Cheating scandal at U.S. Open rocks bass-fishing community

A professional angler found to have stuffed lead sinkers down the throats of fish he submitted for weigh-ins during a prestigious bass-fishing tournament has been banned for life from that and other competitions in a scandal that has rocked the tight-knit and passionate bass-fishing community.

Mike Hart, a successful Southern California pro whose career earnings total more than $200,000, was accused of cheating in this manner during the recent $100,000 U.S. Open held at sprawling Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border. An official with the Western Outdoor News bass tour said Hart confessed after he was caught virtually red-handed.

WON Bass will not pursue criminal charges against Hart, but the episode has tournament organizers around the country speaking out against cheating and seeking ways to prevent their events from being similarly tarnished.

“On the one hand it was a day of infamy for organized bass fishing in America,” said Harvey Naslund, director of the WON circuit. “But on the other hand it was a major victory for all who have long cared for, and taken steps to protect the integrity of bass-fishing tournaments.”

Catching a cheat is difficult because tournaments are catch-and-release, so bass are kept in aerated wells on the boats and weighed live at the end of each fishing day, then released.

However, sometimes bass die after being caught and Hart had offered three dead fish during the weigh-in on the second-to-last day of the U.S. Open. They were filleted so the meat could be delivered to a charity, and found to contain weights.

Officials waited until the final day to confront Hart, who turned in a full limit of five bass. All five were found to contain lead sinkers.

In all, nine sinkers were removed from bass turned in by Hart. Naslund said each sinker was torpedo-shaped and weighed two ounces. Each was attached to a short line and tied to a small treble hook, presumably to catch in the throat and hopefully keep the weights from entering the belly and being detected if the bass were cut open.

WON Bass determined that Hart acted alone, even though he had a lower-tier “Triple-A” fishing partner aboard his boat during each of the three days of the U.S. Open.

Naslund explained that the Triple-A partner fishes from the back of the boat while the pro stands at the bow, driving and steering with a foot-powered trolling motor.

On the third day of fishing, Naslund said, Hart was said to have asked his partner — who had flown in from South Korea — to change places while he rigged some tackle and checked on the fish in the live-well.

“The same scenario existed on Day 1 and Day 2 of the U.S. Open,” Naslund said.

The South Korean angler, who would have shared part of whatever purse Hart had been entitled to after the third and final day, was given a refund for his entry fee.

For what it’s worth, the U.S. Open was won by Arizona pro Clifford Pirch, with a total weight of 31.44 pounds. He earned $40,000, plus a new bass boat.

— Top photo shows Mike Hart (center) during the final-day weigh-in at the U.S. Open. Bottom photo shows one of the lead sinkers removed from a bass caught by Mike Hart during the prestigious tournament at Lake Mead.