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Monday, April 22, 2013
Three numbers loomed large at this year’s Oakley Big Bass Tour stop at Smith Mountain Lake.
The first was 670. That’s how many anglers participated in what has become the lake’s most popular fishing tournament.
The second was one. That’s how many anglers appeared to be in line for the tournament’s top prize before they were disqualified.
Josh Nickerson of Roanoke was the angler who got the heave ho this year, disqualified for failing a polygraph test.
The tournament leader has now been disqualified for three straight years.
The removal of Nickerson’s 6.41-pound bass from the leader board made way for Mike Ratcliff’s 6.32-pound bass. Ratcliff won $1,000 for having the biggest bass of the hour when he weighed in, and a $30,000 Nitro Z7 bass boat for having the tournament heavyweight.
Coincidentally, Ratcliff owns Conrad Brothers Marine. As a Tracker dealer, it sets up and delivers to the winner the boat provided by Oakley.
On Monday, Nickerson admitted he failed the polygraph exam, but steadfastly proclaimed his innocence.
Mark Jones, who runs the tournament, said he was unable to offer many details related to the disqualification.
“He failed the polygraph test, the examiner notified me and we immediately removed him from the tournament,” Jones said. “We’re not calling anyone a cheater or making any accusations.”
All tournament entrants sign a waiver in which they acknowledge that they may be subject to a polygraph test, and must abide by the findings.
Jones said five anglers were given polygraph tests during the Oakley event.
“The other four all passed,” he said.
The two anglers disqualified in the previous Oakley Big Bass tournaments didn’t complete the polygraph tests, Jones said.
Nickerson, a 31-year-old who is disabled because of a degenerative eye disease that has left him legally blind, fished the weekend with Jessee Phillips, his sister’s fiance.
Saturday afternoon Nickerson hooked a good-sized bass on a soft plastic stickbait on a shaky head jig.
“He got it almost to the boat but it was just out of my reach with the net,” said Phillips, who wasn’t sure just how big the fish was.
The next morning the pair went back to the same spot.
Nickerson said he tied on a Storm Thunderstick plug and cast to the same spot where he had hooked the fish the previous evening.
The bass struck, he said, and that time Phillips was able to get the bass in the net. The shaky head hook from the previous evening was still in the fish’s mouth.
As soon as the weigh-in stage opened, the pair headed that way in the 1987 bass boat they bought together a couple of years ago for $1,500.
After the fish was officially weighed, tournament officials and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries conservation police officers started asking them, individually, basic questions about the catch.
That is normal protocol to make sure all rules and regulations have been followed, but it made Nickerson uncomfortable.
“Ever since I caught it I felt like I was being treated like criminal,” Nickerson said.
He returned at midday for the polygraph test.
“I was nervous and excited because I was about to win a $30,000 bass boat, plus the $1,000 prize for having the biggest fish of the hour,” said Nickerson, who said he and Phillips had already started looking into their tax liability for the prize.
Nickerson said the examiner ran through the same questions three times, and said he then informed him that he’d failed on the questions regarding rules and whether or not the fish had been “placed” where he caught it.
After learning that he’d been thrown out of the tournament, Nickerson said, he contemplated quitting fishing permanently and leaving his gear at the lake.
He said he understands that he will have difficulty convincing others that he didn’t cheat.
“I’m not a liar,” he said. “If I was willing to cheat I’d be getting into other tournaments.”
Missing out on the tournament’s top prize was disappointing, Nickerson said.
“But if nothing else I just want my name cleared,” he said. “They can keep the damn boat.”
The 670 entrants were a big jump from the 500 who participated last spring.
“That’s not just a record for Smith Mountain Lake, but for the whole tour,” Jones said.
Anglers came to the lake from 15 states.
The event will be back, Jones said.
“We love coming here,” he said. “It’s one of our favorite stops.”
Angler Geoff Hill, who won several hourly cash prizes, said he enjoys the tournament’s unique format of hourly weigh-ins for cash prizes with the grand prize of a boat.
“There’s no other tournament that you can pay a $150 entry fee and everyone has a chance to win a boat,” Hill said. “With this one, all you need is one lucky cast.”
And the ability to pass a polygraph test afterward.
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