Not Just Another Fish Story
Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan are on quite a streak. The two anglers keep winning more and more walleye fishing tournaments, where prizes range from expensive boats to thousands of dollars in cash.
Other anglers are suspicious, especially after one of the duo fails a polygraph test – a measure often required to compete in these events.
Finally, after four wins in a row for Cominsky and Runyan, everything comes crashing down when they’re caught cheating red-handed at a championship event on Lake Erie last fall.
Host / Producer: Dan Wanschura
Editor: Morgan Springer
Additional Editing: Peter Payette, Ed Ronco
Music: You’ll Have a Plan Before You Try to Get Your Horse on the Trailer, Call Your Rocks, Channeling the Resiliency of Forever Plastics, and Now There Is a Better Way to Learn Ventriloquism by Aldous Ichnite | Vibin Sneaky by Jonas Hipper
DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: After a long day on Lake Erie, anglers gather in a parking lot in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s September 30, 2022, and the anglers are waiting to see the results of a championship walleye fishing competition.
PUBLIC ADDRESS ANNOUNCER: Definitely team of the year champions. We need pictures of those fish over here, stick around awhile.
WANSCHURA: The two guys in line to win today are gonna take home some serious cash: almost 30 grand.
But instead of getting one of those big, oversized checks with their names on it – these two fishermen get an unexpected,last-minute inspection.
And when that happens, the lid comes flying off a cheating scandal that rocks the competitive fishing world.
(angry crowd yelling)
This is Points North. A podcast about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura. Today’s episode: Not Just Another Fish Story.
WANSCHURA: This is the story about those two guys caught cheating. Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan. Cominsky’s from Pennsylvania. Runyan’s from Ohio.
Chase Cominsky is pretty well-known in Lake Erie walleye competitive fishing circles, while Jacob Runyan is relatively new to the tournament world. But after they team up in 2021, Cominsky and Runyan slowly but surely become a tandem that can’t be matched, winning tournament after tournament.
JACOB RUNYAN: It’s what we do. Winners win.
WANSCHURA: That’s Jacob Runyan in a video clip from Fox 8 News.
Following one of their wins, Chase Cominsky explains the special sauce behind catching so many winning fish that day.
PA ANNOUNCER: Get up here Chase, I want to hear from you. I want to hear how you did this thing.
CHASE COMINSKY: Alright no more bullshitting. We hang back from you guys. You guys ran out real deep. We went around the breakwall in 15 foot of water, 40 to 50 foot back ledes with little SPRO’s, right in front of the stacks.
PA ANNOUNCER: Fifteen foot a water.
COMINSKY: Fifteen foot a water.
PA ANNOUNCER: Oh boy, congratulations guys.
WANSCHURA: There’s a whole world of competitive fishing out there: amateur events and professional ones. (Major League Fishing is actually a thing.)
These fishing derbies happen all over the place, for all different kinds of fish. And most of them have some serious prizes, hundred-thousand dollar boats, sponsorship deals, and tons of cash.
Combine money and competition and you can get cheating too –there’s a long history of it in these events.
Field and Stream magazine wrote about a guy who was caught after he stole a large bass out of an aquarium and entered it into a competition. (In case it’s not obvious, you’re not supposed to do that.)
At a different tournament where the length of the fish determined the winner, an angler tried to Frankenstein his catch by putting the tail of one fish onto another one.
So, in order to safeguard against cheating, there are all sorts of rules and regulations. And winners often have to take polygraph tests to confirm their victories.
Yeah, lie detector tests.
The first whiff of Cominsky and Runyan cheating comes in 2021. They’d just won three huge amateur fishing events, to close out the year.
Runyan estimates for the news website Cleveland.com that together they won over $300,000 for those three events.
He is quoted saying “There were a lot of long days and hard fishing involved, but the top locations we found for trophy walleye paid off.”
To confirm one of their wins, they pass a polygraph test with flying colors. But on a different test, one of the duo – we don’t know who – fails.
