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.
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.