Angling for the Truth

Angling for the Truth

Gabriel Baird
Bee Staff Writer

The Polygraph operator led the angler into the interrogation room and closed the door.

It was time to determine whether this was one heck of a fisherman or just another cheat. A $17,000 prize was on the line.

A week ago, the Rio Vista Bass Festival attracted more than 1,000 anglers. All of them were suspect. Fishermen, after all, are legendary liars, and they caught their fish far from contest judges.

Festival sponsors first hired 46-year-old Ted Todd of Benicia-based TTI Polygraph Examinations three years ago.

Over the years, judges at fishing derbies around the country have heard rumors of cheating and have even foiled a few swindlers. To protect the contests’ integrity, it has become increasingly common to employ a polygraph operator.

American Bass and Nitro Boats, for example, have a tournament next weekend in Clear Lake that will employ a lie detector.

Todd said it’s easy to explain the nationwide trend. “What’s a fisherman’s motto?” he asked. “Early to bed, early to rise, fish like hell and make up lies.”

In 2001, Todd’s first year with the Rio Vista festival, he tested the angler with the biggest fish. The machine detected signs of deception. The fisherman was disqualified.

The hubbub was reported in local newspapers. A blurb ran in Sports Illustrated. Papers lampooned the incident as far away as England and Australia.

The festival sponsors didn’t appreciate the hullabaloo, but they prided themselves on keeping the contest honest. And so they hired the polygraph operator again and again.

This year, 20-year-old Johnny Douthit of Grizzly Island was in his dad’s boat with a buddy near the island at the confluence of two sloughs when the contest started on Oct. 8 at 6 a.m.

The plumber liked the thought of fishing professionally, but he had never caught a contest-winning fish. He cast his line and reeled it in, over and over, again and again.

Noon passed. The sun set.

After nearly 20 consecutive hours of fishing, Douthit baited his hook with a little fish called a splittail. He cast his line. The bait splashed and sank. He reeled. He cast and reeled. Again, he cast and … something hit the bait.

pictureIn the morning, they took the fish to the Rio Vista Bass Festival’s official weigh station. The striped bass was bigger around and larger than Douthit’s legs. He heaved it onto the scale. It weighed 40 pounds 6 ounces – a contest winner.

Now Douthit had to pass the polygraph test. If he had followed the rules – caught the fish during contest hours, at a legal location, using an approved bait – he would be declared the winner and given the grand prize. That’s how he ended up in the interrogation room, alone, with Todd and the lie detector.

The machine looked like an ordinary computer with a special attachment: A laptop connected to a little black box – the polygraph, which sprouted wires and clear plastic tubes.

“There’s no witchcraft or voodoo,” Todd had said earlier. “It’s all straightforward.”

Just the same, Douthit felt nervous.

Todd said that during the test he would ask control questions and relevant questions.

Control questions were ones that, without skipping a beat, anyone could answer honestly. The more pertinent ones were the relevant questions.

Douthit’s involuntary physiological responses to these questions would decide whether he passed.

Todd fastened coils around the angler’s chest and abdomen to record his breathing. He attached electrodes to two of Douthit’s fingertips with Velcro to measure the skin’s sensitivity to electricity. He slipped a blood-pressure cuff onto Douthit’s upper arm.

He pumped up the pressure.

screenData from the connections fed into the polygraph and charted across the laptop’s screen. Todd used the keyboard to adjust the sensors and dialed, like a hacker, into Douthit’s nervous system.

He watched the angler for countermeasures that could invalidate the test, like those detailed on some Web sites. He asked a control question.

Douthit answered. His heart beat and beat and beat again. He breathed.

Beat. Beat. Beat. Breathe.

The longer the blood-pressure cuff gripped Douthit’s arm, the tighter it seemed to squeeze, as though compelling him to tell the truth.

“In regards to the Rio Vista Bass Derby,” Todd asked, “did you follow all of the rules?”

Yes, Douthit said.

His physiological reactions streamed across Todd’s screen.

Beat. Beat. Beat. Breathe.

Beat. Beat. Beat. Breathe.

Beat. Beat. Beat. Breathe.

Todd disconnected the polygraph. He congratulated Douthit. The derby had an honest winner.

Douthit received the keys to the prize fishing boat a few hours later.

Todd packed his cords and tubes, his laptop and the polygraph back into their case. He left by the back door, crossing the parking lot to his Hummer and driving away from the Delta.