A half dozen, good-sized yellow perch lay on the ice and another one tugged at the end of my line, 35 feet down. I was just about to bring the perch through the hole in the ice of Lake Bomoseen when Jim Lynch gave me the word.
Looking back over my shoulder I could see the deep green uniform of a game warden, talking with several anglers as he checked their fishing licenses.
“That’s just great,” I told my fishing pal. I had feverishly searched around for my fishing license at around 5 a.m. that late-December morning. It wasn’t until later, out on the ice, that it occurred to me that the license was stuffed in the backpack I used during the deer season, a few weeks earlier.
Accompanying the warden was this man with jet-black hair and a boyish face. He was underdressed for a day out on the ice but didn’t appear to be bothered by the wind or the cold.
“Who’s this yuppie?” I say to myself as the two men approached us.
I recognized the local warden as Greg Eckhardt, a smiling, fit lawman who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. And the man with him looked very familiar.
Patrick Berry extended his hand and we spoke briefly about ice fishing. Eckhardt, to his credit, recalled checking my license during a morning out with my son, bass fishing in July, on this same lake. “It’s no problem,” Eckhardt says with a smile.
Berry, the newly-appointed commissioner of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department may look like a yuppie out of Middlebury College, but he brings some impressive credentials to his job.
An avid fly fisherman and upland game hunter, Berry has accepted what may be the most thankless, challenging position in state government.
But the 41-year-old former trout fishing guide, appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, seems to be taking it all in stride.
“I’ve been all but a few weeks on the job and it’s already my fault that there might be a winter deer kill,” he says during a long interview, one that touched on family, his time guiding fly fishermen out west, hunting for partridge, the magic of spring turkey hunting and the challenges he faces.
Berry was speaking in jest about the winter deer kill, of course, but he makes a good point. He now owns all that is both good and bad, when it comes to the deer herd, considered sacred by so many Vermonters, as well as a host of other issues confronting Fish & Wildlife.
Berry faces a daunting task. With proposed cuts in both state and federal budgets for 2011, with a segment of the deer hunting population up in arms over a dismal buck kill and a wide array of other challenges, the new Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department commissioner will be tested often — and early.
The winter of 2010-11 has been marked by deep snow and extended cold weather, a combination that has proven in the past to be deadly to the state’s deer herd.
Berry will be in the proverbial hot seat later this month when a series of five deer hearings are held around the state. The hearings are held to gauge public opinion on the health of the deer herd, the prospects for the 2011 deer seasons and to discuss with hunters the results of the 2010 hunting season.
If a special deer meeting that was held in Castleton in January is any indication, a large number of deer hunters were glaringly unhappy with what they found in the woods, particularly during the all-important firearms buck season in November.
Some angry hunters stood at the meeting and spoke of hunting day after day and not seeing a single deer.
Berry will likely attend some of those hearings and will hear, firsthand, about the frustrations of hunters, much like the one in Castleton who told deer biologists: “I hunted for 11 days in this zone. I didn’t see a deer. Something is wrong in the woods.”
Berry knows what lies ahead, but seems to relish the challenge. He says he recognizes that Vermonters are somewhat unique in how they view hunting, fishing and trapping.
“There is a strong passion and opinion from the sporting community. It comes from the best intentions because they care about the resource,” Berry says.
Steve Wright, a Craftsbury resident who served for four years as Fish & Wildlife commissioner, says he firmly believes that Berry is the right man for the job — at just the right time.
“I just feel privileged to have Patrick sitting in that chair,” Wright says. “All of Vermont should feel privileged. He has a broad background in understanding fish and wildlife resources, especially the cultural and economic importance to the state in general.”
Wright and Berry have been fishing and hunting pals for more than a decade.
“He’s multi-talented to a ridiculous point. He has an intellectual and artistic flair. He’s also the best fly caster I’ve ever seen and he’s good with a shotgun,” Wright says.
This kind of praise coming from an outdoorsman such as Wright is pretty impressive. He is arguably the most safety-conscious hunter I have ever had the pleasure of hunting with.
One morning, more than a decade ago, Wright joined me for a spring turkey hunt near my home in Castleton. During the entire time we hunted, covering a good deal of territory, Wright kept the hinge of the shotgun he carried — a 20-gauge over-and-under — open.
Wright, who served as commissioner from 1985 to 1989, says that Berry will not be a “yes-man” dressed in a suit, one who will tell people what they want to hear.
“He brings a stone-cold candor to all of his dealings,” says Wright, “meaning he’s straight with you and he expects the same from you. When the cards are on the table, Patrick doesn’t play any games.”
