Months of suspicion erupted into full-throated fury at a professional fishing tournament in Ohio, where two anglers were allegedly caught with egg-shaped weights in their catch — an edge of more than 7 pounds that would have ensured a lucrative championship.
"We got weights in fish!" declared Jason Fischer, director of the Lake Erie Walleye Trail fishing tournament, in a video posted to social media.
Fischer had just cut open one of five fish submitted by Jake Runyan and Chase Cominsky, who had defied poor conditions to dominate the tournament that launched out of Cleveland's Gordon Park. For a moment, it seemed their winning catch had also secured team-of-the-year honors.
But in a dramatic turn of events that was captured in multiple videos, Runyan went from grinning at news of his victory to staring stone-faced at evidence of apparent cheating. It played out in front of a chorus of fishermen whose grumbles of doubt and frustration transformed into shouts of outrage and profanity.
"Disgusted guys and gals, I'm sorry for letting you down for so long and I'm glad I caught cheating taking place," Fischer told his Facebook community.
It's not the first controversy for Runyan and Cominsky, who were disqualified from a big tournament last year after one of the anglers failed a polygraph test.
For a moment, the team had won it all
To win the walleye contest, anglers must bring in the heaviest catch of five fish, with a "side pot" for biggest single fish. The competition is fierce: At least 70 two-person teams paid $400 each to enter this year's tournament.
But bad weather limited the tourney to one day, and many entrants struggled to catch any fish, let alone a basket of lunkers that might bring them a large cash prize.
Runyan and Cominsky's biggest walleye came in at 7.9 pounds — a shocking result, given that Fischer had already peeked at their haul and deemed the fish to be "five-pound cookie cutters," or standard 4 to 5 pound Lake Erie fish, as he told the Bigwater Fishing podcast.
"No way, no way," Fischer recalled thinking of the nearly 8-pound entry.
Then came the full-catch weigh-in, with Runyan and Cominsky needing to top 28.18 pounds to take first place. An electronic scale measured their catch at 33.91 pounds, and the tournament director wasn't the only one with doubts. As a large display blared the team's numbers, a voice from the crowd was heard saying, "Yeah, right."
The winning fish go under the knife
Fischer dutifully announced Runyan and Cominsky as the winners, to faint applause. But he also asked them to stick around to take photos with the fish. Then he asked to inspect the fish — which the team initially balked at, he said. They asked if he was serious. He was.
"I just wanted to feel the fish. I squeeze the fish, I squeeze the belly," Fischer said. "And I immediately felt things in the belly of this fish, hard objects."
He then asked for a knife to open the fish up — and he did so after handing his phone to a friend, to capture video of what came next: the prize catch contained lead weights, along with several portions of fish fillets. The weights alone totaled 7.58 pounds, according to a photo on the tournament's Facebook feed.
"I got a little animated and just basically raw emotion came out," Fischer said of the pandemonium that ensued, adding, "At that moment, it turned from a fishing tournament to a mob scene."
The accused fishermen did not immediately respond to the accusation in the videos of the incident and have not publicly commented.
As people unloaded invectives at Runyan and Cominsky, Fischer told the other anglers not to harm or touch them. Photos taken later at the scene show the two fishermen sitting in the parking lot as two police officers stood over them — but at that point, Fischer said, "basically the police officers were just trying to keep them safe."
Some people yelled for a police investigation into fraud; Fischer said he's given statements to the authorities.
The Cleveland Metroparks Police told NPR on Monday, "This incident has been turned over to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for investigation, since the alleged violations of law would have taken place within their jurisdiction."
Fishing tournaments have big prizes and polygraphs
Fishing tournaments like the walleye competition draw dozens of teams and prominent sponsors. The level of branding isn't quite at NASCAR levels, but it's not far off, either: officials and top anglers routinely wear jackets and hats emblazoned with multiple sponsors' names. Along with cash, top prizes can include exorbitantly expensive fishing boats.
Runyan, who's from Cleveland, and Cominsky, who's from Hermitage, Pa., were coming off a 2021 season in which Runyan once said their winnings totaled more than $300,000. But the pair also saw some of their winnings stripped away by a high-profile disqualification, after one of them failed a tournament's polygraph test.
Lie-detector tests have become commonplace for winners at fishing tournaments with large payouts, and the ones at Lake Erie are no exception. But last December, Runyan insisted he and his partner had done nothing wrong, stating, "Our reputation means the world to us and we would never cheat."
With the pair's results in the Cleveland contest now thrown out, Steve Tyszko and Chris French were declared winners, the tournament announced. Team of the year honors instead went to Steve Hendricks and Brian Ulmer.