Just like that, it disqualifies them from one of their victories, and costs them about 120 thousand dollars. And they’re really angry about it.
Runyan tells Cleveland.com quote, “Our reputation means the world to us, and we would never cheat.” He says they weren’t just upset about losing money, they were upset because their names were dragged through the mud.
The two disgruntled fishermen even say they were gonna lawyer up.
Because polygraph tests aren’t bulletproof – they generally aren’t allowed as evidence in a court of law. But in fishing tournaments where anglers compete in good faith with each other, it's the last measure for tournament organizers to make sure anglers are following the rules – short of catching a cheater in the act.
The following year in 2022, Cominsky and Runyan keep entering competitions and winning.
(clips of public address announcer declaring Runyan and Cominsky winners)
Starting in June, they win three tournaments in a row on the Lake Erie Walleye Trail, a series of amateur fishing events. And that’s unheard of.
STEVE HENDRICKS: In any tournament fishing – I’ve fished tournaments my whole life since 17, 18 years old – no matter how good you are or what you know, nobody wins ‘em all. Nobody wins ‘em all.
WANSCHURA: Steve Hendricks and a lot of other experienced anglers get suspicious. They suspect Cominsky and Runyan are cheating, but they don’t know how.
They claim they never see Cominsky and Runyan out on the water either before or during competition.
And there’s rumors they never donate their catches to food banks, something most other anglers do in tournaments like this.
HENDRICKS: I was angry. You know, it’s like you can’t say anything because if they are legit doing what they do, then good for them. You know, in the back of your mind you’re like, ‘There’s no way they’re that good and they can beat us every time. There’s no way.’
NICHOLAS ZART: It didn’t matter if you fished for a week and knew every single school of fish out there, they would always beat you by five to eight pounds. And you’d just question it like, ‘What the hell is going on?’
WANSCHURA: That’s Nicholas Zart. He’s a charter boat captain on Lake Erie. Zart says he’s out fishing on the water almost 300 days a year. He knows this lake inside and out, but now all of a sudden, he feels like it’s pointless to fish in a tournament with Cominsky and Runyan.
ZART: I was not going to fish this tournament circuit if they were going to fish this upcoming year, because I just knew that they were cheating. And I didn’t want to donate my money to cheaters.
WANSCHURA: But just because you think someone is cheating, doesn’t mean they are.
Jason Fischer knows that. He’s the tournament director for the Lake Erie Walleye Trail, and yeah, the head of a fishing tournament is really named Fischer.
Fischer hears these rumblings from fishermen – they want him to do something about it.
JASON FISCHER: So, it got to the point where I defended them to my own friends. You know, I'm, I literally am telling my buddies like, ‘Shut up.’ And I said it in a lot worse language than that, but, but like, they're passing these, you know, VSA tests or they've passed the polygraphs and they're fulfilling the rules, right?
They're, they're doing what we ask of them as a tournament series. And they're doing it all. So, I can't say they're doing anything wrong.
(sounds of 2022 Lake Erie Walleye Championship)
WANSCHURA: Everything comes to a head on September 30, 2022. It’s the Lake Erie Walleye Trail Championship tournament in Cleveland – the final event of the year.
And as you heard in the beginning of the episode, Cominsky and Runyan weigh in the heaviest fish.
FISCHER: Boat number 12. We got Chase Cominsky, Jake Runyan weighing a big fish. 7.90. Locking it in, 7.90.
WANSCHURA: That’s 7.9 pounds for one fish. By comparison, the average fish caught that day weighs about three pounds. Cominsky and Runyan’s entire catch is the heaviest too.
FISCHER: 33.91. 33.91. You’re new leaders. Locking it in, team of the year – definitely team of the year champions.
WANSCHURA: In a Facebook livestream of the final weigh-in, Jason Fischer also announces them as the winners of the whole tournament.
FISCHER: Round of applause, you got Chase Cominsky, Jake Runyan. We need pictures of those fish, stick around awhile.
