Lead weights and lie detectors: The scandal that rocked a Cleveland fishing tournament and became worldwide news
The walleye that swim in the cold, murky depths of Lake Erie are the waters’ apex predator, sleek torpedoes of teeth that dine on shad, minnow and any other fish smaller than themselves. They do not, as far as marine science has determined, dine on lead pellets the size of golf balls or precisely-trimmed fillets of other walleye. So when Jason Fischer, director of the Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament series, pulled handfuls of lead sinkers and fillets from the bellies of some prize-winning fish, he knew he had a hell of a problem in his hands.
There’s nibble-around-the-edges, cut-the-corners cheating, like going five miles an hour over the speed limit or faking sick to get out of work. This is a story about the other kind: whole-hog, all-in cheating where plausible deniability doesn’t exist. It begins in Cleveland’s Gordon Park, on the shores of Lake Erie, where the Lake Erie Walleye Trail was wrapping up its championship event on Saturday.
[UPDATE: Fishermen accused of cheating indicted on felony charges]
Fischer — yes, that’s his real surname — was looking forward to the end of a long tournament season, working his way through the catches of the 30 elite two-angler teams. He weighed the fish of angler after angler, picking up their fish and setting them on a scale. Late in the proceedings, the anglers of boat No. 12, Chase Cominsky and Jake Runyan, brought their five-fish catch up for weighing. They needed to beat 16.89 total pounds to claim Team of the Year honors and $30,000 in various prizes.
Their catch’s weight: 33.91 pounds.
The silence that greeted Fischer’s announcement was the first sign that something was very much amiss. No applause, no cheers, just silence. And then the muttering started.
“Damn,” one man said in disbelief, “thirty-three?”
“Your fish are so much bigger than his!” another said, apparently trying to reconcile what he saw with what the scale read.
A third simply declared, “No f***ing way.”
As Runyan and Cominsky posed with their fish, Fischer decided to take a closer look. He’d spent his life around walleye, and he knew that the five fish he was looking at should weigh somewhere around 15 to 20 pounds, certainly not more than 30. The crowd milled about, uncertain what to do next. “We’re going to do a little tallying up,” Fischer said to the crowd.
Then he knelt beside one of the fish, took out a fillet knife, and slit open the belly of the fish. He reached his finger in and withdrew a chunk of lead with a dramatic flourish.
“We’ve got weights in fish!” he shouted.
And then all hell broke loose.
The Lake Erie Walleye Trail runs from March to October, a seven-event series where up to 80 two-angler teams compete for tens of thousands of dollars in prizes. Though there are many rules, the goal is simple: catch the biggest fish in Lake Erie.
Dig a little deeper into the LEWT rules, though, and you can start to see the outline of a pervasive threat to tournament fishing: cheating. There’s a reason “fish story” is a synonym for lying — it’s easy enough to add a few pounds to the tale of that big ‘un you landed with your granddaddy back when you were a kid. Those are harmless tales, but when money’s involved, things get more serious.
So serious, in fact, that there’s a mandatory polygraph test for all winners, along with random polygraph tests for other competitors. Tests are administered by a retired police officer and cover the angler’s knowledge of both the tournament rules and the day’s catch. Failing, or even refusing, a polygraph test is grounds for disqualification, as is the use of a cell phone or any other potential assistance to seek out more target-rich waters.
The challenge for organizers, and for anglers who want to stay above-board, is that there are as many ways to cheat at fishing as there are fish in the sea. Anglers can catch fish ahead of time, stash them in a secret location or leave them with an accomplice, and retrieve them during the tournament. Or they can pack the fish full of ice to add weight; the incriminating evidence theoretically melts before it can be detected. Or they can simply stuff the fish full of lead weights and hope nobody notices.
