How could an off-duty, Oklahoma game warden find himself, drinking beer in a small town bar in western Montana with a bunch of deer-poaching strangers? But, there I was, shooting pool, swapping lies and listening to tales of deer poaching.
Wardens often say: "Being a game warden isn’t about what we do, it's about who we are." Meaning the purpose and passion of wildlife law enforcement can get in your blood, so much so at times, that even when off duty, one might naturally weave himself into some interesting situations.
I had a dear friend named David, now passed away, who owned a very successful oilfield-related business. He loved to fly, owned his own plane and often used it for business trips. Sometimes, if schedules worked out, I'd buzz around the country with him on short business trips, usually to some refinery in some interesting locale.
I was single at the time so the lure of adventure was incentive enough. When David offered a trip to Montana, I didn't even ask where; I knew “anywhere, Montana” would be a good place to go.
On this particular trip, David would be conducting a pipeline assessment for a refinery in Glendive, Montana, which is a very remote place. After helping him with some note-taking during our work day, I later conducted some assessments of my own regarding the local “flora and fauna” of this arid region.
That evening, as I headed off to the local “watering hole,” David made it clear he only had two rules for me to follow before making a quick turnaround to Tulsa in 48 hours: “Go-Go, stay out of trouble and be on the mule by daybreak on Sunday morning.” “Go-Go” was my nickname, and “Mule” was David's nickname for his twin-engine, six-seat, Seneca aircraft.
It had been an exhausting marathon of a flight northward, followed by a tedious Saturday pipeline assessment, and then dinner. David headed off early to bed. But me, oh no; it was Saturday night!
Fast-forward several pitchers of beer, numerous racks of pool, mix in the southern drawl from an unrefined Okie accent, and the local boys were bubbling with curiosity. This was just a town of 2,000-plus people, so I was more than just a new face in town. To the tight-knit group of 20-somethings I was having a good time with, I was an oddity. They just had to know more about this funny-sounding, mid-30s guy shooting pool with them. Why was he here?
The game warden in me generated plenty of its own curiosity regarding their wildlife and hunting activities, so I played along. Being from the "sprawling metropolis” of Tulsa, Oklahoma, played heavily into their curiosity about big-city lifestyle alone, but when they learned I was an “airplane pilot" who loved to hunt deer, but wasn't very good at it, they seemed excited.
I had conjured up the cover story on a moment’s notice explaining why “my plane” was sitting idle at their nearby airstrip. It wasn't long before several of them began making it known they wanted a joyride. But what did they have that I wanted? From there, the long night’s adventure emerged.
Four guys surfaced as hardcore hunters among the large gathering of friendly men and women. They'd bragged about some success on the previous night with one of them coaxing me outside to proudly show off deer hair and a couple of dents on his car's grill.
Their claim was that if they couldn't shoot them (deer), they'd simply run them over. They were insistent they could show me some good times in the deer fields after the bar closed at 2 a.m. After giving me a wild Montana deer rodeo, their payback would be a quick spin in “my” twin-engine airplane.
A deal was struck, but not before I expressed how wary I was of game wardens. I needed assurances they wouldn't get me thrown in jail and that evoked lots of inebriated-induced laughter. But, I insisted with seriousness, this was scary stuff to a big-city boy. They began easing my concerns by berating the local warden, bragging extensively about how well they knew his schedule and could hunt with impunity.
When closing time finally came, my new friends were calling my bluff. "This pilot” needed to find a pay phone and make a call (this was before the days of cellular phones), advising my clients that I'd be out a little later than planned and not to worry. Really, I desperately needed to call and convince a small-town police dispatcher of an unbelievable story and hoped they could roust up a game warden on short notice to come catch us poaching.
About the moment I was getting hopeful that everything was working out, the dispatcher began asking, "Now, who are you? From where? I'm going to have to connect you to a supervisor, Sir."
That's as far as I got before my new friends began noisily pouring out of the bar and surrounding me. My words quickly shifted to, "Yes, Dave, don't worry; everything's fine. We'll just be cruising around in a little car and be back in a little while.”
Moments later, a little sedan with five grown men crept down a dark alley. One guy slipped into his parent’s house to collect a gun and some ammo while the rest of us waited at the car. That's when a police car came easing down the alley way and stopped behind us. It was good to see a “friendly,” but I was a little nervous on how this might go down because it was now 3 a.m. and we had to smell like a brewery. The officer lined us all up and called for IDs from everyone.
The officer knew everyone except me, but as I removed my ID, I tilted my wallet just enough to flash my wallet and badge toward him without revealing the shiny metal to anyone else. I knew he'd spotted the shield with his flashlight for a brief moment and then, while eyeballing me, he casually asked about my visit from Oklahoma. Thankfully, he played along making no references to my occupation.
In Montana, it was legal to spotlight for rabbits and that's exactly the story these characters had cued up for the police officer. Chiding us to stay out of trouble, the officer was on his way and we were on ours. But, these revelers wanted to keep the party going strong and so announced that we had one more stop, which was to get a case of beer.
My excuse was that I needed to use the bathroom but quickly located another payphone, trying to give the local police department necessary details on our destination and intentions. Most importantly though, I was hoping to confirm the local game warden had been put on full alert. But, as luck would have it, the dispatcher said he was off-duty and out of town.
Suddenly, my peripheral vision gave me an adrenalin jolt. One of my new hunting buddies, like a ghost had appeared and was standing right next to me, and he seemed riveted on me. I just knew he had to of heard some of what I'd been saying. My dialogue with the police instantly shifted, without missing a breath, back to Dave and some airplane lingo. The dispatcher picked up immediately on the situation and I was able to hang up.
After lots of driving around, numerous shots fired at fence reflectors, electric-pole insulators, and even one off-road attempt to run down a deer, we were now finally drifting back towards the speck of distant lights that radiated from the small community.
My final poaching lesson came and I found it quite enlightening. The young poaching pros observed a distant set of headlights winding up the hills towards us from town. They seemed confident they knew exactly who it was, and what his next move would be.
One of the guys called out, "That's Deputy Dale!" They knew he would be stopping them and giving them a serious inquisition. Just before the headlights reached our vehicle, these poaching pros pulled their car over. They all stepped out of the car and began waving their arms, in an attempt to hail the officer over like we needed something from him.
The strategy worked like a charm because the deputy drove past and maneuvered a U-turn back to us, never activating any lights, and never acted suspicious of anything. After some friendly chit-chat and another ID check, we were on our way again.
I'd like to end this tale with a note of how these sneaky dudes got caught, but the whole drama ended without incident as we arrived back in town at morning’s first light. My “poaching-guide service” pleaded for a quick buzz around in the plane, but luckily, our late-night hunting outing was unsuccessful, so they didn’t have anything to negotiate with.
People ask us all the time if we think poaching is as bad as it used to be. Unfortunately, the answer is always yes. Game wardens devote their entire lives to preaching and teaching wildlife management and why compliance is vital for future generations to enjoy the outdoors. But, as we achieve success in wildlife numbers, pockets of lazy thrill seekers emerge to plunder what others have worked hard to achieve.
Editor’s note: Want more Game Warden stories? Watch “Wardens presented by Streamlight” on Outdoor Channel. Click here to visit the show page and air times.