WANSCHURA: Cominsky and Runyan have just won almost $30 grand. It’s their fourth win in a row, but the two don’t seem particularly excited – almost like they're just going through the motions. They pose for pictures with their winning fish, bag them up, and then start to walk away through the crowd.
FISCHER: And then, you know, a couple of the anglers started buzzing and, and kind of chirping a little bit.
UNIDENTIFIED ANGLER: Jake, let me see those things.
WANSCHURA: Fischer says he knew something was off. He’s seen a lot of fish, but these just didn’t pass the eye test. They looked more like standard four to five pound Lake Erie walleye – not fish between seven and eight pounds.
Fischer says that was the critical moment. He made up his mind that he wanted another look at the fish.
FISCHER: I just know that I had to do something, right? And then when you hear some of the guys start to start to chatter out in the field, I knew that I had to at least look at the fish.
WANSCHURA: So Fischer calls Cominsky and Runyan back.
FISCHER: And then I said, ‘Look, I’m gonna check your fish.’
FISCHER: I didn't know what I was gonna find if I was gonna find anything. But I knew that I had to like, do my job and inspect the fish that were weighed. And, uh, it's a pretty crappy feeling. I mean, you, you don't want to be the one who accuses somebody of doing something like that.
And Jacob Runyan was NOT happy about it.
FISCHER: He's like, are you serious? And I'm like, uh, yes, I'm checking the fish. And he's like, you know what, this has got to stop.
You know, I'm, I'm tired of this. And I said, me too, which is why I'm checking the fish.
WANSCHURA: Ultimately, Runyan complies and heads back towards the weigh station, but Chase Cominsky keeps walking away.
FISCHER: So, I put the fish on the ground and I actually just physically looked at the fish. When I did that, I felt them, I squeezed them, I touched the fish and I felt, you know, just this rock-hard bulge in the stomach and it's just not normal.
So I go to my weigh guy, ‘Go get me a knife.’ And he does, he gets me some half-ass leatherman with a broken tip. And you could just see the aggression that I cut these fish open with, cause I knew that there was something in there. And I mean, it's just like I cut the fish and the weight immediately almost like, falls into my hand.
WANSCHURA: A round, lead, gray weight. Fischer grabs it, pulls it out, and yells:
FISCHER: We got weights in fish!
WANSCHURA: Then Fischer looks Jacob Runyan right in the eye and does his best impersonation of an umpire ejecting someone from a game.
FISCHER: Get the fuck outta here!
WANSCHURA: Over 150 angry anglers swarm the scene to get a look for themselves.
(sounds of angry crowd yelling)
WANSCHURA: As Fischer cuts open fish after fish, more and more weights fall out.
In the video, all Runyan does is watch, head down, hands in pockets, taking all that verbal abuse by himself. At one point, someone in the crowd addresses him directly.
UNIDENTIFIED ANGLER: You just lost everything man! You’re done!
WANSCHURA: Runyan nods, and says, ‘I know.’
Meanwhile his partner Chase Cominsky is still nowhere in sight.
UNIDENTIFIED ANGLER: There’s another partner involved in this! Where’s he at?
WANSCHURA: There are ten weights inside the walleyes. Together they add a whopping seven pounds to Cominsky and Runyan’s catch. Also inside the fish are cut-up walleye filets. Some think they were used as extra padding to help disguise the weights.
Jason Fischer says he took it personally.
FISCHER: Number one, I defended them. And two, I try to pride myself at running an honest ship. I try to be fair to the guys, you know, I'm not a professional tournament director, but I want to be the best that I can, you know, and it just was a culmination of all those phone calls and ‘I told you so’s’ and everything that just like came out because we finally saw what may have been going on all along. We don't know that, but that's the way I felt, you know?
FISCHER: Everybody listen to me right now. Everybody listen to me right now. Jake, I want you to leave. I don’t want anybody to touch these guys. I want you to leave.
FISCHER: I wanted them to just go as far away from my event as they could be. Do not pass, go do not collect $200. Like get the F outta my, my event, you know?
