fish cop

The Unaccomplished Outlaw Angler

I recently discovered a blog kept by a Fish Cop—you know, a Game Warden. It’s pretty cool to think that under that neatly-pressed uniform, shiny badge and gruff, authoritative exterior, not only is a game agent an actual person, but that they keep a blog, too.  A pretty entertaining blog if you don’t mind my saying so. Check it out, but not until after you read this entry, please.

Discovery of A Fish Cop Out of Water caused me to reflect on my encounters with game agents in the past, and I thought that I might air my grievances get a load of guilt off my chest. You see, I’ve never publicly written of my run-ins with the law until now. I’ve spoken in close circles of my jaded past, but there’s something very liberating about putting it in print on the world wide internets. It’s like the ultimate confessional.

As a hunter and angler I can tell you that the chances of encountering a game agent aren’t nearly as likely as one might think. At least not around these parts. Certainly the chances are far fewer than running into (hopefuly not literally) a police officer. After all, there always seems to be a traffic cop lurking in the shadows whenever one executes a rolling “California Stop” at an intersection, or when one fails to signal when changing lanes. Or when jay-walking late at night in downtown Seattle with your wife before she was your wife, and actually before you ever started dating her. No shortage of blue light specials then, by golly.

Conversely one seldom sees a trooper when, say,  a semi-tractor towing a massive load of hay tailgates you when you’re already going 75 in a 70 and there’s a 30 knot side-wind blowing in central Washington, and when you pull over to let the the impatient trucker go by, the semi blows past scattering pieces of its load all over the interstate causing a safety issue.

And where is the cop to be found when the local “Blue Truck Lady From Hell” who consistently drives 20 mph no matter that the speed limit is 45-50 and there are 127 angry, impatient commuters stacked up behind her, all hoping to pass the person in front of them as they try in desperate vain to break free of their single lane confines? She’s a local legend.

Don’t get me wrong—I do not have any ill-feelings toward law enforcement. In fact, I have friends who are municipal cops, state troopers and even one who is DEA agent. It just seems that whenever one wishes there were cops around, they’re off sampling pastries. And in the rare, off-chance that an otherwise law-abiding citizen commits an unintentional error, there’s a copper just waiting to write ticket.

Click it- you know you want to.

In my experience, there are never any game agents around when you need them to bust a bunch of whiskey-guzzling sky-busters who have clearly shot more than their limit of ducks. Certainly there’s never an agent until you least expect it (they’re a stealthy lot and seem to materialize out of nowhere). From what I know, it is not a perceived  lack of agents—the fact of the matter is that there are scant few to cover the relatively large areas for which they are tasked with patrolling. During 25 years of hunting waterfowl, upland birds and big game, I have had encounters with game agents on 3 occasions: twice while duck hunting and once while pheasant hunting.

Only one of those encounters resulted in a citation because I had not yet recorded a pheasant harvest on my punch card. The reason was simple: I didn’t have a pen in my hunting vest and planned to record my harvest back at the truck. Well, the game agent obviously didn’t realize that I was an Eagle Scout and a person of high integrity. He had no way of knowing that as a rule I always use non-toxic shot when required to do so and have never pulled the plug on my shotgun. Nor did the agent know that I never shoot more than my limit (I’m an unaccomplished shot so that’s never even been a temptation). And so he wrote me up for a fine, which I got reduced by pleading my case in court  (conveniently I was hunting locally so the courthouse was less than ten miles from my home). I often think that I wouldn’t have been cited for this infraction had it not been for another blemish on my record that occurred a bunch of years earlier while not fishing on the Grand Ronde River in Southeastern Washington.

My college buddy Jawn, with whom I went gear fishing with last January, decided to get married a bunch of years ago, and for his bachelor party he assembled a questionable group of guys for a weekend of festivities. Jawn’s a good old boy at heart who grew up fishing and hunting around his hometown of Clarkston, WA so it seemed fitting that we should do something outdoorsy for his bachelor party rather than, say, going to Vegas. So we put together a rag-tag flotilla of drift boats and rafts, and headed into the Blue Mountains destined for our launch point on the Grand Ronde River. It was a beautiful summer day from what I can recall (it was a long time ago). We had a small amount of beer with us, and one member of the expedition had with him his fly rod. It was not me. You see, back in those days I was wandering aimlessly in an empty space of time somewhere between when I fly fished as a kid and when I became completely obsessed with it as a mature middle-aged adult. I was not fishing on this trip. Repeat: I was not fishing.

As we headed downstream (no great details can be provided and there were no photos taken that I am aware of), we stopped at a long gravel bar on the river right. We beached the boats and got out to drink a beer, throw rocks, and cool our toes in the river. Floyd the Fly Angler strung up his rod and headed upstream to do a little casting. Like a stray dog looking for a handout, I followed behind and watched as he laid out a series of gentle casts, mended his line and fished the run. As he did so, I fondly recalled the times spent doing the same thing as a kid. Memories came flooding back. Good memories.

“Wanna give it a go?” offered Floyd.

“Sure, why not,”  I replied.

It wasn’t long before the rod felt natural in my hand and after a few casts that I perceived to be far better than they likely were, I handed the rod back to Floyd.  “Thanks,” I said, “I really should get back into fly fishing one of these days.” I believe Floyd’s answer was something along the lines of, “Yeah, you should. Then we can go wet a line sometime.” It was a lot of years before I made good on my intention and I haven’t seen Floyd since, but I digress—that has no bearing on this story.

Shortly thereafter we got back in the boats and resumed our downstream migration. As we rounded a bend in the river, someone called out, “Who’s that? Jawn, do you know him?”  Standing atop a bluff on the opposite side of the river was an officer of the law, watching our flotilla through field glasses.

“Yeah, I know him, ” Jawn replied.

The game agent waved us over and each of the boats obeyed by paddling across the current to the far bank. The agent scrambled down the embankment, his one hand cautiously hovering above his holster, the other reaching for a tablet of paper in his chest pocket.  As he approached there were no exchanges of pleasantries, just a stern order to for each of us fishing to produce fishing licenses. Since only one of the group was fishing, I neither said nor did anything.  When the agent’s gaze stopped at me and he demanded to see my license, I replied (in all honesty), “I don’t have a license. I’m not fishing.”

“What do you call what it was that you were just doing?” asked Mr. Game Agent, a dry hint of sarcasm in his tone. The sunlight glinted off his badge and momentarily blinded me.

Squinting, I said (again honestly), “Oh, I was just making a couple of casts. I wasn’t really fishing.” Little did I know at the time how prophetic those words would be many years later: Just casting. Not fishing.

Mr. Game Agent would have none of that, and wrote me up for a hefty fine. I have no doubt he knew that if I were to show up in court I could probably have gotten the fine reduced, but given that the Asotin County courthouse was a 6 hour drive from my home and would have meant a day’s lost wages and a bunch of money in gas, he wagered safely that I would not appear to contest the ticket.

Ever since then whenever I go casting, I take my fishing license. And even though there are no fish in most of the rivers I frequent, I pinch the barbs on my flies when required to do so. I refuse to chance it.

My name is the Unaccomplished Angler, and yes–I’ve been cited for not fishing, illegally. It feels good to finally get this off my chest.

OK, now you are free to go check out A Fish Cop Out of Water. Tell the warden I sent you—maybe they’ll send me a get out of jail free card for the referral.