Game wardens turn their attention to the woods
Game wardens love September. We love September because the first hunting seasons of the fall begin and the monotony of water patrol in the hot sun ends.
But game wardens love September for another reason, too: It is the month when we might get a little early cold front. We might be blessed with a cool, clear morning with temperatures in the low 60s, and a morning like that just might put ideas in someone’s head.
Someone might even get the idea to slip into the woods for a tasty mess of pre-season squirrels. And that, ladies and gentlemen, in all honesty, is why game wardens love September.
You see, nothing so clearly defines the roles of poacher and game warden as closed-season squirrel hunting. The poacher knows squirrel season is closed, but he deliberately pursues the illegal game anyway. His goal is to sneak in, harvest a bag of “limb bacon” and sneak out without getting caught.
This, of course, is in direct conflict with the goal of the game warden, which is to protect squirrels (and anything else) during closed seasons and catch anyone who breaks the law.
This game of cat and mouse is a challenging proposition for both players, and there is no denying it is addictive.
For the game warden, it is not only a challenging game, but it also establishes his ranking with his fellow officers. As with any other profession, some are better at it than others, and those agents with the ability to stalk a poacher in the woods and catch him, squirrels in hand, are well respected among their peers.
Pursuit of the September squirrel poacher always promoted a healthy spirit of competition among the agents in our district. I like to think the competitive effort saved a lot of squirrels for the legal hunters of October and established some deterrent among potential lawbreakers.
So with that in mind, I can’t help but reminisce on Septembers gone by and share a few squirrel “war stories.”
One of the squirrel apprehensions I recall from very early in my career was not a case I made. The agent making the catch was the late Burton Wiley. Burton had a quick wit, and was known for coming up with a snappy comeback when circumstances warranted.
On this particular morning. we were working the Bordelonville/Moreauville area in Avoyelles Parish. Not long after daybreak, Burton called by two-way radio and reported he had heard a shot in a small patch of woods on private land. He was going to investigate, and I headed his way for backup.
By the time I arrived, he had his suspect in custody. It was a woman, which was pretty unusual. Her husband was on the scene, too. He had seen the marked Wildlife Enforcement truck driving toward the woods on his property but had gotten there too late to warn his spouse.
Burton caught her with the gun and the one squirrel she had killed. The couple was angry, but the husband was not saying much.
The woman had plenty to say and, among other things, told Burton, “This is my land!”
Never missing a beat Burton responded, “It may be your land but it’s my squirrel.”
Legally speaking he was absolutely correct. That squirrel was public domain unless reduced to possession by legal means. Since it was illegal harvest and we were agents of the state — well, you get the idea.
I never forgot that line, and used it on more than one occasion.
I think my most-memorable case came along right after graduation from law enforcement basic training. In those days an agent could be hired, commissioned and working in the field for several months before attending training. The delay was due to the fact that recruits were trained in basic law enforcement at LSU Continuing Education Center in Baton Rouge. A class did not begin until state and local law enforcement agencies around the state had enough new hires to fill a classroom. Our class began in the summer and went for eight weeks. We graduated at the end of August.
So here it was — September. I was back in the field, all trained up and eager to get at it.
My neighbor was a good man and provided reliable information about violations anytime he heard of something. I checked in with him the weekend I got home and got an earful. It seemed word that I had been away for quite a while had gotten out, and poachers were making the most of my absence. Early morning shots had been heard in a number of places.
It was time to get to work.
Just a couple of mornings later, Wildlife Specialist Leon Dauzat and I were in the woods on Pomme de Terre Wildlife Management Area when we heard small-bore shotgun fire on an adjoining hunting property. We drove onto the property and arrived at a hunting camp, where we saw an older-model sedan parked near the camp. We assumed this to be our hunter’s ride, so we went back up the road, stashed the marked unit out of sight and went in on foot.
We slipped past the camp, down a dim road going deeper into the property. Here, we saw fresh tire tracks; all the while we were hearing shotgun blasts from two or more guns in different nearby locations.
We were not too far down the road before we found a Ford Bronco. No one was around, so we decided to hide and wait by the Bronco. It was not long before we saw a man approaching. He carried a shotgun, and had one of those old-style OD green bags hanging at his hip. The red, bushy tails of several fox squirrels flowed from inside the bag.
When he got to the Bronco, we stepped out and said hello.
He nearly fainted. We counted out nine squirrels — an excellent hunt — and told him he was under arrest. He said that was fine and would cause no problems but had one request, which was to bring his Bronco out of the woods.
We agreed, and Leon got in the back seat while I took the passenger seat up front.
He got the Bronco fired up, and we were on our merry way toward the camp when suddenly a young man stepped out into the dim little woods road and waved.
Our driver said not a word, but drove up to the young guy and stopped. This fellow was on my side of the Bronco. He looked in through the window, focused on my badge and went very pale.
Standing just behind him in the woods was another young fellow of about the same age. He had a similar reaction. This pair was too shocked to do or say anything.
We looked around near the second would-be hitchhiker, and found two shotguns and several more squirrels.
We questioned the pair and learned one of them was the nephew of our first detainee. It was their sedan parked near the camp. They had heard the Bronco start, and slipped up to the road for a look.
Recognizing his uncle’s Bronco, the nephew decided to flag him down for a ride.
He got it, all the way to the Avoyelles Parish Jail.
We had just accomplished the impossible: three squirrel poachers in one morning. As the old mountain men would say, “That shines some!”
Word spread quickly, and things quieted down until the season opened. We also heard from some of the other camp members on the property, and they were pretty happy about our morning’s work.
Noticing the little things pays off in many cases. One of the easiest squirrel cases I ever made was the result of noticing something a little unusual.
One September morning I had checked a couple of places, listening for shots very early but not hearing anything. As the sun began to clear the horizon, it was time to drive around, stopping here or there to look and listen.
It was one of those cool September mornings with a good dewfall, and the grass still glistened with undisturbed delicate dewdrops. Driving past a turn-off at a sweet potato field, I noticed a pair of fresh tire tracks in the dew. It could have just been someone turning around or maybe the farmer checking his crop.
But it was worth a look.
Parking on the roadside near the turn-off, I followed the tracks to the woods at the far end of this small field. Parked near the woods was a pickup with no one around. I hid and waited, and before long the suspect walked out of the woods, gun in hand and wearing his hunting vest with a bulging game pouch.
He opened the driver’s side door and placed the gun in the truck followed by the vest. At that point I stepped out, said hello and told him to step over to the rear of the truck and stand with hands on the tailgate while I took a look in the truck.
He willingly complied, and when I reached for the vest he simply said, “Some squirrels.”
Indeed it was.
It is quite a game, and the wildlife agents don’t win every round. I have been outrun and outwitted more times than I care to admit.
Memories of one squirrel poacher still haunt me. He was hunting with a .22 rifle, and shot all morning as he worked his way through the woods.
I never even saw him and doubt he ever knew anyone else was around.
But the ones that got away are other stories for other times and in abundant supply. Have a great September.