Two men pleaded guilty to tampering to influence a contest, a third-degree felony, almost two years after the state started investigating where they caught their fish.
Every year, the calm waters of Lake Powell, teeming with bass, catfish and walleye in Southern Utah, draw dozens of anglers who try their hand at fishing contests awarding thousands of dollars.
But for almost two years, scandal disturbed the peace. In October 2018, at least two suspicious fish caught the attention of the state, leading to a lengthy investigation, analysis by a university lab and, finally, felony charges against two fishermen accused of trying to cheat their way to first place.
The case, which ended last month with guilty pleas, was the first time in Utah's history that someone had been prosecuted for cheating in a fishing tournament, according to a spokeswoman for the wildlife resources division of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
"When something like this happens, it angers a lot of people," said Ron Colby, a professional fisherman who has made more than $100,000 over 20 years of tournaments. Bad behavior can affect the sport, he said, adding that fishing tournaments tend to be tightknit, competitive and more about bragging rights than money prizes.
"That's what's so crazy about somebody cheating in these events like this, because there is not a lot of money involved," he said. "For them to cheat and do what they did, the risk they took, for the recognition and a piece of wood, a trophy or plaque on the wall, is pretty ridiculous."
The fishermen, Robert Dennett and Kamron Wootton, were among the anglers competing in a two-day largemouth bass fishing tournament on Lake Powell in October 2018, according to the Utah wildlife division. A US$2,500 ($3,800) prize would be awarded to the team that turned in the five fish with the highest total weight.
The event had about 25 teams and takes place several times a year.
The bass the men had turned in put them in second place after the first day of the tournament, and gave them the prize of the overall biggest fish.
But the bass that Dennett and Wootton presented didn't look like the others, Lt. Paul Washburn, a spokesman for the wildlife resources division, said Tuesday.
Two things struck tournament officials about the fish, he said. "One, they were shaped differently, indicating that they probably have a different diet," he said. "And then also they had some markers of stress" — a reddish color in the fishes' mouth and on the fins.
The fish prompted tournament officials to call a biologist and the wildlife resources division, which sent an investigator for the second day of the tournament. There, the men were questioned, Washburn said.
"Neither one of them were very inclined to talk to our investigator," he said. "One of them started to kind of acknowledge that yeah, the fish maybe hadn't come from Lake Powell. Then he very quickly asked for an attorney, and the other individual didn't want to say anything."
Dennett and Wootton's lawyer, Douglas Terry, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The wildlife resources division had the bass tested at a University of Utah lab. Researchers were able to determine where the fish had originated by comparing the amount of strontium isotopes found naturally in the lakes to the strontium isotopes in an otolith, a particular part of a fish's ear. An otolith, Washburn said, has a high concentration of calcium and is sensitive to any changes in the chemistry of the water.
In May 2019, after months of waiting, the lab was able to say unequivocally that the fish that Dennett and Wootton turned in could not have come from Lake Powell, based on the level of isotopes in the otolith scale of the fish, Washburn said. The wildlife agency eventually learned that the men had been fishing at Quail Creek Reservoir, about 180 miles west, just before the Lake Powell tournament.
On March 18, Dennett and Wootton were charged with tampering to influence a contest, a third-degree felony; unlawful release of wildlife, a Class A misdemeanour; and captivity of protected wildlife, a Class B misdemeanour. Last month, both men pleaded guilty to all three counts.
"It took so long to charge the men in this case because an amazing amount of scientific work went into proving the violation," Washburn said. Investigators had to find a university to test the fish, wait for results, take the case to a prosecutor and then conduct additional interviews at the prosecutor's request. He added that the case was also "put on the back burner a little bit."
The men were ordered to pay a US$500 ($765) plea in abeyance fee, complete 48 hours of community service, and pay US$2,500 ($3,800) in restitution to the wildlife division's Help Stop Poaching Fund. They were also sentenced to 24 months' probation, during which they are prohibited from hunting.
"From our agency standpoint," Washburn said, "we want to make sure people are following the rules and they're not taking advantage of wildlife, especially moving fish species to one area or another."
Both Dennett and Wootton were disqualified from the tournament, he added.
Colby, the professional fisherman, said cheating in fishing was "something that's looked upon very negatively" in the sport.
"It doesn't really hinder the guys that are out there doing it," he said, "but it does make everybody be more vigilant about trying to catch people like that."
Written by: Derrick Bryson Taylor
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