Out of Bounds

Competition Is Not All That

Sadly, it’s hard to get a pro angler to understand fishing ethics when making their next boat payment depends on them not understanding

By Rob Breeding

The closest I’ve been to competitive fishing was the few years I worked as a fly fishing guide. It wasn’t competition, really, but there was money involved. 

Money changes things.

I’m not about to climb on my soapbox and unleash a diatribe against the horror of commercialization in fishing. Money always changes things, but not always for the bad. While rivers in the West are significantly more crowded than a few decades ago, all those guides represent commercial interests that have a stake in the conservation of rivers and streams.

That’s a good thing, one of the best things, actually, about the commercialization of wildlife/outdoor resources. It’s too bad this is what it takes, but nothing perks up the ears of the average western solon than testimony that their business relies on the preservation of something, be it tax breaks or unregulated access to public resources or, in this case, the conservation of trout streams. 

The commercial recreational fly fishing industry — there’s a bunch of words that don’t seem like they should be placed together — means anglers have political influence, influence the legions of wet wading, wicker creeled, cat-gut leader fishing fly anglers in the era before “A River Runs Through It,” never imagined.

We’ve gone full Chamber of Commerce.

Granted, those who covet the West’s rivers for their own are relentless, but their quest to take for themselves what belongs to everyone is made more difficult by the clout that comes with recreational trout fishing becoming one of the chief economic drivers of rural economies.

Trout aren’t much of a thing in the Midwest, but that doesn’t mean fishing isn’t important. Folks in fly-over country happen to prefer walleye, and when you’re considering a fish destined to be dinner, it’s easy to see why. 

Trout can be delicious if you’re careful to cook ’em right. With walleye, you barely have to try.

I suspect walleye fishing plays as big a role in rural midwestern communities as trout do in the Northern Rockies. Maybe bigger. And those walleye anglers join the Chamber of Commerce too, spreading the gospel of conservation as good for business.

But there’s a darker side.

Last month, Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan appeared to wrap up a successful season with a win in the Cleveland round of the Lake Erie Walleye Trail. The pair had racked up wins all summer and seemed certain winners of the team-of-the-year prize with their Cleveland victory. The only problem was their five-fish limit, which weighed in at 34 pounds, appeared smaller than the second-place team’s limit.

The tournament’s organizer detected something “fishy.” He inspected the walleye and felt something hard in their abdomen. He sliced one open and out popped a lead sinker about the size of a chicken egg. He sliced open the rest of the fish and all had been stuffed with lead sinkers.

The duo was disqualified and lucky to make it out of Cleveland alive.

If their scheme hadn’t been discovered, the pair would have split $30,000 for winning the tourney.. That’s a lot of money for a day’s fishing, but the Lake Erie Trail isn’t even considered big-time in professional walleye fishing circles. Their scam — I haven’t yet learned if they will be charged criminally — may have been going on for weeks, or longer. Suspicions were such that tournament organizers had begun administering polygraph exams for anglers to demonstrate they hadn’t cheated.

Have we reached the point where commercial considerations have overtaken ethics in sport fishing? I don’t think so, yet, at least not on western rivers increasingly crowded with guides and sports. But professional fishing competitions test, and maybe exceed the limits. 

Sadly, it’s hard to get a pro angler to understand fishing ethics when making their next boat payment depends on them not understanding.