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Lynn Brezosky, San Antonio Express-News, Published September 05 2012

New Texas fishing fraud law put to use in tourney

PORT ISABEL, Texas — Game wardens inspecting the takes of the “Nice Tails” team at the annual Ladies Kingfish tournament last month knew something was up when they saw a trout with a mottled belly and a flounder whose appearance after the team's last inspection was fishy at best.

The unlikely “catches” to them were another example of a sort of open secret: Cheaters were among the competitors for the thousands of dollars in prizes awarded during one of South Padre Island's biggest events.

But this time, the wardens were armed with a new law that allowed them to press the state's first-ever felony charges of fraud in a saltwater fishing tournament. Seven people face up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $10,000 if convicted.

While the state's Parks and Wildlife code already had a statute regarding freshwater competitions, it wasn't until last year that the Legislature added saltwater tournaments, which have become huge tourist draws for cities along the Texas coast.

In some tournaments, the total value of prizes exceeds $100,000, and local and corporate sponsors are eager to make their brands part of the mix. Competitors also can win boats with trailers and pickups.

“There's a lot of money in fishing tournaments that is wagered, and it's an incentive for people to cheat,” said Tony Reisinger, a marine biologist with Texas Sea Grant who has lent his scientist's eye to fishing tournaments.

“I've seen cut tails to fit within the slots. ... also flattened noses,” he said, explaining that, for conservation purposes, fishermen generally aren't allowed to keep redfish longer than 28 inches. “We've seen fish stuffed with ice. Fish stuffed with other fish. It runs the gamut basically.”

“I was expecting it to happen sooner or later,” he said of the arrests. “I don't want to say that I'm glad it happened, but it needed to happen to curtail some of the attempts.”

The legislation's author, state Rep. Dan Flynn., R-Van, chairman of the Texas Legislative Sportsman's Caucus, said Texas fishing competitions had become too big, too sophisticated and too lucrative to allow them to be tainted by cheaters.

“Old-time fishermen would go out and fish, and you know everybody always exaggerated on the size of their fish and what have you, the weight and things like that, but now the prizes on these tournaments are, like, a $250,000 bass boat,” Flynn said.

Violation of the law, a first-degree misdemeanor, becomes a third-degree felony when the tournament's purse is more than $10,000.

That fit the bill for the charges against the Nice Tails team, Kenedy County Game Warden Jason Duke said in an affidavit on the alleged Aug. 11 trickery.

Duke and fellow game warden Oscar Castaneda of Willacy County were approached at the Port Mansfield dock by a man waiting for the team who asked them to hurry and inspect their cooler so the team would make weigh-in.

“I noticed that two of the larger spotted sea trout that were placed in the cooler appeared to have red discoloration on their bellies, anal fins and tails,” Duke wrote. “This led me to believe that the fish were not caught during the tournament, but rather caught days prior and held in a device to keep them alive for the tournament.”

The team members left the dock, toting the cooler into a car for a drive to the weigh-in point about an hour south in Port Isabel.

Duke radioed ahead to game wardens there, alerting them to be on the lookout.

“Shortly after that, maybe 15 minutes after the conversation with the other warden, he calls back and says he just got a tip that the father of the guide and the captain of the boat was seen in Arroyo City, which is about halfway, picking up a flounder. And he asked if I had seen a flounder in their catch, and I told him I did not,” he said.

Duke is now finishing a report to submit to the Cameron County district attorney's office.

“The Legislature looked at it because when you get that much money involved, the cheating becomes an issue.”

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com


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