Simply put, there was something fishy at last year's Operation Bass "Red Man Trail" fishing tournament at Thurmond Lake.
And it was more than the fish.
The company, which bills itself as the world's largest fishing tournament promoter, has punished its director for swiping dozens of the biggest bass caught during last year's event on the lake.
The Gilbertsville, Ky., company held 141 Red Man fishing competitions nationwide last year, with $3.5 million in prizes and sponsors including Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Evinrude.
Operation Bass preaches catch-and-release to encourage conservation and sportsmanship. All fish are to be released after scoring, according to strict tournament rules that penalize anglers for dead fish.
Last May, about 200 entrants competed in the annual Red Man tournament at Thurmond Lake. That's when three local anglers -- Larry Gilpin, David Smith and Jack Keane -- saw something that made them suspicious.
"We had stayed around after everybody but the tournament officials had left," Mr. Gilpin said. "We noticed workers dragging 180-quart coolers to three Ranger bass boats and taking 3- to 6-pound bass out and loading them into live wells."
The anglers questioned the tournament director, Randy McBride, who first said he was taking the fish to another boat landing a few miles away, where they could be released into deeper water, Mr. Gilpin said.
After the promoters and their boats left the tournament site at Mistletoe State Park, the anglers contacted an attendant at the other boat ramp, who said no one had entered the area.
Mr. Gilpin followed the boats until they neared Interstate 20 and had passed all possible routes to other boat ramps. Then he contacted a Georgia Department of Natural Resources law enforcement ranger by cell phone.
The chase is on
According to a May 3 incident report filed with DNR's Law Enforcement Section, agents searched Mr. McBride's boat and found an aerated, chemically enhanced live well with seven bass weighing 3 to 7 pounds each.
Mr. McBride then told the anglers he had taken some fish "to eat," Mr. Gilpin said.
The DNR agents were unable to catch the remaining two boats, which fled and were not stopped, according to the incident report obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.
In all, Mr. Gilpin and Mr. Smith estimated, the tournament officials absconded with 25 to 30 of the largest fish caught during the two-day competition.
State wildlife agents filed no charges because no laws were violated; the legal limit of bass is 10 per day.
But the anglers believe they were deceived by a corporate tournament sponsor that didn't follow its own rules.
"I am very disappointed in the Red Man Trail," Mr. Keane said, noting that the tournament was held during spawning season, when that many big bass could have put 5,000 to 6,000 new fish in the lake.
Mr. Gilpin, president of the Clarks Hill Committee -- which represents 28 fishing clubs with more than 500 members -- said the incident has irritated many local bass anglers.
Fishermen feel deceived
"People over here are teed off about this," Mr. Gilpin said. "This goes against everything these tournaments stand for, even if no state laws were broken."
Bryan Sayner, communications vice president for Operation Bass, acknowledged the incident and said Mr. McBride was punished.
Mr. McBride took the fish to give or sell to someone needing large bass to stock a lake, he said. "He made a mistake, got caught for it and paid the price."
He would not elaborate on the disciplinary actions, but the Operation Bass Web site lists Mr. McBride as being tournament director this year for states other than Georgia -- a rotation Mr. Sayner described as routine.
The deception, he said, occurred only at the Thurmond Lake event and has not happened at any of the hundreds of other tournaments held over the years by Operation Bass.
"We would never put the reputation of our company on the line by doing something that dumb," Mr. Sayner said. "This was something where someone wanted bass for a pond. He just made a judgment error."
The company, he said, has a 20-year history of putting on tournaments.
"This was clearly an isolated, on-his-own type action," Mr. Sayner said. "As soon as it was brought to our management's attention, action was taken."
Local anglers, however, wonder whether Thurmond Lake is the only situation where fish were secretly taken from tournament patrons who believed the bass were returned to their native waters.
"For the tournament people to haul off the fish, that's the worst thing anybody could do," Mr. Gilpin said.
The competition has been an annual event at Thurmond Lake for a decade, Mr. Gilpin said. However, there will be no Red Man tournament at the reservoir this year; it's been canceled.
Instead of the usual six Red Man tournaments on six Georgia lakes, there will be five this year beginning with an event this weekend at Lake Seminole, followed by tournaments March 11 at Lake Eufala, May 20 at Lake Lanier, July 22 at West Point and Sept. 9-10 at Lake Sinclair.
Mr. Sayner said the elimination of the Thurmond Lake tournament has nothing to do with last year's incident.
"Basically, we've gone from six to five events in each division," he said. "When we plan our schedule, we go to the lakes where we feel we can attract the most draw."
Nationwide, the Red Man tournaments dropped from 141 last year to 119 this year, he said. Thurmond Lake was the only Georgia tournament not rescheduled.
Mr. Gilpin, however, wonders whether Operation Bass is trying to divert attention from the bass-napping escapade.
"If it's a coincidence, it's a real big coincidence to me," he said. "In my heart I don't believe it."
Mr. Sayner said Mr. McBride could not be interviewed about the matter because of corporate media policies.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.