Keeping fish stories out of fishing tournaments
by Elliott Stark
With all the money at stake in the world of big game tournament fishing, the need to ensure truthfulness and fair play are of crucial importance. Modern sportfishers travel hundreds of miles in search of the marlin, tuna and other fish that they hope will pay some tournament bills and get their names on leader boards. Absent the ability to determine truthfulness—and discourage cheating—the lure to bend the rules can sometimes be too much to handle.
How then do multimillion dollar tournaments—or any tournaments for that matter– ensure that their event is a sportfishing competition rather than a “who can buy the biggest fish from a longliner” contest? The answer in many cases is a polygraph test. If you plan to fish a tournament, you should expect that prize money may subject to passing a polygraph.
The need to determine when someone is lying is about as old as humanity. In the middle ages, torture was common practice to determine truthfulness. When somebody was accused of passing off something dubious, boiling water was poured onto the subject. The truthful person, after all, was believed to be able to better withstand the pain than liars.
The first modern polygraph was introduced in 1921 by American John Larson. While technology has advanced and the techniques associated with its administration are now more uniform, the original test was similar in function to that used today. In its simplest terms, the polygraph measures a number of physiological responses and how they change while the subject answers a series of questions. The results of the test base on the ability of a trained administration to interpret these responses (and any resulting changes that might reflect evasiveness).
According to the American Polygraph Association, the test consists of three parts: a pre-test interview, the test questions, and a data analysis. Before beginning the test, the examinee is strapped into a science-fiction-looking contraption designed to measure the body’s involuntary responses to test questions. The pretest is used to familiarize the exam recipient with the process.
As being hooked up to machines that determine your fate can be daunting, the test administrator describes the process and what is happening. The administrator also gauges the test subject’s health and whether or not the person is taking medication. The pretest is designed create a sort of baseline physiological response to telling the truth, while also illustrating responses caused by nontruths. The truth and deception baselines are created by asking specifically designed questions that require the test recipient to answer truthfully and dishonestly.
The actual test consists of a series of specifically-crafted questions. While the total exam may last three to four hours, the test section is often the shortest phase. The test questions are specifically designed to gauge the reaction to the matter at hand—that the angler followed tournament rules, that the fish was caught during tournament hours, etc. The involuntary nature of the body’s physiological response to the questions is central to the polygraph’s effectiveness.
When answering truthfully, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing patterns and other indicators follow a similar trajectory. When providing evasive or dishonest answers, the physiological responses change from this pattern. The questions are asked individually with sufficient time between the inquiries to allow heart rate, breathing, etc. to return to the baseline. To provide a more accurate, comprehensive body of information, questions may be divided into sets. The sets of questions may be repeated multiple times.
During the data analysis, the polygraph administrator interprets the results. Polygraphers are trained and accredited by a number of governing bodies. This training provides guidelines in questioning techniques as well as how to decipher the results. Upon rendering a conclusion, the test administrator does not decide whether or not the test subject is telling the truth. He or she rather deciphers the body’s involuntary responses to the exam and renders an opinion as to whether or not he or she believes there to have been the presence of deception.
Polygraphs and Fishing Tournaments: An expert’s opinion
When it comes to polygraphs and tournament fishing, there is perhaps no more credible voice than Mr. Neil Rucker. A veteran of more than 39 years administering polygraphs, Rucker performs tests for many of the Gulf coast’s major billfish, redfish, and bass tournaments. Rucker’s company, API Polygraph is based in Daphne, Alabama. He started his career as an Alabama State Trooper and was trained under the federal government’s polygraph school in 1976. When it comes to polygraphs for fishing tournaments, Rucker says, “I’ve probably run more of them than anybody.”
“When I first started with fishing tournaments in the mid-1980s, nobody was conducting exams and lots of people failed them. Now everybody passes them,” Rucker describes. In his experience, administering polygraphs at fishing tournaments has decreased the amount of cheating that takes place. “Usually rules violations occur when they don’t expect polygraph tests.”
“A long time ago I was doing tests for a bass fishing tournament. There was a guy who lived on an island in the river north of Mobile. Before the tournaments, he would catch big bass and keep them alive to sell to tournament anglers,” Rucker describes a particularly memorable episode in his fishing polygraph career. “When it comes to things that the offshore tournaments want to know, it’s usually questions like—Did the person who hooked the fish have any assistance?” he says. “Often the question of tournament hours gets people—prefishing.”
