Photo courtesy of the Vermont Historical
Game warden Chad Barrett (right) and trainee Robert Currier
stand in a field in Middlesex during the start of a long shift
Friday looking for game violations by poachers. From October
through early December, wardens are often straight out responding
to complaints and tips about illegal hunting, a practice that
dates back more than two centuries in Vermont.
They have been called miscreants, outlaws, poachers,
deer-jackers, game hogs and certainly, worse.
Ever since Vermont's first fish and wild game law was passed in
1779, the lure of venison and the thrill of an illicit hunt has
brought out the worst, not to mention the wiliest, of humankind:
people hell-bent on taking a deer, any time, any which way.
Peruse old stories and historical documents on deer hunting and
you'll find no shortage of opprobrium, scorn and lament about the
"Most of the game laws are made on account of the
thoughtlessness and avariciousness of a few all-around
lawless people," opined a 1916 article in the annual conservation
issue of "The Vermonter" magazine. It went on to call poachers
"game hogs" who illegally damage a resource that belongs to all
A 1904 article in the "American Rifleman" magazine criticizes
Vermont "miscreants (to avoid worse epithets)... who are a law unto
themselves and do not hesitate to kill in utter disregard of the
Vermont can tally more than 230 years of determined illegality
in pursuit of the almighty buck, or the unfortunate doe - though by
the late 1800s deer were hunted to virtual extinction, leading to
hard times even for poachers. Today, the deer herd is estimated at
123,000 and in a world were just about everything has changed from
Vermont's early history, poaching is one of the few things that
remains the same (though the weapons and tactics may have changed.)
Think of it as an enduring, if not exactly laudable, Vermont
Few think about it more, especially at this time of year, than
the state's 27 field game wardens, who are annually confronted with
illegal hunting activities that vary from brazen to clever,
impromptu to clumsy and almost incomprehensibly stupid, as well as
sometimes dangerous. (The only fatality in the history of
Vermont game wardens occurred in 1978 when a poacher beat warden
Arnold Magoon to death with a big flashlight.)
The weeks from Oct. 6, when bow hunting season opens, through
Nov. 10, when rifle season begins, and then on through Dec. 9, when
muzzle-loading and the second bow season ends, may be known as deer
hunting season. But for game wardens, it might as well be known as
"I would say during deer season, about half my time is spent on
it," says warden Chad Barrett, who spent Thanksgiving Day planting
a deer decoy and staking it out before dawn, took a mid-day break
and was then out again later in the evening.
Trying to catch poachers is an often difficult task for various of
reasons, mostly having to do with the time it takes the state's
small warden force to get to the scene of suspicious rifle shots or
activity or a dead deer. Barrett covers all the way from his home
in Waterbury Center down through the Mad River Valley and into
Granville - a distance that easily takes an hour to cover along
busy Route 100. According to the Fish and Wildlife Department, each
warden oversees roughly 300 square miles on average.
"We've just got our finger in the dike," says Barrett, who cites
an out-of-state study circulated among Vermont Fish and Wildlife
officials that estimated that for every poacher caught, 10 get
Lt. Curtis Smiley, a 19-year veteran warden now stationed
in Essex, has written about the history of the state's game
laws and wardens. Each year inevitably adds to the rich lore of
tales about poaching and game wardens who find themselves playing a
"cat and mouse" game, he says. However, sometimes, it's anything
Smiley himself was involved in one of the more dicey and brazen
incidents back around 2000, "almost right in front of my
house," when he was stationed in Plainfield.
He was driving on his day off in broad daylight on a rural road
following a car which had a legal doe strapped to its trunk when
the vehicle slowed to a crawl, stopped, and a muzzleloader suddenly
popped out the window and fired at a deer in a field.
Smiley still remembers his astonishment: "Like really, did he
just do that?" (Shooting from the road is illegal). He figures the
driver didn't know anyone was behind him, let alone a game warden,
because the deer on the trunk blocked the view. Smiley ended up
wrestling the gun away and facing down three men in the car with
loaded guns while a passerby saw what was going on and called state
police for backup.
"They were pretty shocked, I think," Smiley says. His arrest
caught a well-known poacher and highlighted the often inept actions
"In fall, it's generally just people out doing stupid things,"
says Smiley, "usually young males."
Major Dennis Reinhardt, who oversees the field game wardens as
deputy chief, seconds that impression. He cites a perfect example:
the day Chelsea Game Warden Jeffrey Whipple didn't have to go very
far to find a couple of drunk poachers with a deer.
They had passed out in their car and conveniently parked in
Barrett says the last thing he always asks poachers and
deer-jackers in his investigations is why they did it.
"It seems like out of about 15 guys I arrest a year for
poaching, there's only two or three say I lost my job, the
economy's bad, I need the meat," Barrett says. The rest? Young
people whose reasons were "drunk, smoking dope, nothing better to
Barrett recalls a particularly wanton poaching spree five years
ago that involved three men roaming between Stowe and Waterbury
Center, using a crossbow to go deer-jacking between 2 and 5 a.m.
They killed at least five deer.
"They would switch who would shoot and who would drive and who
would hold the flashlight," he says. A suspicious passerby tipped
wardens off, leading to their arrests.
Stupidity isn't limited to the actual shooting. Many a poacher's
undoing involves making the mistake of bragging about their
escapades in a bar or to friends, according to wardens.
Still, illegal taking of deer can be quite discrete. Wardens
know well that for some there's a deer camp tradition of providing
"camp meat" for the crew. Then there are notorious poachers, even
families, known for their wily skills. They hunt carefully and in
places where no one is likely to catch them.
Photographer John Miller of Coventry, who wrote and photographed
hunters in his beautiful book "Deer Camp - Last Light in the
Northeast Kingdom," collected many funny stories about wardens'
escapades with poachers, which he says are passed on through
generations and take on almost mythic proportions.
One of his favorites is the time now-retired Northeast
Kingdom warden Norman Moreau was on a night-time stake-out by a
field with a deputy when they were startled by a loud rifle shot.
They laid low to see what would happen and soon saw the silhouette
of two men dragging something toward them in the dim moonlight.
When they got to the truck, Moreau and his deputy jumped out and
announced themselves to two startled poachers.
In the dark, says Miller, they had mistaken Moreau's truck for
their own. "They dragged the deer right to the warden," he
Chalk that one up for the game wardens in Vermont's long-running
contest of wits.
In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont's
innovators, people, ideas and places. Andrew Nemethy is a veteran
journalist and editor who lives in Calais.