WANSCHURA: At that point someone in the crowd suggests they call the police. Law enforcement arrives and makes sure nothing gets out of hand. They take down Cominsky and Runyan’s information.
Then as the two fishermen drive away, they give it right back to the other anglers, even flipping the bird and yelling at them –that’s according to Jason Fischer.
Steve Hendricks, one of the fishermen you heard earlier, is right there in the middle of it all. He and his partner are actually in second place for team of the year.
But now that Cominsky and Runyan are caught cheating and disqualified, Hendricks and his partner take the prize. Hendricks says he was still way more excited the cheaters got caught, than he was about winning.
HENDRICKS: It’s awesome that we won, but it’s better knowing that we don’t ever have to deal with that bullshit ever again. And they’re gone and never coming back. So that was probably the best part of it, right there.
WANSCHURA: This isn’t a small potato’s infraction, either. Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan are each charged with a felony for Cheating, Attempted Grand Theft, Possessing Criminal Tools, and a misdemeanor for Unlawful Ownership of Wild Animals.
Eventually, they both take plea deals.
In a statement, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael C. O’Malley says, ‘This plea is the first step in teaching these crooks two basic life lessons. “Thou shall not steal, and crime does not pay.’
On May 11, Cominsky and Runyan are each sentenced to 10 days in jail, and have to pay $2,500 in fines. They also forfeit a $130,000 boat.
In the courtroom, Cominsky and Runyan both stand up and give apologies. In a courtroom video from Cleveland 19 News, Cominsky says he wishes he could go back to September 30th and do things differently
COMINSKY: I apologize to Jason Fischer. Me and him was pretty good friends, I would say. He took care of us. We had a lot of people talking down, and he did stand behind us.
WANSCHURA: It’s a little hard to hear – he’s apologizing to tournament director Jason Fischer.
COMINSKY: And it’s something I wish could say didn’t happen, but I can’t your honor. I’m better than that. I’m definitely better than that. I’m sorry.
WANSCHURA: ‘I’m definitely better than that. I’m sorry.’
I reached out to Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan for comment. I didn’t hear back from Cominsky, and Runyan has yet to agree to an interview. Even after spending 10 days in jail, the two guys' legal troubles aren't over.
Cleveland.com reports Cominsky is charged in two other separate cases: one for stalking a woman … and another for allegedly using fake money with his son at a bowling alley.
Runyan is facing domestic violence charges.
The Lake Erie Walleye Trail is still going strong though, without Cominsky and Runyan as competitors.
(sounds of diesel trucks)
WANSCHURA: It’s early April, and the first event of the year for the amateur fishing derby. The sound of diesel engines fills the cold, morning air.
It’s still dark out, but already, there’s a line of pickup trucks as far as the eye can see. All of them pulling boats behind.
MICHAEL PETRUSKA: Who’s got this boat?
WANSCHURA: That’s Michael Petruska. His job is to inspect the boats before they move on.
PETRUSKA: Well then, come on open this up so I can check this out. Guys playing around, I want it in the water.
WANSCHURA: Petruska climbs into the boat, turns on his flashlight, and starts searching.
PETRUSKA: Let’s see these open up. Let’s see what you got in here.
WANSCHURA: He’s down on his hands and knees, looking under the seats, in the live bait wells – all the different compartments.
UNIDENTIFIED ANGLER: There’s a bunch of clothes in there, if you’d like to dig you’re welcome to.
PETRUSKA: Well you know, that’s my job.
UNIDENTIFIED ANGLER: Yes sir.
PETRUSKA: I gotta keep this right.
(sounds of compartment doors opening and closing)
WANSCHURA: What Michael Petruska is doing isn’t new. They’ve inspected every boat at the Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament for years. But there’s a little more focus this year.
One thing that is new: they now cut open fish from the top five finishers – just to be sure. So, at the end of the day, much like he did last year, tournament director Jason Fischer takes a knife and starts slicing fish. But this time he exclaims:
FISCHER: We got no weights in fish! Good work guys.