SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Tex. — 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 that 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 nearby ramp had a problem with two large spotted sea trout. The red discoloration on their tails, bellies and rear fins indicated that they were not caught during the weekend tournament, but caught days earlier and kept alive in a wire basket or some other device. On the South Texas Gulf Coast, such a move would be the equivalent of sneaking into a big-city 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 stating 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 by game wardens 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 haled before a Cameron County justice of the peace, arraigned and released after posting bond.
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 crime was how ordinary such fraud has 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. Keeping fish longer than 16 inches is illegal in Texas, and some fishermen have been caught clipping tails to an allowable length.
Those who run, monitor and compete in tournaments said that cheating scandals have tarnished the wholesome image of fishing and ruined the final rankings in many competitions, as people handed trophies, cash and other prizes were later found to have cheated.
Tournament organizers and fish and wildlife officials in Texas and other states 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 who 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 Walmart and shoplifting,” Mr. 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 was prosecuted and 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 eight-pound bass and a nine-pound bass, though investigators did not see him catch either one. The fisherman, Cedric Jerome Perry, was later arrested, after confessing to the authorities that he caught fish in other lakes and brought them to the tournament weigh-ins, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Mr. Perry was sentenced to three years of supervised probation and given a $1,500 fine.
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, including one organized by the owner of a restaurant called Parrot Eyes. Mr. Cavazos’s 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 had 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 the Parrot Eyes weigh-in in 2010.
Mr. Cavazos, the son of an alderwoman in the nearby town of Combes, has previously denied accusations of cheating, hiring one of the most powerful lawyers in Brownsville — Gilberto Hinojosa, the Combes town attorney and the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party — and filing a lawsuit in 2011 against Parrot Eyes’ owner and another local tournament sponsor. The lawsuit filed by Mr. Hinojosa is still pending, and it claims that postings on the Internet by the tournament organizers that suggested Mr. Cavazos cheated were defamatory and inflicted emotional distress upon him and his wife.
Neither Mr. Cavazos nor Mr. Hinojosa responded to requests for comment. Mr. Cavazos’s mother, E. G. Cavazos, the Combes alderwoman, said her son was an avid outdoorsman who has never cheated in tournaments, but who has been unfairly viewed with suspicion because he is Hispanic. “Do you think my son is going to cheat when he’s got eyes all around him at every tournament?” she said in an interview. “He doesn’t win them all. They just happened to have hated him from the first time he entered because he’s a Hispanic. It’s discrimination.”