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Originally published Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Smell of fraud grows stronger in fishing tournaments

Those who run, monitor and compete in the nation's fishing tournaments said that cheating scandals have tarnished the wholesome image of fishing and ruined the final rankings in many competitions, as people who were handed trophies, cash and other prizes were later found to have cheated.

The New York Times

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SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — Late on a Saturday afternoon this summer, dozens of boats — Reel Madness, Miss Directed, Knot at Work — were rushing toward land as part of an annual women's fishing tournament here. The trouble started when state game wardens noticed the catch aboard the Nice Tails boat was not so nice.

One game warden who watched the Nice Tails team transfer its fish from the boat to a blue cooler at a ramp had a problem with two large spotted sea trout. The red discoloration on their tails, bellies and rear fins indicated they were not caught during the weekend tournament but days earlier and kept alive. Such a move would be the equivalent of sneaking into a marathon at the final mile to cross the finish line first.

The investigation moved, like the patient sport itself, unswiftly.

Tips came in, including one that the father of the Nice Tails captain and another man were seen receiving an illicit flounder. Witnesses were interviewed, and at least one informer — the man who supplied the flounder — came forward.

After a weeklong investigation and the filing of a probable-cause affidavit, the arrests began: The four female team members, along with the boat's captain and two other men, were arrested, arraigned and released after posting bail.

They were charged with a third-degree felony — fraud in a fishing tournament — for their actions at the Ladies Kingfish Tournament in August.

Texas is the only state with a tournament-fishing fraud law, but perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the charge was how ordinary such problems have become across the country.

With numerous fishing tournaments offering $100,000 to $500,000 in cash and prizes, allegations of cheating have become routine in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and other states. Contestants — both professionals and amateurs — might catch fish long before tournaments begin or inject them with water or stuff them with heavy objects to boost their weight.

Those who run, monitor and compete in tournaments said cheating scandals have tarnished the wholesome image of fishing and ruined the final rankings in many competitions, as people who were handed trophies, cash and other prizes were later found to have cheated.

Tournament organizers and fish-and-wildlife officials have been quietly cracking down on tournament fraud for decades, administering polygraph tests to winners or to those submitting suspect fish, and conducting surveillance on suspected cheaters.

The law against fishing-tournament fraud has been on the books in Texas since 1985, but it was expanded last year to make altering the length or weight of a fish a violation and to include tournaments for saltwater fish, which are some of the biggest in the state.

Violations at small tournaments are Class A misdemeanors, but offenses committed at tournaments with prizes worth $10,000 or more are third-degree felonies, punishable by up to 10 years in state prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.

"We're more conscientious in looking for this now than we were five or six years ago," said Kurt Kelley, a game warden with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He patrols rural Wood County east of Dallas and has investigated about 30 tournament-fraud cases in his nearly 13 years with the agency, including one that spanned nearly two years involving a contestant who submitted a dead fish.

"To me, it's the same thing as somebody going in and robbing a bank, or going into Wal-Mart and shoplifting," Kelley added. "They're trying to cut the corners so they can win. It's fraud. It gives tournament fishermen a black eye."

In Nevada in 2010, a successful professional bass fisherman, Mike Hart, was caught hiding torpedo-shaped lead sinkers inside the fish he turned in at a national tournament on Lake Mead. He eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, and he was fined $1,000.

In Florida, wildlife agents staked out a bass tournament in a small town near Gainesville in 2010 and had one fisherman under surveillance for five hours. Though he seemed to be having bad luck on the water that day, by the end of the tournament he had turned in an 8-pound bass and a 9-pound bass, though investigators did not see him catch either one.

The fisherman, Cedric Jerome Perry, was later arrested, after confessing he caught fish in other lakes and brought them to the tournament weigh-ins, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Perry was sentenced to three years' supervised probation and fined $1,500.

On South Padre Island, a popular vacation spot, near Brownsville less than an hour's drive from the Mexican border, fishing dominates the talk and the tone of the town, and nearly everyone, from the justice of the peace who presided over the Nice Tails arraignments to the two sisters who co-own BadaBing Bagels on Padre Boulevard, knows how to handle a rod and reel.

The Nice Tails arrests shocked and angered some locals, but others said they were not surprised, because for years there had been suspicions of tournament fraud.

"There's about three or four groups down here that are very suspicious," said Johnny Watts, 35, a longtime fishing guide who was the captain of a boat in the Ladies Kingfish Tournament. "You're not going to win every one. You may place at every one, but you're not going to win every one outright."

Game wardens said Jose Manuel Cavazos, 32, the Nice Tails captain, had been suspected of cheating in previous area tournaments.

Cavazos' team was disqualified from that tournament in August 2010 after a large amount of water was found inside the stomach cavity of a redfish the team submitted. After the fish was cut open at the weigh-in and the water poured out, its weight dropped by about a half-pound.

"There's no biological reason why there should be water inside that stomach cavity, unless it was placed there," said Sgt. James Dunks, a game warden who assisted in the Nice Tails investigation and who observed that weigh-in.

Cavazos, who has previously denied accusations of cheating, hired one of the most powerful lawyers in Brownsville and filed a lawsuit in 2011 against two tournament sponsors. The lawsuit is still pending, and it claims that postings on the Internet by the tournament organizers that suggested Cavazos cheated were defamatory and inflicted emotional distress on him and his wife.

Neither Cavazos nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment.

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