Larry Lyons: A chapter from a game warden’s diaryPublished 8:59am Wednesday, October 28, 2009
The cold, rainy weather hasn’t been inspiring to be out and about so I’m thinking this might be a good time to break from the norm and try a story from my game warden days in the remote Cascade Mountains of Washington State.
There’s a certain mystique surrounding game wardens. It seems they are almost ghostly, an apparition appearing out of nowhere at the mostly unlikely times and places. And I can tell you game wardens work hard for that image. A perfect example is the time I was up on the Wind River working salmon snaggers.
There’s a particular long, deep hole where the salmon always stacked up like firewood and poachers just couldn’t resist. They would jerk monstrous, weighted treble hooks through the schools of salmon, sinking the hook deep into their flesh and winching them in one after another, a sinfully illegal act. On the wide, rocky beach next to the pool was an immense log jamb washed down and stacked by spring floodwaters. The perfect game warden hidey-hole. I spent all afternoon and evening without seeing anything bigger than a chipmunk. As dusk turned dark I headed for my truck stashed a mile away.
As I neared the road I heard vehicles coming and saw their bobbing headlights pull into the parking area near the river. I snuck up through the bushes to see what was going on. The occupants built a fire and broke out the beer but I was sure there was more than partying on the agenda. I snuck back to the snagging hole and hunkered down deep into the log jamb. A freezing, cramped hour went by, then another and another. It was around midnight when I heard whispers along the river bank. Then I heard the sloshing of wallowing, snagged salmon and the thumps of rock to fish as they dispatched their ill gotten booty. Not once did they turn on a light and there was only an occasional whisper. These guys were pros.
Now was the dilemma of what to do. The moment I revealed myself they would either scatter like a covey of quail or group up and fight. As I mulled over my options I heard a thump right above my head and the swish, swish of fishing line swirling in the air. One of them had snagged their hook on a stump right above me and now he was crawling in toward me to free it. I bent over between two logs. He stepped over my back and was now standing right above me. Well, one in hand is better than all of them in the bushes. I grabbed him by the ankle and yelled, “Game Department, everyone stay where you are!” Yea, right. The rocks clattered as the rest of them sprinted into the dark. I can only imagine what went through this poor guy’s mind. Here in the pitch black middle of nowhere some unknown thing suddenly has him.
At first he just went limp from shock. I must give him credit, though. He quickly recovered and began kicking at me with his free leg. I tried to pull him down to my level but his pants started to come off. Thinking he would likely break free I yanked off his tennis shoe, hoping that would slow him down. I then pulled myself up to his level. He had his arms wrapped around an upright stump and I couldn’t break him loose. I mustered all I could and gave a mighty yank. He popped loose like the cork from a champagne bottle, I lost my grip on him and he did an inverted swan dive off the log jamb, landing flat on his back on the rocks six feet below.
There was a big WHACK-SWOOSH sound, which I envisioned was his head splitting open. To my relief he bounced to his feet like a cat and began a hobbling, one shoed run. I quickly caught up and tackled him at which point he gave up. “You okay,” I asked? “What was that noise?” He laughed and pulled a dripping, smashed beer can out of his coat pocket. “You broke my beer!”
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org