Tug engineer’s quick actions expose alleged Cal Sag Bass Anglers cheating

A file photo of barges along the Calumet system with the wake from a fishing boat.

Dale Bowman

Joe, an engineer working a tugboat on the Calumet, stepped outside for a smoke Friday night and saw a boat pull into the barge slip.

‘‘I wondered what he was doing,’’ said Joe, who asked that his last name not be used. ‘‘He spun the boat around, then started stringing these fish up and tied them to the wall.’’

Joe’s a fisherman and knew something was up. He pulled out his phone and took videos of 2 1/2 and 1 1/2 minutes.

‘‘I Googled ‘fishing tournaments near me’ and found them,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ll be darned. ‘There’s a fishing tournament [Saturday]. Ooooh, I bet he’s trying to cheat.’ ’’

It was a Cal Sag Bass Anglers event.

‘‘Thank God those tugboat workers were aware enough to see that he was up to something,’’ said Dennis Banik, a co-director of CSBA.

Joe, an Alabama guy who flies back and forth to work two weeks on and two weeks off, found the numbers for conservation police officers and left a message for the one he thought covered the area.

‘‘He was here at, like, 4:45 the next morning,’’ Joe said. ‘‘We went up in the wheelhouse and pulled the shades down, then he recorded [the angler retrieving his fish]. Just so happens he shows up for the weigh-in. I don’t like no cheaters.’’

CPOs were waiting for the alleged cheater when he returned to the Waterfront Bar and Grill in suburban Burnham for the weigh-in.

The most basic part of the cheating was catching the fish before tournament times, but the charges could and likely will span a wider range.

CSBA had enough video evidence to ban him from all future CSBA and Big Lake Bass Anglers events. Beside the apparent cheating (catching before the tournament), the angler was on the water Friday when, by club rule, the waters were off-limits.

‘‘Just garbage,’’ one angler said. ‘‘Nice that somebody busted him with solid evidence. I wanted to see him cuffed and marched out of there.’’

He wasn’t because the Illinois Department of Natural Resources hasn’t formally charged him. Texts to him were not answered. The CPOs stayed through the weigh-in (to make sure there was no vigilante justice). Charges will come, but the extent of them depends on the IDNR’s legal department.

‘‘We’re not glad it happened but glad he was caught,’’ Banik said. ‘‘We don’t know how long he has been doing that, just like the guys in Ohio who were stuffing the walleye.’’

That’s a reference to the viral cheating case in 2022 in which Jacob Runyan and Chase Cominsky eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges for putting weights in fish in a Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament.

One angler said the fish looked like Lake Michigan smallmouth bass, which are different from those in the Cal.

‘‘It would have sucked if he wasn’t caught and we would have paid that [bleep],’’ he said.

Joe Zehner, the oldest angler at 70, won legitimately with 15.16 pounds to earn $1,372.

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‘‘Seems early, but I’ll take it,’’ he emailed.

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