But a federal judge in Baltimore is being asked to determine the outcome of the White Marlin Open after organizers in Ocean City said the man who was initially declared the winner of a $2.8 million first prize twice failed a lie-detector test.
Billed as "the world's largest billfish tournament," the tournament spans a week in August and takes place offshore from Ocean City. There's no oversight on the open water, so those who win $50,000 or more are required by contest rules to take a polygraph test.
"There's no policeman out in the ocean," said Jim Motsko, president of the tournament. To keep it from being a "free-for-all, we learned real quick, you got to have rules and stick with them."
The big winner of this year's tournament, Philip G. Heasley of Naples, Fla., caught the winning 76.5-pound white marlin but later failed two polygraph tests, according to the court filings.
Heasley was not awarded the prize money, and organizers are asking a federal judge to grant an "order of interpleader," which will allow them to redistribute the $2.8 million first prize to 13 competitors who won other categories during the tournament.
The complaint accuses Heasley of using "countermeasures" during the polygraph tests and alleges he was "deceptive" when he responded to questions about whether he violated the fishing tournament rules and whether he had been truthful in his answers to the polygraph test questions.
Heasley and the three others aboard the boat Kallianassa when the winning marlin was caught all failed a polygraph examination.
The complaint says that on the "catch report," where participants mark down when a fish was caught, it appeared the time written down had been changed from 8:15 a.m. to 9:05 a.m. Had the fish been caught before 8:30 a.m., it would have been a violation of tournament rules.
Heasley has denied committing any violation and questioned the validity of the polygraph tests, according to court filings. He has also noted that he was presented a first-place trophy and check at the awards ceremony held the Saturday after the weeklong event, identifying him as the rightful winner.
As to the incorrect time on the catch report, his attorneys wrote that it was an error and was changed to "reflect the correct time that the winning white marlin was caught."
Heasley did not respond for requests for comment.
In addition to Heasley, 13 other anglers who competed in the tournament are named in the filing because they could receive additional money if a judge rules against Heasley.
Richard Kosztyu of New Jersey, could receive an additional $2,312,152, Jim Conway of Glen Burnie could get $254,620, and Mark Hutchison of Talbot County could get $140,509. They did not respond to requests for comment.
Two other men would stand to earn nearly $50,000 more, and the remaining eight would stand to gain just over $2,000 each.
With such high stakes, fishing competitions have specific rules about when, where and how fish can be caught. Tournament organizers use various measures to make sure competitors comply with the rules. Before polygraph tests became widespread, tournament organizers often had biologists certify results. Some even used a special gadget to determine the freshness of a fish.
Martin L. Gary, the executive secretary of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, based in Virginia, previously worked as a fisheries biologist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and was often called to inspect winning fish at competitions around the state.
"You added an air of professionalism. We might be that presence, that deterrence," he said.
Gary said it was not uncommon to hear stories about fisherman who would catch a fish days before a competition and keep it on ice. Another trick was sticking ice cubes down the fish's gullet to add weight.
Given the high stakes in the White Marlin Open, he said, the organizers have to require the polygraph tests.
"The whole town is vested in that contest," he said. "It draws people from all over."
At the Department of Natural Resources, Gary helped run the annual the Maryland Fishing Challenge, which ran about a decade and offered prizes including boats, trucks and cash.
In the initial years of the competition, Gary said they didn't rely on polygraph tests, but later started using a polygraph examiner from the Maryland Natural Resources Police. When they started requiring the test, Gary recalled, some competitors balked and others failed, but none disputed the findings.
"The polygraph was an effective tool," he said.
Dave Smith, the executive director Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association, which holds four tournaments every year, said the purpose of the lie-detector tests is typically to determine if the fishermen caught the fish that day, if they had any assistance and whether they caught it within the allotted time.
"It's on the honor system" on the open water, he said. "The only way a tournament has an ability to keep it honest is the polygraph test."
Motsko said he started the tournament in 1974 after working summers on charter boats in college. He said he became interested in the backroom wagers, where anglers would put money into a brown bag and award the bag to the one among them who caught the prize-winning fish.
He wanted to create a competition that was open to everyone, not just seasoned fishermen. So, with the help from his late wife, he held the first White Marlin Open, which drew 57 boats and awarded $20,000 in prize money.
Motsko said he had to borrow money from a bank to pay out the full amount that first year, but the tournament grew over the years.
This year, 328 boats competed, he said.
"The tournament has grown into a real economic engine for this area," Motsko said.
Brian Russell, 46, of Littlestown, Pa., would earn an additional $2,000 if the federal judge grants the organizers' request.
Russell decided to compete in his first White Marlin Open in August after a friend bought a 42-foot fishing boat named Sea Wolf. He and five other men split the cost of the entrance fee and expenses for fuel, ice and food.
"We entered with the hopes of winning and tried to catch the big white marlin. We ended up catching a big dolphin," said Russell, a general manager at P. Flanigan & Sons Inc., an asphalt plant in Baltimore.
Russell reeled in a 36-pound mahi-mahi — a species of dolphinfish; it took about 25 minutes to land the fish. He caught it the morning of the second day of competition, put it on ice and continued to fish before heading to the weigh master back at the marina at the end of the day. He and the others on the boat split the $15,000 winnings.
Russell recalled seeing Heasley and his crew receive the big cardboard check at the awards ceremony, but he had no idea of the controversy that ensued until he starting getting letters from attorneys.
"I very rarely read it," he said of the letters. "It's kind of exciting to be a part of it. But now it's dragging on a little bit."