Deer hunting season a draw for Vermont’s scofflaws

The Fish and Wildlife truck used by game warden Chad Barrett (right) and trainee Robert Currier holds two deer decoys they use to catch poachers taking game illegally. Barrett says he spends about half his time during hunting season dealing with poaching reports or trying to catch people hunting illegally, a practice that goes back more than two centuries to when Vermont’s first hunting laws were passed. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

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Peruse old stories and historical documents on deer hunting and you’ll find no shortage of opprobrium, scorn and lament about the poaching fraternity.

“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 Vermonters.

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 law.”

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 where just about everything has changed, 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 tradition.

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 range 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.)

This photo from the H.L.Chapman collection at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre shows two deer hunters with a hefty buck around a century ago. With the deer herd nearly decimated in the 1800s, the impact of poachers was debated and denounced in the press as the deer herd slowly recovered in the early 1900s.   
Photo courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society

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 poaching season.

“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 a variety 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, wardens oversee 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 others get away.

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, which is often a “cat and mouse” affair, he says. Sometimes, it’s anything but.

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 that 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. He eventually arrested a well-known poacher.

“In fall, it’s generally just people (usually young males) out doing stupid things,” Smiley says.

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 Whipple’s driveway.

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,” he says. The rest? Young people whose reasons were “drunk, smoking dope, nothing better to do.”

Barrett recalls a particularly wasteful 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.

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.

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 a couple of startled poachers.

In the dark, they had mistaken Moreau’s truck for their own. “They dragged the deer right to the warden,” Miller says.

Chalk that one up for the game wardens in Vermont’s long-running contest of wits.

These five deer, including an eight-point and five-point buck, were all taken illegally in a notorious two-night shooting spree in the Waterbury-Stowe area that game warden Chad Barrett and others investigated five years ago. Three men were arrested in the case, which involved freezing deer with a flashlight and then shooting them with a cross bow. Photo courtesy of Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

Andrew Nemethy

Comments

  1. kevin lawrence :

    With vocabulary like “miscreants” and “opprobrium”, you’re at risk of raising the intellectual level of discussion and consideration, here. Thanks. Now, I’m going to donate to VTDigger !
    It’s refreshing to get beyond the status quo 5th grade reading level in print media.
    Also, I appreciate primary source references and direct quotes– not a lazy writer’s approach.
    I teach VT Hunter Safety classes, so watching these bums get bagged is a joy to see.

  2. Jeff Ersonian :

    I don’t teach hunter safety, but i missed the video where I can watch these bums get bagged.

    • kevin lawrence :

      Missouri posts a bunch of these videos on You tube which are illustrations of avarice leading to conviction. Vermont law enforcement are more discreet with their videos, although I’ve seen them at Hunter Safety instructors’ trainings. None of them are starving, however.

  3. Stan Hopson :

    Agree with Kevin. Beautifully written piece. Well done.

  4. Very well written piece, good contextual information and prime sources. Really well done, Andrew, Thanks.

  5. In the 1950 and 60’s I knew a few poachers but they were known as nimrods. What they did is shoot illegal deer and supply the meat at a very low cost, or as a trade, to families that lived in their town and could not afford much of anything. They were known to the officials but often the wardens would look the other way, as they considered them doing a needed service to a part of the community.

  6. Eric Trout :

    What I wish this article had covered is the issue of what actually constitutes “poaching.” What makes certain acts of hunting illegal? And what infractions account for most poaching? I also wonder what the public can do to help stop poaching, and what the penalties are.

  7. Eric: There’s a lot that had to be left out, unfortunately, in the 1200 word limit we put on the In This State column. That includes material on the founding of the game warden service back in 1904. Before that it was done haphazardly by towns and counties and wardens got half the penalties of folks they caught through a process called “moiety” a word I had never heard of! Needless to say it was open to, and was, abused.
    Big game laws in Vermont can take a few words to explain and you can get deep into the details, but basically they involve not hunting from the road, not hunting after dark (especially getting deer to freeze with a flashlight, or deer-jacking) and not using illegal weapons (a crossbow, for example, or a bow and arrow during rifle season, or rifle during bow season). It’s also illegal, obviously, to take deer out-of-season and to shoot bucks without horns or to shoot does, though Vermont does institute doe seasons when the herd needs to be thinned. Hunters are also limited to the number of deer they can legally take. These rules arre all based on preserving a healthy deer herd – and the income it brings in, and enjoyment folks get from seeing them.
    Considering a license is only around $20, poaching is not an issue of money, and wardens turn over a lot of the illegal deer they find to charity, game suppers or to folks who need the food – which goes to Peter’s point. There’s little rational reason to take deer illegally, and as the story illustrates, most folks who do it are in it for an odd thrill or escapade that’s impromptu and not very well thought out.

