August 23, 2016
There may be a million ways to poach, which simply means there's a million ways to get caught. Reminds me of an unusual poaching case involving a guy we will nickname, Rick, for the sake of this true story.
I met Rick when he was applying to become a volunteer hunter education instructor. Our agency – Oklahoma Depart of Wildlife Conservation – requires the local warden to meet, interview and perform a background check on applicants as part of the process.
I noticed on our first phone call discussion, Rick had a bit of a northern accent, so I ask him where was he from, originally. “New York,” Rick said. I had a brief but humorous vision of a salsa commercial and a rope.
All joking aside, I'd found a felony entry on Rick's background check, indicating he'd either lied when checking the appropriate box on his application (that would disqualify him) or simply made a mistake. So, before rejecting his application, I made an appointment with Rick to go by his house for a chat.
He'd been very friendly up to this point but after mentioning the reason for my visit, he sounded a bit agitated. This was either going to be a "Dear John” visit following verification of his conviction, or a "welcome to our group" meeting, assuming we could dispel the criminal allegation.
After a discussion, I learned the crime reported on the background check was accurate; he admitted to feeling embarrassment for what he described as a youthful mistake.
Sitting in his living room, and wanting to divert from the distasteful topic at hand, I began admiring the unique rack of Rick's big buck mount on his rock fireplace. The unusual 14-point didn't demonstrate much in the way of quality taxidermy work, but I bragged to Rick on the size and distinctive antler frame of his trophy.
Rick seemed proud of it, and admiring it together improved his mood. The main beams were interesting in how the tips crossed each other over to one side.
"What a cool deer," I noted. "Where'd you get him?"
This wasn't an interrogation; it was a couple of sportsmen talking deer.
"Oh, I bought it at a flea market several years ago,” Rick said.
Oh, boy, I thought, here we go again. In Oklahoma, it is a common violation to buy and sell deer mounts, especially on the internet, but I knew flea markets were a common trouble spot as well. Restriction on selling mounts in Oklahoma dates back to the market hunting days when pursuit of a dollar far outweighed the importance the future of wildlife.
I explained to Rick how the Oklahoma law had been violated, but his response declared it was not a crime in New York. I didn't know the New York law at the time but stressed the point to him we're not in New York; we’re in Oklahoma.
Yes, a citation could have been issued, but I felt the situation was handled and didn't see the need to elevate the issue. The time Rick and I spent visiting had been stressful enough, and I believed the “teachable moment’ had been educational and productive; I wanted to end it on a positive. I left Rick with a handshake, hoping we had a beginning friendship rather than a resentful ending, but only time would tell.
A few days later, I went back in the same community to investigate something totally unrelated to Rick’s case. One of the area’s habitual poachers happened to be a pawn shop broker and I found myself hanging around his store feigning interest in some merchandise.
Hanging on the wall, I happened to notice a framed bulletin board loaded with pictures of hunters and anglers posing with their harvest or catch. Pinned amongst them was an interesting photograph of a dead deer. It was a large-rack buck with very unique antler tips crossing over to one side.
The deer's tongue was hanging long out the side of his mouth and his lifeless eyes were partially squinting. But who was the hunter in the picture? Only one Caucasian-colored hand could be seen, but it was sporting a particular watch on the wrist.
I later learned Rick had never purchased a hunting license or deer tag; the big buck had never been tagged and checked. It was rumored to have been shot at night from a local golf course. You could say my next visit to Rick's house wasn’t too friendly, especially after asking him "What time do you have on your watch?"
Like game warden stories? Watch “Wardens” on Outdoor Channel. You also can watch past episodes of “Wardens” on MyOutdoorTV.com.