Jason Fischer knew the two fishermen needed their catch to weigh in at about 16 pounds to secure the team-of-the-year award at a competition in Cleveland on Friday. Eyeballing their entry, the tournament director figured they were about to easily clear that mark with five fish he estimated would come in at about 20 pounds.
When the scale nearly hit 34 pounds, he grew suspicious.
“It just kind of deflated me, because I just knew it wasn’t right,” Fischer, the director and owner of the Lake Erie Walleye Trail fishing tournament, told The Washington Post.
Fischer grabbed one of the fish, ran his hand over its stomach and squeezed. He felt something hard — too hard.
Fischer sliced open the dead walleye and plunged his hand into its flesh. He rooted around until he found what he hoped he wouldn’t find.
“We got weights in fish!” he yelled, holding one of 10 steel-gray, egg-sized weights that would be pulled from the entry.
Then, Fischer disqualified the two-man team that had submitted the entry.
“Get out of here!” he yelled, inserting a curse word as a mob of competitors swarmed, heckled and harangued one of them.
Jacob Runyan and Chase Cominsky would have won Friday’s event, snagging nearly $30,000 in various prizes, if they hadn’t been disqualified. Having won several of the tournament’s other competitions over the past few months, they also would have bagged the Lake Erie Walleye Trail’s overall prize, which Fischer described as “an MVP award.” Instead, their disqualification brought their previous wins into question, sparked an investigation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and shined a light on the underbelly of competitive angling, in which tens of thousands of dollars can be at stake even at the amateur level.
Runyan and Cominsky did not respond to requests for comment from The Post.
Tournament organizers contacted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources on Friday, Stephanie O’Grady, a spokeswoman there, said in an email to The Post. Wildlife officers went to the event site, where they collected evidence, and are now working on a report for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office.
“As this is an open investigation, we have no further comment at this time,” O’Grady added.
Chase Parsons, who’s been a professional walleye fisherman for 20 years and stars in the national TV show “The Next Bite,” called the cheating scandal “sickening” and “pathetic.” His group text of people in the industry blew up when news of the scandal broke. Parsons said he and other elite anglers are worried people will assume this kind of cheating is rampant.
“It is absolutely not,” he told The Post, adding that he can count on “very few fingers” the times this kind of cheating has happened. “I don’t think 99.9 percent of anglers would ever dream of trying to do something like this.”
And they couldn’t in a lot of cases, Parsons said. For example, he competes in pro-am tournaments in which he’s randomly paired with an amateur he’s never met, which means they don’t share the years of trust needed to engage in a cheating conspiracy. “You could never get away with even trying to think about something like that.”
The Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament has been going on for more than 20 years, Fischer said. He started running the competition about four years ago and purchased the tournament from its previous owners in 2020.
The tournament consists of multiple competitions spanning several months, all dotted along the shores of Lake Erie, and Runyan and Cominsky had been lighting it up this year, Fischer said. They won an event in Lorain in June, Ashtabula in July and Geneva in September, Fischer said, and were poised to cap off the tournament by winning the vaunted team-of-the-year award with a good showing at the marquee event in Cleveland.
“A lot of things come to a head here,” Fischer said.
If they had won Friday’s competition, Runyan and Cominsky would have bagged about $28,750 in various prizes. Fischer said he’s not sure what will happen to the tens of thousands of dollars that Runyan and Cominsky have already been awarded this year.
The competition in Cleveland was supposed to last two days but was cut down to just Friday because of bad weather. Fishermen in roughly 65 two-man teams started the day in a specific location on Lake Erie and had eight hours to catch the biggest set of five fish.
That was going to be Runyan and Cominsky, until Fischer pulled 10 weights totaling seven pounds out of their entry, the tournament director said. Plus, Fischer added, he found filets from other fish that had been stuffed down the walleyes’ throats to beef them up. Unlike weights, filets escape the notice of metal detectors.
“It was just simply walleye filets inside of a walleye,” he said.
After Fischer announced he had found weights inside Runyan and Cominsky’s fish, the reaction from their rivals was immediate. Their fellow fishermen swarmed Runyan, while someone asked where Cominsky had gone. Surrounding Runyan, they screamed and swore at him. Fischer said that, after his initial outburst, he found himself worrying about things getting violent.
“I had to stop myself for a second and say, ‘Hey, please, nobody touch these dudes,’ ” he said, adding that the crowd was “wild.”
And Fischer said he understands their rage. They’re part of each other’s lives, a community. They attend each other’s weddings, spend time with each other’s families and help one another when things get bad. When one competitor got cancer recently, several of his buddies raised money for his treatment.
“It’s more of a family,” Fischer said.