  8. Ralph Sutton :

    When someone takes a deer out of season it’s “stealing from everyone” but the government does it all day long and it’s called a “voluntary contribution” of your “fair share.” Too funny. I’m not condoning illegal activity, but when someone takes a deer to feed his family I don’t put that in the same bracket as drunk driving, rape and embezzling. Guess you could call it “unauthorized herd management.”

    • Mike Smith :

      Ralph,

      Theft is Theft. Shooting a deer illegally, by no means, is justified by the ends(feeding a hungry family).
      That is stealing from “The Public Trust”. Under YOUR justification, feeding a hungry family “justifies” stealing from a store or farmer. Sorry it is still stealing.

      BTW Shooting deer(poaching/ taking by illegally means) has never been “an excuse” the game wardens have run into in over a decade that has been “legitimate”. Majority of violators are taking “pot shots” at deer and the others for their own self-interests.

      • Ralph Sutton :

        Mr. Smith,

        Excepting an occasional foray above the posted speed limit I meticulously adhere to all known laws. That said, be assured your elevated moral and ethical sensibilities are duly noted, and no doubt provide you considerable contentment. Despite your contrived comparison regarding taking a deer out of season with stealing from a merchant misrepresenting my somewhat tongue-in-cheek post, it does present interesting food for thought. And in fact I do see these two behaviors as being quite different. I originally come from a very rural town in Vermont where as a lad I did know people who took deer to feed their families. You see, for some Vermonters, deer meat could be their only food on any given evening, and they may prefer that to being on the dole. Stealing directly from a farmer or merchant and adversely affects that particular person, and I know for sure some who might take a deer out of season would never consider stealing from any merchant. Taking a deer out of season has an immediate affect on no one, and in fact, more often than not, no one else even knows about it. Kind of akin to the question if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make any noise. I still do not condone it, but if it feeds someone’s kids, so be it.

        By the way, I’ve known a few folk over the years who took a couple more than their limit of trout for the day too, but they ate them. I don’t reckon I’ll turn them in even though I’d never do it myself.

        • Jim Busch :

          Ralph,

          “a tree falls in the woods” comparison?

          Mr Smith is right “Stealing is still Stealing”. Your justification does not justify it.

          So if someone steals from a bank that has billions of dollar or from the government, they won’t notice.
          Why don’t I go out and cut a tree down in the state forest. I need the wood to heat my home and my family warm.

          Game Wardens and State Police have a list that those that need the meat can get on and will be notified when a deer is available LEGALLY!

          Like Mr Nemethy says in his comment, the majority of these scofflaws are “thrill seekers” not starving families.

  9. Congrats to Vt Digger and Andrew for a well written article. The Game Wardens in Vermont and across the US are a very thin “green line” between the poachers and our wildlife.
    It is a sad fact that with only 27 full-time Wardens we have 5 fewer Wardens than in 1971. We didn’t have moose or turkeys back then and about 1/2 the current human population to boot.
    The primary reason we have so few Wardens, in spite of the high demand for their services, is lack of money. Wardens are are paid for in large part only from hunting/fishing/trapping license sales. They get no Federal money and very little State general fund money. As our license sales have slowly declined and expenses have increased the Department has been forced to reduce the number of Wardens.
    A group of environmental and conservation/hunting organizations have formed a Vermont Wildlife Partnership with a core purpose of finding adequate, sustainable and reliable funding for the Fish and Wildlife Department and other conservation work here in Vermont. The bottom line is somehow all Vermonters need to help pay for the protection of our wildlife – hunters and anglers can’t raise enough money to do the job we all demand.
    Google Vermont’s Wildlife at the Crossroads for a full write up on the problem and possible solutions

  10. Jonathan Howe :

    I know this is a late post but hunting with a bow and arrow during rifle season is not illegal, in fact I know a few hunters who use a bow in all the deer seasons (bow, rifle and muzzleloader). They like the challange which is what hunting is all about.

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