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Winners of bass fishing tournaments are often subjected to polygraph tests meant to prevent cheating in a sport that now offers thousands of dollars in cash prizes.
BL: First, briefly tell us how bass fishing tournaments work.
The judges called the local aquarium. They checked and, sure enough, they were missing a big 'ol bass.David Hill, Grantland
DH: Well, the typical bass tournament is pretty simple. Guys go out on their boats at a certain time. They fish all day. They come back at the end of the day and they weigh the fish that they caught. And whoever caught the biggest load of fish wins the prize.
BL: What are the most common ways that people find to cheat?
DH: Basically keeping a basket of bass hidden somewhere on a lake in advance of the tournament. People will use like a pet taxi or something like that and they'll fill it up with what they call lunkers — you know, big fish that they've caught — and they keep 'em stored in these things, like under a dock or something. And then on the day of the tournament they'll go out there and take 'em out of the basket and put 'em in their boat like they caught 'em.
BL: I understand that some people have hatched more complicated plans, 'cause that one sounds simple. Could you tell us the story of one competition from the past year in the U.K. that involved a 13-pound bass?
[sidebar title="'Carp Madness' Invades Western Kentucky" width="630" align="right"] Last March commercial fishermen competed to see who could remove the most invasive Asian carp from local lakes.[/sidebar]DH: It was a small event. I think the first prize was something like $1,500. But the guy won it with this enormous bass. And the guy who came in second, just totally by chance, recognized the fish because he had been to the local aquarium with his daughter earlier that week, and his daughter had made a comment about some of the markings under the fish's eye.
And he noticed those markings on this fish. So he told the judges. The judges called the local aquarium. They checked and, sure enough, they were missing a big 'ol bass. It turned out that the guy who had entered that fish in the tournament was a former employee of the aquarium and he had gone back and snatched it.
BL: How much money are we talking about in the big tournaments here, that people find it worthwhile to cheat?
DH: These days it gets pretty big. I mean, the Bassmaster Classic is kind of the Super Bowl of bass fishing tournaments and first prize in that tournament is $300,000.
BL: You write that cheating in the sport dates back to before the origin of modern bass fishing tournaments. What were those first “fishing derbies” like?
DH: You know, they were sort of local affairs. The first prize would sometimes be a shotgun or a fishing pole or something like that. And people would pay $2 to $5 to enter. And cheating was pretty rampant in those events, especially when there was a cash prize. But even when the prize was just a shotgun, people still cheated just for the bragging rights of winning the event.
BL: In 1967 Alabama insurance salesman Ray Scott tried to change the perception of the sport. How did he do that?
[sidebar title="The Fly Fishing Rabbi" width="630" align="right"]The spiritual leader of a Connecticut temple uses the sport of catching trout with feathery lures as a spiritual activity.[/sidebar]DH: Well, he organized what people consider the first modern fishing tournament. And he invited fishermen from all over the country to come and pay $100 to enter what he thought would be the most prestigious bass tournament ever.
You know, at the time, what he was really up against — he was competing with trout fishing, which was considered sort of the more-esteemed outdoor sport. He was trying to bring some respectability to a sport that I think had been sort of maligned. And he succeeded.
BL: The sport, you write, gained popularity in the '70s and '80s. And it was during that time that cheating seems to have become more organized. Tell us about Elro McNeil and his plan.
DH: Well, Elro McNeil was sort of a ring leader of a big, cheating syndicate. They took down hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lot of major events during the sort of boom in bass fishing tournaments. And their scheme was that they would haul really big black bass from Florida, from South Florida, in these trucks with aerated water tanks in them. They'd haul 'em across the country and then they would give them to fishermen who were entering those events to, you know, pass off as their catches — and then they'd split the money with them.
Part of the problem was that the judges eventually were able to identify through the genetics of these fish that they weren't from the local area. And the four sort of ring leaders of the ring, including Elro McNeil, all got sentenced to five years in prison.
BL: What's the situation like today? Are the polygraph tests working? Is the landscape free of cheating these days?
Not only do they sometimes have their fishing license taken away from them, the community shuns them. So it's a bigger risk than just, sometimes, the crime that they're committing.David Hill, Grantland
There are stories that come out pretty regularly about people being caught trying to cheat. But I don't think it's something people worry about. Fishing is a tight-knit community. The choice that a lot of people have to make at those events when they're deciding to cheat is, do I like to fish more than I like $500? Because if you get caught cheating, even in a small event, you're not going to fish anymore. And that's what we've seen happen to people who've been caught in events is that not only do they sometimes have their fishing license taken away from them, the community shuns them. So it's a bigger risk than just, sometimes, the crime that they're committing.
This segment aired on December 6, 2014.
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