Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan were on quite a streak. The two Great Lakes walleye fishermen kept winning fishing tournament after tournament – where prizes ranged from expensive boats and thousands of dollars in cash. But last fall, everything came crashing down when they were caught cheating at a championship event on Lake Erie.
Hear how they cheated, including the dramatic backstory that leads up to this moment – spoiler alert – it includes a failed polygraph test!
Points North, a podcast about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes, is produced by Interlochen Public Radio. Subscribe and listen to Points North wherever you find podcasts: Apple | Spotify
- Producer: Dan Wanschura
- Editor: Morgan Springer
- Additional editing: Peter Payette and Ed Ronco
- Music: Aldous Ichnite and Jonas Hipper
WANSCHURA: 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.
CROWD: There we go… expletive, bleepity-bleep, etc
WANSCHURA: This is Points North. A podcast about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.
Today’s episode is Not Just Another Fish Story.
It’s a story about the two guys who 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 teamed up in 2021, Cominsky and Runyan slowly but surely became a tandem that couldn’t be matched. They won tournament after tournament.
JACOB RUNYAN: It’s what we do. Winners win.
That’s Jacob Runyan in a video clip from Fox 8 News. Following one of their wins … Chase Cominsky explained their 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. Yes, lie detector tests.
The first whiff of Cominsky and Runyan cheating came in 2021. They’d just won three huge amateur fishing events to close out the year. Runyan estimated for the news website cleveland.com that together they won over 300-thousand dollars 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 passed a polygraph test with flying colors. But on a different test one of the duo – we don’t know who – failed.
Just like that, it disqualified them from one of their victories, and cost them about $120 thousand. And they were really angry about it. Runyan told cleveland.com quote, “Our reputation means the world to us, and we would never cheat.” He said they weren’t just upset about losing money, they were upset because their names were dragged through the mud.
The two disgruntled fishermen even said 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 kept entering competitions and winning. Starting in June, they won 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 got suspicious. They suspected Cominsky and Runyan are cheating, but they didn’t know how.
They claimed they never saw Cominsky and Runyan out on the water, either before or during competition. And there were rumors they never donated 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: Nicholas Zart is a charter boat captain on Lake Erie. Zart said he was out fishing on the water almost 300 days a year, and 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 yes, the head of a fishing tournament is really named Fischer.)
Fischer heard these rumblings from fishermen – they wanted 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 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.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP SCENE
WANSCHURA: Everything came to a head on September 30, 2022.
It was the Lake Erie Walleye Trail Championship tournament in Cleveland. the final event of the year. And as mentioned earlier, Cominsky and Runyan weighed 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 announced 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 had just won almost $30 grand.
It was their fourth win in a row, but the two didn’t seem particularly excited. Almost like they were just going through the motions.
They posed for pictures with their winning fish, bagged them up and then started 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.
AMBI: Jake, let me see those things.
WANSCHURA: Fischer said 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 called Cominsky and Runyan back.
FISCHER: And then I said, ‘Look, I’m gonna check your fish.’
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, of doing something like that.
WANSCHURA: 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 complied and headed back towards the weigh station.
But Chase Cominsky kept 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 like the aggression that I cut these fish open with, cuz I knew that there was something in there. And I mean, it’s just like I cut the fish and I, and the weight immediately, like, almost like, falls into my hand.
WANSCHURA: A round, lead, gray weight. Fischer grabbed it, pulled it out and yelled:
AUDIO/ FISHER: We got weights in fish!
WANSCHURA: Then Fischer looked Jacob Runyan right in the eye and did his best impersonation of an umpire ejecting someone from a game…
AUDIO/ FISHER: Get the BLEEP outta here.
WANSCHURA: Over 150 angry anglers swarm the scene to get a look for themselves.
As Fischer cut open fish after fish, more and more weights fell 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.
YOU JUST LOST EVERYTHING, MAN .
WANSCHURA: Runyan nods, and says, “I know.”
Meanwhile his partner Chase Cominsky was still nowhere in sight.
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 took it personally.
FISCHER: Number one, I defended them. And, 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, and it just was a, culmination of just all those phone calls and I told you so’s and everything that just like came out because, you know, I, we finally saw what may have been going on all along, you know, we don’t know that, but that’s the way I felt, you know?
AUDIO/ 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 suggested they call the police. Law enforcement arrived and made sure nothing got out of hand. They took 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 were actually in second place for team of the year. But now that Cominsky and Runyan are caught cheating and disqualified, Hendricks and his partner took the prize. Hendricks said 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 potatoes infraction, either. Chase Cominsky and Jacob Runyan were 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 took plea deals.
In a statement Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael C. O’Malley said, “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 11th Cominsky and Runyan were each sentenced to 10 days in jail and have to pay $2,500 in fines. They also forfeited a $130,000 boat. In the courtroom, Cominsky and Runyan both stood up and gave apologies. In a courtroom video from Cleveland 19 News Cominsky said 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.
I just want to apologize to everyone. It’s a bad situation 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.
In early April, at the first event of the year for the amateur fishing derby, the sound of diesel engines filled the cold, morning air. It was still dark out, but already there was 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?
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.
BOATER 1: 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.
BOATER 1: Yes sir.
PETRUSKA: I gotta keep this right.
WANSCHURA: What Michael Petruska’s 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.