'I loathe and detest all fish tournaments'

So says Outdoorsman Ed Zern, and he cites a number of arguments for putting an end to big-prize angling derbies
November 07, 1960

As do many of my fellow anglers, I loathe and detest all so-called fishing tournaments, rodeos, derbies, contests—or whatever they may be called—in which prizes of money or merchandise are offered.

I don't mean to condemn everyone who fishes in big-prize tournaments. In every such tournament you will find some people who would be fishing just as enthusiastically if the top prize were a suspender button, or even if there were no prizes at all but simply a slightly better than usual excuse to go fishing. And I certainly don't mean that a man's skill at fishing should not be recognized. Nor do I mean that an angler who is both lucky and facile enough to catch a 60-pound striped bass or a six-pound brook trout or a 600-pound blue marlin isn't deserving of some sort of trophy or memento.

What I do feel is that in putting up prizes of great value the promoters are trying, successfully in many cases, to shift the emphasis in angling from sport to spoils. They are transforming what has always been essentially a noncompetitive sport—or one in which competition has always been of only incidental importance—into a competitive contest. Under such conditions, sport and all of the other traditional values associated with fishing, become secondary to the winning of money.

Most fishing tournaments, by their very nature, encourage the more venal, larcenous and weak-willed entrants (and this is the type most attracted by big-prize contests) to lie, swindle, bribe, embezzle, perjure and otherwise cheat to whatever extent is necessary to win. This is not theory. It is the experience of every big-money fishing tournament of which I have direct or indirect knowledge. Nor should it dumfound anyone: x% of men will cheat when the stakes are 50¢ a hole at golf. When the prize is a $4,000 station wagon or a $10,000 cabin cruiser, x soars. In fact, even when the prize is merely a small portion of prestige there will be a shocking amount of cheating.

Philip Wylie, a member of the executive committee of the purely amateur International Game Fish Association, recently wrote an article for Sports Afield in which he denounced the so-called sportsmen who violate, in letter, spirit, or both, the IGFA rules governing world-record catches. He also took a well-aimed swipe at those who connive with corruptible boatmen to falsify affidavits, merely to have their names included in the IGFA lists of world-record holders.

Fishing frauds

Miss Francesca LaMonte, an ichthyologist who was for many years secretary of the association, has told me of the fraudulent lengths to which some anglers have gone in their efforts to make the list. These attempts are, I think, largely the fault—however inadvertent—of the IGFA. By issuing lists of catches, with separate records for men and women in many different line tests, the IGFA has established 14 world records for each species of salt-water game fish. I am convinced that this policy must encourage the salt-water fisherman to think in terms of records rather than in terms of sport.

The instances of fishing fraud are numerous. Ernest Lyons, editor of The Stuart News and one of Florida's leading crusaders against big-prize contests, wrote in his column of a black bass caught illegally on a line tied to a floating jug, then stuffed with lead sinkers and entered in a contest—in which it won $500. He has also reported attempts to enter a number of net-caught sea trout in other Florida tournaments.

I recall a scandal that broke during a west-coast-of-Florida tarpon tournament. It seems that several of the prizewinning fish had been caught well outside the limits of the area and rushed by speedboat to the weighing-in station, where false affidavits were sworn out.

At a one-day salmon derby on Lummi Island in Puget Sound in 1956, a marine sergeant entered a 28-pound spring salmon and was about to walk off with the top prize when a bystander commented on the spring's "funny look." The fish was opened and found to be still frozen inside. The prize then went to a fresh-caught 22-pounder. TIME recently reported the confessions of four men who had won brand-new automobiles in the annual Seattle Times Salmon Derby; the four fish they entered had been bought from an Indian fish trapper some time before and hidden until D-day.

Scandal has tarnished several "world-record" muskellunge. I remember one fish which was reportedly kept in a live-well and hand-fed until it achieved prize winning size.

In fact, cheating in these derbies has become so commonplace and so flagrant that strong sentiment is developing in many areas of the country to have fish tournaments outlawed. Five years ago the Oregon legislature passed a bill limiting fish-derby prizes to $25, and a similar bill was recommended by a Washington State legislature committee, but later defeated. Even children's fishing derbies have been denounced by responsible conservationists as encouraging the contestants to think, not in terms of conservation or the appreciation and enjoyment of nature, but solely in terms of catching the most fish by fair means or foul.

Mercenary minds

Sighting in on the organizers of big-prize tournaments in The Stuart News last February, Editor Lyons wrote: "These high-binding jackals...contrive in their mercenary little minds to make sport fishing a sort of grand lottery." Earlier in this same column, Lyons zeroed in on "the infamous prostitution of a noble sport by wild-eyed and avaricious promoters who have no more concept of what is entailed in genuine sport fishing than a high-pressure biography racket salesman has of genuine literature."

The defenders of big-prize fishing tournaments are, almost without exception, not sportsmen or conservationists. Rarely, if ever, are the tournaments devised or promoted by fishermen. Rather, they are cooked up by someone whose only concern is a fast buck—a merchant, a brewer, a resort owner, or all of them together in a chamber of commerce.

There are a few rod-and-gun columnists who favor fish derbies; but most of these columnists work for newspapers that promote tournaments. Their argument is usually along the lines advanced in a recent column by Red Marston of the St. Petersburg Times. Marston's first point of defense was that nobody has to enter the contest. (It is also true that nobody has to start smoking opium, but this doesn't seem an adequate defense of dope peddling.) Marston then declares that man's nature is competitive and that whenever two or more people fish together there is bound to be an element of competition. Even granting some substance to this latter point, there's still the question of whether the competition should be to see who can take the most or the biggest fish or, rather, who can best observe a code of sportsmanlike behavior.

Here again we come to a question of values. I know few trout or salmon fishermen who consider the catching of fish the primary consideration in fishing. If they did they would use bait or lures instead of artificial flies, and they'd work hard at their fishing instead of pausing frequently to follow the flight of an osprey, or listen to a drumming grouse, or watch an ugly bug transform itself into an exquisite dragonfly.

In his defense of fish rodeos, Marston also protests that in some fishing tournaments—particularly certain Florida sailfish derbies—fishermen are encouraged to tag and release their catches. To those who object to money-prize tournaments, this has nothing to do with the central issue of substituting spoils for sport. Furthermore, a lot of fishermen are not convinced, on the basis of a few recovered tags, that there is much real conservation value to the sailfish-releasing program. However, the idea of releasing the catch is certainly better than littering docks with rotting sailfish carcasses.

Finally Marston asks the question, "But for those who want to engage in a tournament such as the St. Petersburg Jaycee Tarpon Roundup, which has been going on for over a quarter of a century, who's to point the finger at them?" That's an easy question to answer: I am.


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