Whether partridge and woodcock hunting in their favorite woodlot or striped bass fishing off Cape Cod, Wright describes Berry as an “intense” outdoorsman.
“He’s very bright, but with a well-defined sense of humor, and he likes good scotch,” Wright says.
Berry is a talented carpenter, a wildlife artist and a tri-athlete, according to Wright, a man of considerable talents — talents that can prompt a lesser man to examine his own worth and accomplishments.
“He taught me how to fish for striped bass. He introduced me to the Vineyard and whole range of incredible experience down there,” Wright says. “You could just go on and on about Patrick.”
Wright says the demands of being the commissioner — hearings at the State House, constant travel and a job that puts you constantly in the public eye — can weigh heavily on any appointee.
“He’ll really do well in that position, provided it doesn’t burn him out,” he says. “I was fried after four years. But that was my own fault.”
But Berry, Wright says, brings a different personality to the job.
“Patrick’s constitution is a lot stronger than mine,” Wright says. “He spends his weekends with his family. It takes a smart man to make those distinctions.”
A native of Maryland, Berry lives in East Middlebury with his wife Brooke and sons Quinn and Willem. He spoke about some of the most immediate challenges he faces in his early days on the job.
“First of all, we are dealing with severe budget shortfalls, which may be even more severe, considering the proposed cuts in the federal budget for 2011,” he says.
“I think what’s most important is that we enhance our outreach across all fish and wildlife constituencies,” says Berry. “The work we do impacts every Vermonter in a positive way and in order for us to properly address my first concern — which is funding issues — people have to know about the benefits we provide.”
Asked to describe his best moments afield, Berry responds without hesitation.
“I would be taking my kids fishing,” he says. “That gives me about as much pleasure as anything I do in life.”
Both of his sons have lifetime Vermont hunting and fishing licenses.
Berry replaced Wayne Larouche, who served as commissioner since 2003. His salary is approximately $88,000.
After graduating from Middlebury, Berry worked as a fly fishing guide in Montana. During that period, he undertook graduate studies in fisheries and freshwater ecology at the University of Montana in Missoula.
“I was a guide for 10 years, all over the northern Rockies, but the biggest chunk of my time as a guide was in western Montana,” he says.
Kyle Scanlon, the editor of Outdoor Magazine out of Colchester, also has high praise for Berry. He describes Berry as “the best fly fisherman in the state of Vermont” and said he believes that Berry will get things moving at Fish & Wildlife.
“I’ve never seen anyone like him able to produce on a stretch of water with a fly rod. He lets everything go,” Scanlon says. “He built his own drift boat, from scratch. He’s phenomenal.”
Scanlon says it would be a mistake to classify Berry as “some Yuppie environmentalist from Middlebury College, that kind of thing.”
Berry, Scanlon says, “comes from very humble means and he’s not afraid to talk about that. He understands basic values. And he is as passionate about fish and game in Vermont as anybody I’ve ever talked to.”
Before taking on his new job, Berry worked as the director of Governmental Affairs and Environmental Advancement at Vermont Law School. Prior to that, he worked on a host of fish and wildlife issues for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, where Berry says he believes he gained extensive expertise in legislative and policy issues critical to the Fish & Wildlife Department.
His appointment by Shumlin came about, according to Berry, because the governor considered him the man for the job.
“I think the reason he felt comfortable with me is because I have a good relationship across the broadest spectrum of fish and wildlife constituencies,” Berry says. “In a general sense, I am a passionate hunter and angler and have countless friends across the state who I spend time with in the woods and on the water.”
If Berry has learned anything since he’s been on the job, it is the professionalism he has found among the staff at Fish & Wildlife.
“The staff in the department is as dedicated as I’ve ever seen,” he says. “After the first week on the job, I was breathing a sigh of relief.”
Come May, Berry said he expects to be out on a Vermont ridge, calling to some lonesome tom turkey.
“I really have learned to love turkey hunting,” he says, “and by the time May rolls around, I burst at the seams. I love getting out before dawn and hearing those gobbles in the pines before the sun comes up.”
Patrick Berry may have a host of challenges before him. It remains to be seen just how well he will click with those who embrace the outdoors.
Over more than three decades, I have ridiculed and chided Fish & Wildlife commissioners, broke bread with them, argued with them, even turkey hunted with them.
But this new guy seems like a breath of fresh air. He has youth, stamina, a curious mind, intelligence and a genuine feel for what the Green Mountains mean to men and women of the outdoors.
It remains to be seen just how all of that will serve him in the years ahead.
Dennis Jensen is the outdoor editor for the Rutland Herald and a member of the board of directors of the New England Outdoor Writers Association.