I didn’t want to write this story. I find it too depressing. But I kind of have no choice because that’s what TikTok is forcing me to do. We live in a world where the number of memes something generates on social media determines its value and newsworthiness. If you took our cell phones and insatiable desire for raw drama and human suffering out of the equation, the walleye tournament cheating scandal involving anglers Jacob Runyan and Chase Cominsky that’s rocking the media (covered world wide by The New York Times, CNN, the CBC, and many more) probably wouldn’t be a blip on your radar. If it were nothing but a written account and there was no viral video component, you’d care very little. I know this because what they did was not new nor original. In fact, stuffing lead weights into the stomachs of fish to make them heavier for a tournament weigh-in is the oldest trick in the book. So old that it’s essentially a joke.
Serious Controversy in Pro fishing tournament as multiple-time winners caught stuffing lead weights and other fish filets in their fish to have the heaviest catch to win hundreds of thousands in prizes. pic.twitter.com/Sxqeo2XC0K— Billy (@Billyhottakes) October 1, 2022
Cheating in fishing tournaments, however, is rampant—something the non-fishing public doesn’t understand. Prior to the present scandal, you had big-bass guru Mike Long, who was exposed for cheating in 2019. In 2020, two bass anglers got nailed trying to weigh in fish caught days before a tournament on Lake Powell. This New York Times story from 2012 covers a similar occurrence in Texas that leads into a broader discussion of tournament fraud in several states. I could post links for days—and that’s a real downer.
What I’m not depressed about, though, is what Runyan and Cominsky did, because this kind of thing happens all the time. I’m depressed because of all the great things in the fishing world that deserve national media attention, and yet our community gets 15 minutes of fame over a Will Smith-Chris Rock moment.
As angry as everyone is with Runyan and Cominsky, are they really any lower or immoral than anyone else who has ever cheated in a tournament, or kept 25 extra fish over the limit, or knowingly poached fish out of season and so on? I don’t think so. But I do think they’ve earned the extra heat for the simple reason that, in this day and age, if you’re going to do bad stuff in public and don’t consider the public’s ability to have it on YouTube before you can blink, you deserve to be a meme. They also deserve to be shamed because they are really dumb cheaters.
As my friend and veteran Lake Erie guide Ross Robertson pointed out in the New York Times article about the incident, they were “sloppy.” Smarter ways to cheat include stuffing fish with ice so the evidence melts away, having friends deliver live fish caught before the tournament, or having secret hidden live-wells built in your boat to keep fish caught prior to the tournament alive for tournament day. Robertson, a former walleye tournament angler himself, told me one of the reasons he stopped fishing competitively years ago was because as the pots grew and prizes like new boats became more common, the impetus for anglers to cheat became so overwhelming that he felt the playing field was just too uneven. To Robertson’s point, one of the saddest aspects of the Runyan-Cominsky debacle is that there were miles of red flags leading up to them being exposed. They should have fallen from grace long ago, and if you want to hear more of the gritty details about Runyan and Cominsky’s shady history from the tournament directors that knew them well, I highly recommend tuning into this episode of Roberstson’s podcast.
Raising Red Flags
I completely understand the fascination with the viral videos circulating from a purely psychological perspective, because we can all put ourselves in Jacob Runyan’s shoes to a degree. At some point we’ve all been caught red-handed doing something we weren’t supposed to do. Here is your wrongdoing being exposed, there is an angry mob that rightfully wants to spill your blood, and there’s no way out of the situation. I have to imagine Runyan’s mind is racing harder than ever to come up with something—but there’s nothing.
Meanwhile, I was told his partner, Chase Cominsky, ran and locked himself in the truck the second he realized those walleyes were getting slit open, forgoing that whole “take one for the team” thing. There are so many levels to the soap opera the angling and non-angling public is seeing online, but I’m much more intrigued by the prequel.
From talking to sources in the Lake Erie walleye scene, I gather that Runyan and Cominsky had been labeled cheaters a long time ago. It’s just that nobody had the evidence until now. When a team comes out of nowhere and suddenly starts consistently winning events as they did, this naturally raises eyebrows. What’s interesting is that they kept to local and club tournaments with smaller cash prizes and fewer participants. If they were that good, why not jump into the national circuit and win the really big bucks? It’s not impossible, however, that they’re just that skilled, so a winning streak might not be enough of a red flag. But how about a routine unwillingness to donate fish to local soup kitchens after a tournament? It’s common for tournament directors to have refrigerated trucks on standby to haul fish away for the needy. As I understand it, the majority of anglers are happy to give their fish over for a good cause, but not Runyan and Cominsky. How about a routine unwillingness to have camera operators on their boat? In my opinion, you couldn’t possibly raise bigger red flags.
Lie and Wait
Then there is the question of how Runyan and Cominsky managed to pass all the lie detector tests that are required to be taken by winners in these events. This, I believe, may become a bigger story later. But the question is, will all the people captivated by the viral videos follow up and read it? Those who fish might, those that don’t likely won’t. All over the internet, people are going on and on about punishment and what Runyan and Cominsky deserve. Unfortunately, myself and several other people I spoke to agree that in the end, the ramifications will likely be minimal and unsatisfying. They may (and should) be banned from competition, they may end up paying some fines, but the odds of them spending any time behind bars—which seems to be what many people want—is highly unlikely, because in the end this probably won’t meet any type of legal standards for a felony.
That doesn’t mean I don’t feel for the organizers and people who work so hard to run a clean event, but when you strip away the gut reactions and look at the deed, people do much worse things on a daily basis. The tragedy here, which Robertson also pointed out in the New York Times, is that the situation has potentially tarnished a tournament scene run by good folks and fished by many honest anglers. On the broader spectrum, it also runs the risk of giving the impression to the non-angling public that all tournament anglers are cheaters. Runyan and Cominsky’s actions make the entire fishing community look bad.
I predict that by the time we don our Halloween costumes and grab the plastic pumpkins, barring some major curveball that’s yet to come to light, the Ruyan-Cominsky saga will be largely out of the public eye. There will be follow-up stories, but you’ll have to hunt them down.
However, if you want some further reading, let me recommend “The Big One” by David Kinney. It chronicles a similar scandal that occurred during the famed Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, only the origin of the lead weights found in a fish aren’t cut and dry. Make a fire, pour a drink, and get lost in that book. It’s much more compelling and thought provoking than the Runyan-Cominsky story, and certainly better for your mental health than scrolling through 2,985 memes of lead weights battered and deep fried.