The many varieties of cheating lead to so many whispers throughout the angler community that tournament organizers have to keep a rein on the avenues of complaint. Protesting another angler’s catch costs $500, money that’s returned only if the protest turns out to be upheld. LEWT tournament rules also note, in bold type, that NO POLYGRAPH WILL BE GIVEN ON HEARSAY OR GOSSIP.
The problem facing Fischer was that Runyan and Cominsky had been the source of significant “hearsay and gossip” for several months, ever since they started going on a winning streak that defied all angling logic.
“Outside of Tiger Woods, the best golfer in the world isn’t going to win four or five tournaments in a row, and it’s even more of a long shot in fishing,” says Matt Markey, the columnist for the Toledo Blade who’s been following the duo’s exploits for months. “There are wild variables with the wind and weather and attitude and demeanor of the fish. You’ve got to be a little bit lucky to be in the right place at the right time when the fish are in the right mood. These guys were just winning too much.”
There were other red flags, too. After most tournaments, a company will clean the fish free of charge and donate the entire catch, 400 to 500 pounds’ worth, to local food banks. But when Runyan and Cominsky won their tournaments, they refused to add their fish to the food bank haul — a strange decision for anglers who were staying far from home and would have no trouble catching fish on their own time. The implication is that they knew their fish were already dead, caught before the tournament and stashed until needed, and thus spoiled and unfit for donation.
Markey estimates that Runyan and Cominsky had taken in somewhere around $400,000 in winnings and endorsements coming into this past weekend. Among their victories, Runyan and Cominsky won both of the two most lucrative events of the 2021 fall season, the Fall Brawl and the Walleye Slam. Last year’s 11th annual Fall Brawl drew 10,574 anglers, while the Walleye Slam had 7,355 entries in its debut.
First prize for the Walleye Slam was a Warrior fishing boat valued at $151,670, which the two apparently sold and split the proceeds. But they were disqualified from the Fall Brawl, and lost out on its prize of a $125,000 Ranger boat, when one of the two — Fall Brawl organizers wouldn’t disclose which — failed their polygraph test. Runyan was in the middle of litigation against the Fall Brawl, attempting to win back both his money and his reputation when this latest scandal broke.
“It wasn’t just the loss of a very expensive boat we had rightfully won,” Runyan told Cleveland.com in December. “It was having our names drug through the mud, and smeared on social media and among walleye fishermen around the area.”
Fischer has since purchased the Fall Brawl; an inquiry to the organizers of the Walleye Slam was not returned.
“The tournaments just want this all to go away,” Markey says. “The fall tournaments start on October 15, and they’ll have about $800,000 in prizes and cash. It’s a big frickin’ mess.”
Fischer had heard the whispers. He knew what fellow anglers were saying about Runyan and Cominsky. He also knew that neither one had given him any trouble in his tournaments. He considered both to be acquaintances, if not necessarily close friends. When the two won a September LEWT tournament with a cameraman in the boat, there to film as part of a season-long retrospective, Fischer felt a sense of overwhelming relief.
“I congratulated them, I told them, ‘You guys cleared your name,’” Fischer told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “I thought they were in the clear.”
Even so, as the final anglers were unloading their catches at the championship on Saturday, Fischer was running numbers in his head. He knew that Runyan and Cominsky only needed to get into the top 11 of that tournament to win the lucrative Team of the Year honors. That was the 16-pound mark that Runyan and Cominsky had to surpass.
Fischer looked over the duo’s five-fish catch. He knew the general weight of a walleye on sight, and he could tell that they’d caught five fish in what should have been a 3- to 4-pound range. He weighed the catch’s biggest fish first — the “fat fish” — and realized instantly that something wasn’t right.
“It weighed 7.9 pounds,” he recalls. “I thought, there’s no way. I had a pit in my stomach.”
He still had a job to do, though, and part of that job always involves a little showmanship. He already knew the truth, but he had to play to the crowd. He figured that the full catch would come in somewhere in the mid-20s, but when it weighed nearly 34 pounds, he had no doubt at all.
