The restaurant owner was trying to gather his thoughts when I further explained the premise: There’s a guy in the front of the boat fishing as a pro and a guy in the back fishing as a co-angler, each in their separate tournaments. The five heaviest fish for the day are brought to the scales alive, weighed and released. Each day the pro is paired with a new co-angler.
This much the owner understood, but his interest seemed moderate, at best. When I mentioned the $50,000 1st prize, his eyes perked up.
“What keeps you from cheating?” he asked.
I mentioned that bass tournaments honor a very structured code; that each angler in the boat is required to report any rule violation by the other, and that polygraphs are administered in the event of a protest.
“Ha," he chuckled. “What keeps you from cheating?”
In my part of the word, many recreational boaters and non-anglers are still trying to wrap their heads around this whole bass-tournament thing. While the sport is deeply ingrained in cultures elsewhere, that’s not the case in most areas above the Mason-Dixon Line. To many, tournament bass fishing seems no different than a guys’ golf league; often more focused on the 19th hole than the first 18. Fishing is just something you do in between beers and glances at sunbathing beauties.
Such mentality doesn’t appear to be the norm in Guntersville, Ala., however. There, two anglers were found guilty of cheating in a local bass tournament and are staring into the face of a $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail.
Shame, shame. Everyone knows your name.
Regardless, the fate of these two morons brings up a rarely discussed topic in bass fishing: How safe are we from cheaters?
While most of us think the big leagues of bass are unquestionably secure, we need to remember that such deceptions have occurred at all levels of sport, even in modern times. Baseball has seen corked bats and pitchers doctoring the ball. More than half of the caddies on the PGA Tour say they have witnessed a golfer cheating in a match. Even coaches have been in on it: the NFL fined coach Bill Belichick a half-million dollars for videotaping an opponent's coaching hand signals just a few years ago.
With the recent report of the Alabama “anglers” fiasco and the nonchalant mentality in some locales, coupled with the astronomical prize money offered in many events, should we be concerned?
While I feel it is in some way my duty to address this issue, although I hate to just like anyone else, ask yourself this: What would the average person on the street do for $50,000, $100,000 or $500,000? Evidently quite a bit, as proven by reality television.
I’d like to think that, as competitive bass fishermen, we are above such mentality. But I remember a recent tournament that included an attempted cheating scandal. And while the tournament trail took a small amount of discipline, overall the dispute was quickly hushed and whisked out of the media.
The purpose, of course, was to lessen the negative attention given to professional bass fishing as a whole, which was incredibly vital. More so than the event in question, our entire sport was in danger.
I’m often questioned about such occurrences, and give my opinion freely. But I think, given the same circumstances today, the outcome would have been different, and not unlike the justice being administered in today’s Guntersville case.
Any cheating, or even attempts at cheating, must be absolved with a strong hand.
There’s something about growing up an outdoorsman, as most of us have. It seems to connect with a core group of values that prohibit even the thought of disgracing our sport with such sin. When pondering the earlier question presented by the restaurant owner, I must admit that I felt our sport was somehow “above” all others, and incapable of such tarnish.
The news report on the anglers in court, however, brought me back to reality. Out there today, and every day, are dishonest people trying to get the upper hand. To them, it’s all about immediate gratification and money, not hard work and pride.
We must safeguard to prevent any form of cheating, even the most remote. Also, we must continue to push the tournament trails to constantly reform their rules and include fine-tooth-comb measures that strictly outline potentially questionable practices like strolling and multi-lure setups. But, most importantly, we all need to continue to play both competitor and referee.
There’s vastly more at stake than many of us realize. Being so enveloped in pro bass fishing often leads us to forget that the majority of America still does not fully understand it, or believe that it’s even a true sport to begin with. In order to continue to advance, and get corporate America on board, we need to represent bass fishing with the highest level of professionalism, forever dismissing that it’s anything but a sport, dominated by the best professional athletes.
I say throw the book at those cheaters, and always do so in the future. And if I ever see their names on a tournament roster again, you can bet I’ll print it here.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)