On a July morning, Luis DeLeon stood with a nice trout on his stringer at his favorite spot on the Upper Laguna Madre in Corpus Christi and prayed.
“I told the Lord, ‘Give me a red, a good red,’ because I had already caught about five to six reds that were all undersized,” he said. “My wife makes damn good fried redfish, so I wanted it for her.”
A cast and reel later, DeLeon pulled in a redfish, but not just any redfish – one worth $90,000.
“When I grabbed him and picked him up, I saw the tag that said ‘2019 CCA TX/STAR,’” he said. “Boy, you talk about starting to get the jitters in my stomach.”
The Texas Coastal Conservation Association releases 60 tagged redfish along the Texas Coast every May as part of the nonprofit’s annual STAR tournament, which includes other inshore and offshore divisions. The competition runs from the Saturday before Memorial Day through Labor Day. This year, 47,000 have registered.
Catching one of the first 10 tagged redfish during the tournament is akin to reeling in a duffel bag filled with $50,000-$90,000.
The prize for the first five, weighed in and certified, is a truck, boat and trailer package worth $90,000, while the next five win a boat and trailer package worth $50,000. Youth can win $25,000-$50,000 college scholarships in multiple divisions.
In total, more than $1,000,000 in prizes and scholarships are up for grabs.
But if you are not registered and catch a tagged redfish, all you have are two fillets and a lingering story of what could have been.
More than 25% of the released redfish are regularly caught, but less than half by registered anglers, said Dylan Sassman, assistant director. Two have already been caught by unregistered anglers this year.
“Registration is like your cheap fishing insurance to make sure that doesn’t happen to you,” he said. “It is the only insurance you hope you use.”
DeLeon knows the misfortune all too well. Nearly a year to the date from his recent win, he caught a tagged redfish in the same spot. For one of the first times since the tournament started, he had decided not to register that year because he was regularly traveling for work.
“My gut started churning. I was just standing there looking at it and my wife looks up and says, ‘What’s wrong?’ Of course, I got all choked up,” he said about the moment. “After that, I was in my mind a lot all year ... You wouldn’t think it would happen to you, but it can.”
As the purses for Texas fishing tournaments have grown, so has the crackdown on anglers trying to cheat the game. A 2011 addition to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code made committing fraud during a saltwater fishing tournament a third-degree felony if the prize awarded to an individual or team is worth $10,000 or more. Convicted anglers can face up to 10 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
Sassman said people mostly play by the rules in the STAR tournament, which are thorough.
“People don’t really try to cheat us because personally they feel bad cheating a nonprofit that is just trying to get kids on the water,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge of the tournament, we have not awarded a tagged redfish prize to anybody who has attempted to cheat the system.”
Like many tournaments, winners of the STAR agree to take a polygraph test during registration. After catching a tagged redfish, anglers are supposed to turn in their fish and fill out a weigh-in form at the closest of 17 stations scattered along the coast of Texas.
“At first I couldn’t do that paperwork,” DeLeon said. “I was just shaking, really shaking.”
Sassman talks to the winners before a polygraph is scheduled and asks them to retell the story behind the catch.
“Since all the registrations are time-stamped, we know exactly when they register ... when the time of catch is in a window that might appear suspicious, red flags immediately go up,” he said. “With any questionable catch, we use our local sources and interview techniques to piece together a timeline of events and help detect any notion of impropriety.”
All pending winners take polygraphs under the same administrator and conditions in Houston as soon as scheduling is possible. Sassman could not provide too much detail concerning the procedure but said the tournament uses “one of the most respected names in the country,” who does polygraphs for other large tournaments.
Dom Lopez, a 19-year-old Corpus Christi man, who caught the first tagged redfish of the season, said he was nervous before his polygraph simply because he had never taken one.
“I was nervous but excited (because) I had nothing to lie about,” he said. ‘It would be hard to lie, like honestly, that polygraph is really legit.”
Like DeLeon, Lopez’s tagged redfish came after a lesson learned. When he was 8 years old, he watched his father catch a STAR-tagged redfish in Corpus Christi while not registered.
“I wasn’t going to go fishing that day, but something just told me to go,” he said. “I still can’t believe it.
“My dad and I were talking about buying a boat, but now we don’t have to.”