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Peruse old stories and historical documents on deer hunting and you’ll find no shortage of opprobrium, scorn and lament about the poaching fraternity.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