He guided Runyan and Cominsky before cameras while he decided on his next action. He decided to take a closer look at the fish, and as he lifted one, he manipulated its stomach and felt hard objects within. He called for a knife, plunged it into the fish, and a 12-ounce chunk of lead — an egg sinker — dropped into his hand.
As soon as Fischer pulled that first weight from the first fish, he stood and bellowed at Runyan, then made a motion like an umpire ejecting a mouthy manager. But Runyan simply stood silently in front of him; Cominsky had already left the scene.
The crowd surged forward, a cascade of every possible variant of the f-word filling the air. Fischer understood that this could get out of control quickly, so he settled himself down and looked at Runyan.
“Jake, I want you to leave,” Fischer said calmly. “I don’t want anybody to touch these guys.”
As Runyan stood silently and watched, Fischer cut into the rest of the fish, pulling weight after weight and fillet after fillet — apparently used to keep the sinkers from clacking into one another — from their insides.
“How many f*****g tournaments have you done this, motherf****r?” shouted one man.
“Don’t we need to file a police report?” asked a law-and-order-minded observer.
On and on, the insults and jabs rolled:
“Where’s your crown now?”
“You were the champ, dude!”
“We all f****ng knew it.”
“You f****d over a lot of people, man.”
“They’ve been doing this s**t for years!”
“These guys are no joke,” Fischer says of the assembled anglers. “[Runyan and Cominsky] didn’t steal money from me, they were trying to steal money from those guys.”
“Every one of those guys is a serious tournament fisherman. They’ve spent a minimum of $100,000 on a boat, the motor, the trailer, electronics, entry fees, travel, time away from family,” Markey says. “If the cops hadn’t been there, there would have been scraps of those guys next to the scraps of the fish.”
The scene at Gordon Park eventually calmed, but the scandal was just beginning. Video of Fischer discovering the weights went viral on Saturday afternoon, edging out every single college football highlight of the day. Across Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, untold hundreds of thousands viewed and commented on Fischer’s enraged “We’ve got weights in fish!”
It was a scene both hilarious — did they really think they would get away with it? — and satisfying. After all, who hasn’t wanted to see cheaters brought to justice in real time? At a time where no one in the public eye ever seems to be held to account or made to answer for their crimes, the scene of cheaters getting caught in the act, with absolutely no excuse whatsoever, hit home for a whole lot of people … even if the locals aren’t finding it all quite so funny.
“It’s heartbreaking, it’s sickening,” Fischer says. “It’s a real stain on the sport.”
“It’s a shame that the biggest walleye story ever is about cheating,” Markey says, “not about the amazing fishing on Lake Erie.”
Since becoming social media stars, Runyan and Cominsky have gone silent. An Instagram page appearing to belong to Runyan is now private despite having more than 46,000 followers. The pair’s Facebook pages have apparently been deleted. An inquiry to an email address associated with Runyan was not returned.
Even so, an investigation into the scandal is well underway. Fischer indicated that the Division of Wildlife, part of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, is in possession of the evidence tournament officials preserved from the incident. Local prosecutors will be investigating the scandal as well.
“My staff will be meeting with officers from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources [Tuesday] regarding this matter,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael C. O’Malley said in a statement provided to Yahoo Sports. “I take all crime seriously, including attempted felony theft at a fishing tournament. These individuals will be held accountable.”
“My best hope is that they’ll be criminally charged with felony fraud, and to avoid jail time they’ll fess up to past cheating,” Markey says. “Hopefully some of that money is still around to try to make things right.”
As for the sport, Fischer expects that it will overcome the shadow of this scandal — with more rules, perhaps, but preserving the sense of Americana that makes it special to him and so many others.
“These [anglers] do so much for people,” Fischer says, “whether it’s charities for young people with cancer, families struggling, donating to food shelters … This is a big deal on the shoreline of Lake Erie. These guys do so much good. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of these guys are the best of the best.”
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.