OCEAN CITY, Md. — Phil Heasley caught the fish of his life, but the $2.8 million in tournament prize money got away.
Heasley reeled in a 6-foot white marlin last year off Maryland’s coast. But in a sign of how concerned some big money tournaments are about cheating, officials made him and his crew take lie detector tests. The officials said all four men failed.
Heasley is now in a protracted court battle over the winnings and his crew’s reputation, pitting their integrity against that of one of the world’s most lucrative angling contests.
The white-haired CEO of a financial software company had motored with his crew into the Atlantic before sunrise on a Tuesday in August in his 68-foot fishing boat, the Kallianassa, to compete in the 2016 White Marlin Open.
About 65 miles out, they zeroed in on a fast-moving school of skipjack tuna, according to transcripts from the nine-day trial.
One of the mates quickly hooked a marlin. The captain maneuvered the boat and Heasley worked the reel.
The avid fisherman from Naples, Florida, said he fought the famously acrobatic species for about 10 minutes. The blue-finned fish — whose snout resembles a fencing rapier — was “running like mad” and leaping to dislodge the hook.
Hanging from the tournament scale in Ocean City, the white marlin turned out to be relatively scrawny, weighing in at 76.5 pounds — not far over the 70-pound qualifying weight and nearly 20 pounds lighter than the 2015 winner.
“I did not think that we had a fish that was going to win some great big amount of money,” Heasley said on the witness stand.
The marlin wasn’t even mounted. It went to a food bank.
Three days later, the tournament deemed it the only qualifying white marlin of the five-day open.
The total prize was $2,818,662. The open itself paid out only $15,000. But like many anglers, Heasley had placed a big bet on himself and his crew in various “calcuttas,” which are optional betting pools.
Boats can pay a total of nearly $30,000 apiece before the tournament. Whoever hooks the heaviest fish in a category and participated in the calcuttas takes home the big money.
Heasley planned to give half to the crew, a life-changing gift.
But there was one more step: Heasley had to pass a lie detector test.
Tournaments have employed polygraphs for decades. Sometimes they’re used to settle disputes. No accusations had been made against the Kallianassa, but polygraphs are standard at the White Marlin Open.
“I kind of call it the velvet hammer,” the contest’s founder, Jim Motsko, said recently. “You need something to keep people honest.”
Heasley, 68, had competed in dozens of tournaments, once winning $800,000. But this was his first White Marlin Open and his first polygraph.
In a hotel conference room, the examiner measured his heartbeat, breathing and perspiration and asked, “Did you commit any tournament violations?” Similar questions followed.
The results were inconclusive. Another test was required. The unsuspecting and hung-over captain, David Morris, had to be tested, too. The examiner said Morris indicated “deception” during his exam.
The men still posed with a promotional check at the award ceremony. But the actual money was being withheld, they were told, pending Heasley’s second polygraph and tests for the two mates.
No one passed.
Tournament officials denied the prize. Heasley refused to sign a release of the winnings. The tournament asked a court to intervene.
Winners from other fishing categories joined in the litigation, claiming they were entitled to the money. They accused the Kallianassa of dropping its fishing lines before 8:30 a.m., a rule violation.
This is far from the first court fight over big prize money for a big fish.
In 2010, a boat crew sued over a $900,000 prize after catching an 883-pound fish in the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. The boat was disqualified because the mate who hooked the marlin lacked a fishing license. The tournament learned of the violation during a polygraph test.
The case went to North Carolina’s Supreme Court before a settlement was reached in 2013.
At trial, Heasley’s lawyers questioned the accuracy of polygraph tests, and criticized the tournament’s exams.
The judge ruled against Heasley in June, writing that Heasley had agreed to the open’s terms.
The judge also sided with the other anglers over the Kallianassa’s fishing start time, citing discrepancies among the crew’s accounts and other evidence.
The case is now on appeal.
In a statement to The Associated P
ress, Heasley said he’s fighting for the decency of the sport.
“I have continued our fight in the appellate courts,” Heasley wrote, “because I am not the kind of person to lay down and let anyone run over us with lies and junk science.”
Associated Press researchers Jennifer Farrar and Rhonda Shafner contributed to this story.