Mark Twain said it best: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” We recently had an excellent example of that provided to us live and online by the good people of Central Texas. The story starts when 25-year-old Dustin Heathman has the “best day of his life” on Lake Austin and decides to post about it on a local online fishing forum (www.austinbassfishing.com). It all went quickly downhill from there.
“Never in my LIFE have I caught fish like I caught em this morning,” is how Heathman began his post, and he then proceeded to tell the story of boating 40 bass and keeping 22. There was only one problem–Heathman was alone on the boat and there’s a 5-bass per person limit in Texas. To make matters worse, he posted pictures of 15 very dead bass, neatly lined up on the deck of his boat…which was sitting in his driveway. One of the pictures even included his wife and baby daughter alongside the fish.
It didn’t take long for the fishing forum’s members to pounce, and even by today’s Internet standards, the onslaught was brutal. Post after post materialized, most of them soundly bashing Heathman. Of course, Heathman didn’t go down without somewhat of a fight, but his replies weren’t very well thought out, and he came off sounding defensive. In the end, they just added fuel to the fire and the pummeling continued. I remember after reading the entire thread feeling like I’d just watched a lion kill on the Discovery Channel. The post was one of ABF’s biggest, and in the one week that the post was still open, it logged a record number of comments before finally being shut down by moderators.
Of course, the tale ends poorly for Heathman after fellow forum members contact TPWD and turned him in. Although the case is still under investigation, all the evidence needed to convict him was very efficiently uploaded, for the entire world to see, by Heathman himself. And now he potentially faces thousands of dollars in fines and restitution.
From beginning to end, the sad but fascinating story served as a great lesson for all outdoorsman who choose to share their fishing and hunting trips online. Yes, it may very well provide your 15 minutes of fame, but the ride may not be what you expected. Because we aim to educate as well as entertain here at LSC, at no extra charge, we present the following Lessons Learned from this unfortunate fish tale.
Lesson 1. You have the right to remain silent; it’s not just good legal advice. Bottom line, unless you’re walking a straight and narrow line, be careful about what you post online. Ironically, everyone who read his post saw the train wreck coming, except for Heathman. Even as the thread started to unravel all around him, his responses painted a picture of someone not even trying to exercise any restraint or judgment. Instead, he exercised his right to free speech by opening mouth and inserting his foot…deeply. The third post in the monster-sized thread said it best, “This should be good.” And it was.
Lesson 2. Know your target audience or they will make a target of you. I mean let’s face it, no matter what, Heathman was going to catch hell when he went online and bragged about keeping three times the legal limit of bass. But I’ve seen other online anglers heckled relentlessly for filleting an eight-pound bass even though the fish was legal and the angler had every right to do so. There are strains of purist bass anglers out there who believe that only troglodytes keep big bass for the frying pan, and I’ve seen them rant at many a poor slob for daring to diminish the lunker gene pool by throwing a big bass into hot grease. Can you legally keep an eight-pound bass? Yes. Should you post about it on a bass forum? Probably not, unless you have a flame proof suit handy.
Lesson 3. This is 2012, and anything you post online can be used against you in a court of law. If you don’t know this, then you’re not watching the news lately because each night it brings us examples of wrongdoers convicted by the files in their personal computers and even their social media content. It’s no mystery these days why personal computers are the first things seized by police executing search warrants. Ironically, when advised by a fellow poster to take down the post, not only did Heathman ignore the advice, he actually ridiculed the poster who was simply trying to help him. “Charging me because of an online post??” replied an indignant Heathman. “LMFAO!!! Where did you go to law school? The toilet store????” Apparently, Heathman doesn’t watch the news.
Lesson 4. A little humility and some basic people skills go a long way. From the beginning, Heathman’s posts revealed a hint of arrogance. You would think that with the law clearly not on his side, that he’d be a little contrite. He was eventually, but only much later in the thread when the enormity of the situation finally dawned on him. He also displayed an unearned sense of entitlement by reasoning that over-harvesting this time wasn’t so bad because most of the time, he didn’t keep fish at all. “It all comes out in the wash,” was how Heathman put it in one post. Apparently, in the eyes of the law, it doesn’t.
Lesson 5. If you’re looking for irony, you’re in the right place. The alleged poaching took place on a small lake that also happened to be hosting the Texas Law Enforcement Bass Tournament when the incident occurred. At one point, Heathman bragged that he was catching fish after fish and the tournament anglers who were fishing all around him were “really scratchin their heads!” and that “No one was draggin em in like I was!” As far as I know, no one has accused Mr. Heathman of being without a large set of cajones.
Lesson 6. A thousand bucks is a thousand bucks. Early in the thread, someone mentions that a fellow forum member might turn in Heathman. Of course, Heathman scoffed at it, and at least one moron posted something about having no respect for “snitches.” Then, a game changer occurred when someone reminded the collective that TPWDs’ Operation Game Thief program offers rewards of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of poachers. A hyperlink to Operation Game Thief’s informant site was even provided. I wish I could have seen the look on Heathman’s face when he first read that post.
Lesson 7. The Keystroke is mightier than the sword. The net is crowded with people of questionable character; I think we can all agree with that. But I see this thread more as a study of human nature and our sense of right and wrong. In dealing with Heathman, some of his fellow forum members tried to give him guidance. Some spit fire at him. A few defended him. Many just opened a beer and enjoyed the show. But if you look at this thread as a microcosm of society in Texas today, then I have to admit that I’m glad I live in a state where wrongdoing was dealt with in the way I saw in this post–sternly, but fairly and, yes, even with a bit of compassion. In the end, the collective was able to police itself, and I was glad to see that.
Epilogue: I never intended this piece to be a bashing, but you have to admit this story begs to be told, if for no other reason, than because it’s better to learn these things at someone else’s school of hard knocks. Heathman will likely be fined $25 to $500 per fish, and he’ll have to pay restitution which isn’t going to be cheap either. I’m sure he’ll be shunned, at least for a while, by his fellow Austin bass anglers. And if his wife is anything like mine, she’s already given him a tongue lashing worse than those he got online. Actually, a part of me feels sorry for Dustin Heathman.
A fellow forum member explained that Heathman probably didn’t mean harm and was just excited and got carried away. Part of me wants to believe that. I mean, why else would anyone post an online report, complete with pictures, portraying himself as a poacher? But I understand that not everyone is going to give him the benefit of a doubt. It was probably put best by Clancy W. who rightfully pointed out that Heathman, “Poaches bass, post about it on a bass fishing site that preaches conservation and doesn’t expect to catch hell for it? Smart move…”
Postscript: I sent Dustin Heathman a request for an interview in order to to provide his side of the story, but have not heard back from him. If you have a few spare hours to kill and want to read the entire original post, click here: Austin Bass Fishing
Lone Star Chronicles: Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish