the 42 years since, he said he’s never been disqualified from a fishing tournament.
That streak came to an end last week at the Oneida Lake Bassmaster Elite Series. Rowland’s day-2 catch was disqualified after fellow Elite Series angler Bill Lowen reported seeing Rowland fishing in an area that was deemed private property, thus making it off limits to anglers.
The ruling from B.A.S.S. late Friday dropped Rowland from 40th place to 87th, denying him his third 50-cut of the season. The DQ didn’t sit well with the Texan, who said he’d never knowingly skirt the rules.
“I’ve never broken a rule in my life. I might’ve lied to my daddy one time, but I’ve never broken a rule when fishing in my life,” he said. “It upset me so bad because I’ve never been disqualified from anything. I would be the first person to tell that I would never even think about breaking a rule against who I consider to be my peers in what I do.”
According to a statement issued by B.A.S.S. in its tournament press release on day 3, it was determined that Rowland violated Elite Series rule C13, which covers “permitted fishing locations.”
The part of the rule that applied was: “Only that water open to ALL public fishing will be considered tournament waters.” Rowland fished a man-made boat basin considered under New York law as “private property.”
The area in question is in Chittenango Creek, which empties into Maple Bay on the south side of the lake, not far from where Boyd Duckett won the tournament.
Rowland already had a limit in the boat on day 2 when he continued idling up the creek. He noticed several small marinas that were clearly marked either with “Posted – No Fishing” signs or a building that indicated it was a marina. He said he didn't fish those spots.
“I went further back in the creek and when I got into the back of it and was fishing down the bank, I came up on a cut through the bank and when I looked back in there was a little bitty boat ramp and there were about six boat docks with about five boats tied up to them,” he said. “I idled back in there and I guess this basin had an oxbow or a bend that went off to the left, but I only wanted to flip the reeds that were on the bank line in the mouth of the creek, or what I thought was a creek.”
He idled into the basin, dropped his trolling motor and began fishing his way out to the main creek channel.
“I hadn’t made but five flips and I ran into Bill Lowen and he told me it was a man-made canal and I couldn’t fish in there,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ve only made about five flips.’ I looked at my marshal and he said he didn’t think it was man-made, but it looked like they had dredged it.”
Zell Rowland was disqualified on day 2 of the Oneida Lake Elite Series for fishing the channel in the middle of the photo labeled "Chittenango Creek" because it was deemed to be a man-made basin.
According to Lowen, “I trolled over to him and said, ‘Zell, you know we can’t be in there. It’s a man-made canal.’"
Sensing the gravity of the situation, Lowen said Rowland immediately slammed his rod down on the deck.
“Bill is like an Army sergeant,” Rowland said. “Bill goes by the book. … There aren’t that many fishermen out here that all go by the book because sometimes we think the book leaves too many questions unanswered.”
“I hated being in that position, but if I don’t report it, then I’d have been DQ’d as well,” Lowen said.
When Rowland got back to the dock at the end of the day, he was summoned to meet with senior tournament manager Chuck Harbin. During the meeting, Rowland tried to explain why he felt the area (shown in the screen grab above taken from Bing Maps) was fishable.
“I told Chuck I found the area on Google Earth and you can see that whoever owns the property dredged the area to make it deeper,” he said. “It was an existing creek at some time and they dredged it out and dammed the back of it because you can see the rest of the creek on the other side of what they dammed up.”
The issue of fishing marinas and “man-made canals” came up the last time the Elites were at Oneida in 2009 because New York law prohibits fishing in marinas. According to Lowen, when the matter was re-visited at this year’s rules meeting, tournament director Trip Weldon told the anglers that if looks as if it could be a man-made canal or basin or if it looked questionable, stay away from it. Still, it appears there is some gray area left up for debate.
Rowland said there was no “Posted” signs in the area he was fishing and believes the water he was fishing was part of the natural creek, but that it had been widened and/or dredged years ago by the landowner. Another indicator for Rowland was when he located the spot with an online mapping tool, he noticed the area was labeled “Chittenango Creek.” That told him it was, in fact, part of the creek and should've been fair game.
“That night, after (Trip) had already disqualified me, I stayed up until 1 in the morning researching and looking and looking to see if it had a name on it and when I pulled it up on Bing Maps, the name of the creek was inside that arm,” he said. “It’s such a fine line and it is a gray area, but if I or any other fisherman were to look at that map and see that it said ‘Chittenango Creek’ they’re going to go fish it.”
Lowen said he and Rowland spoke after the ruling was made and “things are good between us.”
“I have no grudge against Bill Lowen,” said Rowland, who did a photo shoot on day 4 with Lowen and several other pros who had missed the cut. “I have no grudge against Trip or Chuck. They have a job you or I wouldn’t want. They have to be the bad person and the good person and when it’s bad, it’s bad. Trip told me he knew I didn’t go in there intentionally or on purpose.”
Despite the outcome, Rowland was amiable yet firm in his belief that the area he was fishing was not entirely man-made.
“This will be another one of those deals I’ll get to tell people about when I get ready to retire in 20 years,” he said through a chuckle. “If we looked at the rules and said you cannot fish any canal or anything that’s been changed, you couldn’t fish half the shoreline on this lake because everybody puts rip rap out and everybody digs dirt out to build their property back up.
“I love these guys out here and have more respect for them than I do for myself. This is a sport that’s very humbling and it’s just an unfortunate deal. I know it hurt Trip to do what he had to do, but when it’s the last day and they make the cut to 50 guys and you have 100 guys standing out there, how can you make a ruling that quick without looking at all the facts? He had to make it with the only means and in the only time frame he had. He did his job.”