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Tournament Hooked by Controversy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What happens when you hold an annual fishing tournament in which hundreds of anglers compete for millions of dollars in prize money?

If you’re Wayne Bisbee, you get inundated with claims of lying, cheating, stealing, deceit and hypocrisy on an almost annual basis.

Once again, the 20th annual Bisbee’s Black and Blue Marlin Jackpot Tournament--the richest billfish tournament in the world--ended in controversy Saturday afternoon in Cabo San Lucas, where during the awards ceremony a bombshell was dropped on the team that thought it had caught the winning fish.

The four-man team from Alaska was fishing aboard Minerva III, one of 234 vessels in the competition. Minerva III was one of the dozens of smaller local cruisers competing against more than 100 high-priced yachts from Southern California or beyond.

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The fish, a 534-pound blue marlin, hooked in the final hour of the final day of competition on Friday, was landed in the dark and unloaded amid cheers from about 1,000 local residents eager to see if it would edge the 500-pound black marlin weighed Thursday by a Southland team aboard the yacht, After Midnight.

It did, of course, but the Minerva III team was not mentioned during Saturday’s ceremony. Instead it was informed by Bisbee that its catch was being withdrawn from purse consideration because of statements made by angler Jim Grimes during a post-tournament polygraph test. This was the first year a lie detector was used in the event.

Bisbee said Grimes, of Homer, Alaska, told him and the polygraph-test examiner that on at least four occasions the deckhand had touched the line above the leader, which is against International Game Fish Assn. rules.

“They were by no means trying to cheat,” Bisbee said during a phone interview Sunday morning, after issuing more than $2.3 million in prize money. “They were even yelling at the mate not to touch the line. The only reason we even know anything about it is because the angler personally told us.”

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Touching the line above the leader is against major tournament rules because grabbing the line or pushing it around obstacles such as swim-steps and engine props unfairly tilts the fight in the angler’s favor.

Grimes could not be reached for comment Sunday but reportedly has a different story to tell, one that has the deckhand merely brushing his hand against the line while reaching for the leader in the heat of a nighttime battle.

Such an incidental infraction should not be grounds for disqualification, says Minerva Smith, owner of the Minerva III who happens to be an IGFA representative.

Smith, a 25-year Cabo San Lucas resident who is not involved in the tournament and has nothing to gain from it financially, said she is spearheading the team’s protest “as a matter of principle” and would not comment in-depth on the advice of her attorney.

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She did, however, criticize Bisbee, a tournament promoter from Newport Beach, for refusing to interview any of the crew or other anglers on the boat. “This was a dream that turned into a nightmare, and from what I have heard it was a clean catch,” Smith said.

A nightmare? The team--which paid $5,000 to enter and had also entered some of the side jackpots--would be swimming in money had the fish counted. The captain’s share alone would have been about $80,000, enough to buy a better home for his family.

Instead, the After Midnight team of obviously well-to-do anglers--they entered all the possible side jackpots--is splitting a tournament record $989,910 for the 500-pound marlin landed by Russ Armstrong of Avalon.

In all, 250 marlin were landed and 228 of those were released because they did not meet the 300-pound minimum or were not in contention.

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The second-place angler was Dennis Lesinsky of Los Angeles for a 472-pound blue marlin landed aboard Picante Express. The purse was $279,765. The third-place angler was Wayne Kozlowski of Darien, Ill., for a 460-pound blue caught on the Los Companeros. The team earned $96,525.

Because they were in more daily side jackpots, the fourth-place team earned $574,560 and the fifth-place team $445,140.

Interestingly, the fourth-place boat, Chupacabra, which finished second last year, is involved in a lawsuit pending against Bisbee and last year’s winning team, Big T’s. The accusation is that Big T’s dumped a smaller marlin at sea after catching a larger one to avoid a penalty assessed if the smaller fish weighed less than 300 pounds.

The Chupacabra team also is disputing the weight of its marlin last year--at 596 pounds only one pound less than Big T’s 597-pounder. The fish was originally weighed with two ropes to keep the head from touching the ground and tipped the scale at 597.5 pounds. At the request of Big T’s, it was weighed again with one rope and checked in at 596 pounds. Chupacabra was bumped to second place, where the payoff was only $685,475. Big T’s won $729,890.

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Bisbee confirmed rumors that on the second day of this year’s tournament the team aboard Picante was disqualified for one day after its deckhand was handed the rod of a hooked marlin by a fishermen aboard a nearby skiff and attempted to give it to one of the Picante anglers.

“They not only said no and cut the line immediately, but they called us and told us what happened, so we decided to make them sit the rest of the second day out,” Bisbee said.

It would have been interesting to see the reaction of the Minerva III team had the Picante team caught a prize-winning fish on the third and final day.

Meanwhile, Bisbee is probably anticipating another call from another lawyer.

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