Not only has Rucker interviewed many of the top captains on the Gulf circuit, he generally interviews the same captains multiple times over the course of the summer. He describes his test procedure as follows: “First is the pretest. You get background on the person, get general health information and whether or not they are taking medications. Then you ask them about the tournament rules. Then I’ll review the questions. Then I’ll run the test. The test is the shortest part, sometimes it takes 25-30 minutes,” Rucker describes.
The equipment that Rucker uses is standard as well. “These days I have a computerized polygraph. We’ll place pneumatic tubes around the upper chest and one around the lower. We’ll measure blood pressure. We also attach leads to their fingers to measure conductivity. It’s called Galvanic testing; it measures the sweat glands in the fingers. The subjects will also sit on top of a cushion to test movement—to see if they use counter measures,” Rucker states.
Counter measures are actions deliberately done to throw off a polygraph test. When speaking of potential cheats wanting to elude the lie detector test, Rucker’s observations are telling of his experience. “These guys will look up how to pass polygraphs on websites. They will put a tack in their shoe—but when they do that, the reactions are too sharp. The websites also tell them to tighten their sphincter muscles during the interview.” Using a cushion with sensors in it, Rucker is able to determine the motions necessary to tighten up.
Does the thought of a polygraph make you nervous?
“Every single soul I run on the polygraph test is nervous. It is the nature of the test… What if this guy screws up?” Rucker says with a laugh. “Everybody is nervous, from a fishing tournament to murder investigation. This has absolutely nothing to do with passing or failing the test,” he says. “If someone is telling the truth, they’ll pass a polygraph test.” Rucker continues, “Generally, if you have a good polygraph examiner, if someone has a problem, they are trying to get around the rules.”
Tournament Rules and work arounds
A look around the internet reveals that there are a number of people and groups that really, really dislike polygraph testing (see the sidebar). Whether or not you are for or against them, if you fish a tournament that utilizes polygraphs before distributing prize money, you may have to take one. Under this scenario, even if the thought of taking a lie detector test makes you sick, having to take one is a good thing—it means that you could be in line for some money.
What should you do in the event you have to take a polygraph? Follow the tournament rules. In spite of all of the money at stake, sportfishing is a gentleman’s pastime. If you follow the rules and keep everything above board, you’ll have nothing to worry about come exam time. On the other hand, if you try to cut a corner or two you’ll be a nervous wreck when a lie detector test stands between you and a million-dollar check.
Keep things in perspective. Polygraph tests are administered by hundreds of fishing tournament each year. The amount of controversy associated with them is minute—most go off without a hitch. The tests are administered my trained professionals with quite a bit of experience.
If you are still nervous about a lie detector test determining your fate, there may be a couple of work arounds. While tournament rules will still apply—and you will still have to take one before accepting your giant check—if you are convinced that the world is after you, you can always just record the whole tournament on video. Some commercial fishing vessels are required to utilize video monitoring systems to ensure that they comply with the rules. You can do the same thing. Just make sure your video is time and date stamped. For even more assurance, you can keep your trip plotter from your GPS, showing where you fished and when.
If video back up is still not enough assurance, you can ask Pope Francis for a ride along. A statement of accuracy from the Pope and a video of your whole tournament should serve you well. That being said, you’ll still have to take the test before claiming your check.
Fish Detector Tests
Polygraphs are standard issue in fishing tournaments. While there is sometimes controversy surrounding them, imagine the controversy that would exist without them. Being hooked up to pneumatic tubes and finger leads sounds quite a bit more appealing than the boiling water test. Think about how many fights on the dock do not happen because trained professionals interpret the results. Fish stories, after all, have their place, but that place is not in sportfishing tournaments.
An opposing viewpoint
There are many vocal critics of polygraph examinations. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former US Army polygrapher provided us with the top reasons he does not believe the tests are valid.
- Polygraph tests cannot be quantified. Rather than giving a number, the test results must be interpreted by the examiner.
- There may be problems relating to the presuppositions of the examiner. This is similar to the old adage– “If the judge believes that you are guilty… you are probably going to be found guilty (whether or not you committed he crime).”
- There are problems created by people being afraid of the test. The same psychological responses follow from questions and experiences that are similar to the questions on the test. The subject may then become fearful of being asked questions, which may influence the results.
Our source goes on to point to several famous examples in which sociopaths were able to pass polygraph tests because lying did not evoke any different physiological response from telling the truth.