Memories from a Game Warden's diary

By John Ford

The deer hunting season was about to begin and I was scurrying about the district searching for those who might be trying to get an early start.

It was just prior to dusk Oct. 30, 1981, and I was returning home for a quick snack before heading back into the puckerbrush for another evening of waiting for night hunters to venture my way.

Along the way, I decided to patrol a rural back road in Jackson, hoping to see a deer or some other wild game along the way.

As I nonchalantly drove along the narrow path, I observed a vehicle with three men in it approaching from the opposite direction. The trio was intently staring at my cruiser.

As we passed each other, I recognized them as being folks from Burnham who had previously experienced a few illegal run-ins. From their actions and nervous demeanor, I had the impression they were again up to no good.

The two passengers all but broke their necks cranking around to see if I was going to pursue them.

On a so-called gut feeling I decided, at the very least, to inquire why they were cruising a well-known deer hunting area so far away from their own territory.

I quickly spun around to pursue the men in the vehicle, who seemed to be putting a little distance between us at a fairly rapid rate.

Pulling up behind them, I initiated my signal lights to require them to pull over for inspection. They frantically appeared to be stuffing something underneath the front seat as I exited the cruiser and strolled their way.

As I walked past the car, I noticed a small clump of animal hair stuck to the back bumper. I thought they surely wouldn't be poaching at this hour of the day.

As I approached the driver's side, my pal, Ryan, ever so slowly rolled down the window.

"Hi John. What the hell are you doing way out here and why are you pulling us over," he rather sheepishly inquired.

His buddies were staring at me with guilty looks on their faces, akin to having just been caught robbing a fistful of freshly baked cookies from momma's cookie jar.

I noticed the barrel of a rifle sticking out from beneath Ryan's legs and deduced that was the obvious reason for their overt actions when I pulled in behind them.

"Is that rifle loaded, Ryan," I politely asked.

"Of course not. We aren't completely stupid," Ryan smartly remarked.

"Why don't you pass it out to me so I can be sure," I demanded. I secured the weapon and at the same time noticed two spent cartridges on the floorboard of the vehicle.

"Now Ryan, pray-tell, what would the three of you fellows be doing so far away from your own domain? Especially cruising the back roads of this desolate spot with a rifle at this late hour of the day," I inquired.

"Just sighting it in," he half-heartedly chuckled. "The season's gonna start in a few days and we want to be ready. We do have a right to carry a rifle in our car, don't we," he boldly muttered.

"You sure do," I said, "It's what you're doing with that rifle that interests me. Ryan, I'd like to have you open your trunk, if you wouldn't mind? Just to be sure you aren't up to a little deviltry. Now, I'm not accusing you of anything, but it's my job to make sure you aren't up to anything you shouldn't be."

At that point, Ryan became a bit feisty and belligerent. "Now, Gawd-damn it John, I'm not going to be opening my trunk up every time I meet you out here on some gawd-damned back road," he disgustedly muttered.

No, I don't think you will," I shot back, "But just to be sure you're above board and legal this afternoon, I guess I'll ask you to do it this time," I demanded.

The sweat was pouring off his compadres as if they'd been sitting for hours in a sauna. It was obvious they didn't want their friend to give in to my request.

"What if I don't open it," he sheepishly sputtered.

"If you don't open it, Ryan, then I believe I've got enough probable cause to impound your vehicle and we'll get it open one way or another," I aggressively assured him.

"Oh, OK, I'll do it this time, John, but I'm not going to keep doing this every gawd-damned fall every time I meet you," he angrily mumbled.

Ryan slowly exited his car and we walked to the back of the vehicle. Ryan's hands shook like a dog passing razor blades as he ever so slowly slid the key into the locked trunk and hoisted the cover.

A freshly killed buck was sprawled out on top of the spare back tire. The steam was still rolling from its chest cavity.

"Well I'll be damned, Ryan, you've got a deer in there," I rather unexpectedly hollered.

"Yeah, like you didn't know," Ryan humbly responded.

The truth be known, I never expected to find a deer. But I did think maybe they'd shot a fox or some other small wild critter on their travels.

I quickly placed the three men under arrest for illegal possession of one of the state's most-prized game animals. The penalties for the offense had recently been increased from a fine of $200 and no jail time to one with a $500 fine, along with a mandatory three-day jail sentence and the forfeiture of firearms.

For Ryan and his buddies, this late afternoon adventure turned out to be an expensive trip down a rural back road, far away from their territory and right in my own backyard. Perhaps they figured it was safer to poach near the warden's house, assuming he was off elsewhere working and thus they'd have free rein.

It's not all that often when lady luck deals us wardens a good hand. This particular evening, however, lady luck was on my side.

Life was good in the world of law enforcement. Fortunately during this late afternoon trip home for a quick bite, I took a little detour along the way. So much for that early supper.

One never knows who and what they'll see while cruising the back roads of our wilderness, especially right in our own back yard.

"What'cha got in the trunk" was one more pleasant memory to be added to the diaries.

John Ford Sr. is a retired game warden, Waldo County Sheriff and Chief Deputy. The wildlife artist and and award-winning columnist lives in Brooks with his wife, Judy. Hey may be reached at jonnylaw@fairpoint.net.

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