Reaching the Limit on Phony Catches

Following the story about the dubious big bass exploits of Phil Jay I received a call from Ron Montoro, a former employee with the San Diego City Lakes Program who spent a good deal of his time working closely with Larry Bottroff and is a fine and avid angler in his own right. Ron wanted to tell me about a visit with Phil Jay at his shop, Outlaw Bait and Tackle in Del Dios. According To Ron, Phil wanted to tell him about his “golden limit,” defined as his five largest bass of all time, bragging that none were under 20 pounds.

The story brought to mind the story of another angler who claimed a large limit all caught on the same day, and the claim didn’t hold up well to some pretty basic scrutiny. At the time, I was the Outdoor Writer for the Tribune and Ed Zieralski was handling the outdoor writing along with other beats for the Daily Californian. We worked together as a tag team on inquiry into the catch, with both of us filing stories for our respective newspapers. Following is the column I wrote, exactly as it appeared in The Tribune on March 29, 1984:  

Stringer of big bass raises some eyebrows and doubts

Big bass catches have an unfortunate tradition of mystery and controversy. It appears a five-fish limit that weighted 64 pounds, 15 ounces and reportedly was caught nine days ago from Lake Casitas in Ventura County by John Fuller of El Cajon is no exception. Reports of the catch were not made public until two days ago – by a La Mesa taxidermist.

Officials at Lake Casitas expressed surprise when hearing about the catch, which would stand as a state and possible world record for five bass if such records were kept officially.

“It’s news to us. We’ve never heard a thing about it,” said Doug Ralph, Assistant Park Superintendent.

Fuller explained the belated report of the catch by saying: “It was late Tuesday evening when we left the lake. I didn’t see any rangers and the bait shop was closed, so I drove down to Casitas Market and had the fish weighed and photographed there.”

A representative of the market yesterday denied that such a catch was weighed or photographed at that market. Representatives of five other markets in the area claimed to have no knowledge of such a catch. Paul Brakebill, a meat cutter at the Locker Market in Ojai (near Lake Casitas) expressed doubt.

“This community would have been buzzing if a limit like that was weighed anywhere in this county,” he said.

Fuller further explained the late report by saying he was “not concerned with publicity. In fact I got in trouble when word got out because I was supposed to have been working – not fishing. There’s always controversy about big fish. That‘s just the way it is.”

Today, a tad over thirty five years since that column, I can share a little more information about the supposed catch. A review of fish reports from the week prior to the day Fuller claimed he caught the record limit at Casitas showed that he had taken numerous large bass from San Vicente, the largest five of which were close to the weight of his “record” limit. Lost when the column was edited was a statement by the representative of Casitas Market where Fuller said he weighed his fish, “We don’t even have a scale.”

Cheating Roundup, Circa 1985

I think readers can imagine the exasperation I felt as both the manager of the lakes producing most of the big bass making headlines, as an outdoor writer covering those catches, and having the knowledge that most big bass were being caught illegally. My feelings then and now were best summed up in a column that appeared in The Tribune, May 30, 1985, and follows exactly as it appeared:

Bass tournament cheating: honest fishermen are losers

It was not so long ago that the pursuit of black bass was just another aspect of fishing. In turn, fishing was just one ingredient in a much larger thing we call leisure.

For many bass anglers today, it is neither. Spurred on by promoters and “end-justifies-the-means attitude the simple act that pits angler against bass has been prostituted by two of our most powerful evils – money and ego. Bass fishing more than any other form of angling is suffering from the same sources of infection as much of society in general – and it stinks.

Don’t read this as a general indictment of the sport or those who enjoy it with a genuine respect for the resource.

No, this harangue is reserved for those who profit financially, or inflate their egos with this resource through cheating and stealing.

It is born of a contempt for those whose actions are spoiling this otherwise honest and enjoyable pastime. Consider the following:

In Texas, big bass mean big money. With tournaments offering as much as $100,000 for the largest bass caught, cheating has become so rampant that “winners” must submit to lie detector tests before picking up their checks.

A federal grand jury investigation in Texas has turned up a three-state cheating ring that has collected thousands of dollars in winnings. According to investigators and witnesses, fish caught in Florida were smuggled both frozen and live to claim high stakes prizes. One of the witnesses, Danny Ray Davis, was found dead of a shotgun blast to the head the day before he was to testify before the grand jury. The winner of $75,000 from two tournaments, Davis’ death was ruled a suicide. A second witness, who has admitted to taking part in the cheating is in hiding after telling investigators, he “wont live ‘till sundown” if his cohorts find he has cooperated with authorities.

Close to home a San Diego man surfaces periodically – presumably from a dark and damp location – to claim various records. One of his most notable efforts was an application to the International game Fish Association seeking recognition for a new world record black bass – an achievement many believe will be worth a million dollars. That claim to fame and fortune ended under investigative pressure supplied by a bass-fishing detective from SDPD. The man earlier was granted immunity from prosecution after rigging a tournament in Florida and then turning as a witness against his coconspirators. He has been the “winner” of fishing events in Texas and San Diego and continues to work in the fishing business locally. Based on past “performances” he can be expected to emerge again soon.

An east county man shows up at a taxidermist with a record limit of bass, then tells a lengthy story detailing his heroics.

A follow-up by reporters fails to turn up a single confirming witness, and a market where he claimed to have weighed the fish reports, “we don’t even have a scale.”

In February, two more men frequently in the company of big bass are cited on the Sweetwater River in Cuyamaca State Park for an over-limit of trout kept alive in an aerated ice chest in their vehicle. Authorities are certain the rainbows were destined to become bass bait.

This past Saturday, a South Bay man showed up at Otay with photos of a record 19-4 bass he says he caught 17 days earlier. At the time, it was the second largest bass ever caught in the county and third largest in state history. Presumably there are some fishermen who wouldn’t overlook reporting a fish of such proportions and significance.

Sadly, reports such as these are not over. As in other pursuits, there will be people who continue to lie and cheat. Controversy and mystery will continue to surround certain people all of the time, and big fish much of the time.

The crooks will continue to operate and prosper as long as large sums of money and ego transplants – however dubious – are rewards for catching bass.

Honest fishermen, fair tournaments and a sport that deserve much better will continue to be victims.

About Author

Jim Brown

Jim Brown ran the San Diego City Lakes Program from 1974-2003, where he oversaw the operation of the fishing programs of the county's biggest and best fisheries. Over his 70 years as a native San Diegan, including 65 of them as an avid fisherman, Brown describes himself as someone who has fished most bodies of water in and around the county that hold fish, and all of those that don't.

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Richard Hayashi

You can defend pro tournaments but when large sums of money are involved then yes, there are people who will cheat. The other factor is notoriety of fame. It’s a shame.

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