Clint Eastwood coined the above phrase as a title for one of his early western movies. It well describes the illegal taking of fish, fur and game, and the people who poach for a living. It’s difficult to argue any good but you be the judge on one case.I met Bob (not his real name) 33 years ago, and his sad reputation preceded our introduction. He was an avid poacher, and proud of his somewhat legendary skills. He bragged openly about spearing fish, jerking them off spawning beds with a pool-cue rod, heavy line, huge reel and a weighted snag hook. Bob loved telling about the night he and his buddy shot six whitetail deer in less than an hour. That he gave the deer to needy families is beside the point. Nothing changed; he was still a poacher. Bob was looking for, and getting praise, from his peers who were doing the same thing. He and his friends were the wrong type of poacher: they didn’t always shoot deer to feed a bunch of hungry little kids; they shot deer and took fish to sell. “I’d like to go fly fishing for steelhead with you some day,” he said. “I could probably show you a thing or two about snagging them off their spawning beds.” My views about poaching have not changed since I first learned it existed many years ago and now. I detest people who steal the state’s fish and game.
Lessons on a trout stream
I agreed to take Bob steelhead fishing only if he realized that if any laws were broken he would be turned in. He agreed, and we greeted the April 1 dawn on the Little Manistee River in a stretch I knew would hold more fish than fishermen. But before we left, I checked to see if he had a current license and salmon-trout stamp. Surprisingly, he did but seemed a bit put out by the cost or that I’d check him.He was taught how to cast, how to tease a male steelhead into striking a spinner, and how to carefully stalk fish on a spawning bed. He already knew how because he often speared the fish, and you had to be close to do that. I soon hooked and landed a nice fish, and now it was his turn. He could see very well, and had been paying attention to my instructions. Within 15 minutes he had hooked and landed his first legal steelhead, a nice 12-pounder. “Man,” he hollered, “hooking that steelhead was the greatest thrill of my life. I never realized that fishing in a legal manner for these fish could be so much fun. There isn’t much fun gill-netting or spearing them. This is real sport!” Bob underwent a complete transformation from being a profit poacher to a guardian of our natural resources. He is a fine fisherman, but his real expertise comes while deer hunting. He no long jacklights deer, doesn’t string a web (gill net) across a spawning stream, and now he even reads the Fish and Wildlife rules. The reason for this dramatic change is important. He frankly needed personal recognition, and needed to feel good about himself. “Poaching was how I got some recognition,” Bob said. “Poaching was how I became known as a young kid. I used to break every fish or game law just so others would admire or like me, and many laws were broken before I was 12 years old. Now things are different. I fish and hunt for personal pleasure, and take great pride in outwitting and legally taking fish or game during the open season. I needed the approval of other people before. I don’t need that peer recognition any longer.” In the past, many kids of Bob’s age would turn to poaching and sell whatever illegal fish, fur or game was taken. This concept may be self-limiting now in some urban areas where kids spend their spare time on computers, not outdoors. In more rural areas, many children learn about poaching from family members or friends. It’s a well-known fact that rural children relate to friends and relatives who poach. Reaching these kids as I reached Bob is difficult. It seems now that more kids are chiding friends and parents who poach, but this illegal act will always be a major issue. Many poachers do so because they enjoy the challenge of trying to outwit the game warden. It’s a big game for them, and if caught, they accept the consequences. Children and young adults must learn that poaching is wrong, but by becoming involved, it may cause them to detest their parents because of their poaching crimes. The key is to educate and allow children the chance to see both sides of this thorny issue, and decide that legal fishing and hunting is much better than illegal acts.
Education is needed
It’s a difficult problem but continuing education at home, with friends and at school is necessary. The reality is that today’s poachers are not the Robin Hoods of old who poached the kings deer and gave this bounty to needy neighbors. It was true in Bob’s era but most modern poachers are in it for the money.Very little subsistence poaching occurs because the state has many programs to help feed needy families. Curbing profit poaching where illegally taken fish, fur and game is sold has become a major business. The DNR’s Law Enforcement Division, aided by its special investigators, have made some huge busts in the past 25 years. Time is against today’s poacher. Modern law enforcement techniques and personnel make getting away with profit poaching much more difficult than in the past. The Report All Poaching (RAP) program began in late 1980, and since then, it has been instrumental in shutting down some major poaching rings in this state. The RAP program is funded by a 25-cent fee added to the sale of every fishing, hunting and trapping license sold within the state. These monies support a team of special investigators, the RAP supervisor and a secretary. It also pays rewards to people with good tips; pays informants, and supports an educational program. Over many years I’ve spent days and nights in the field with RAP officers, and regular conservation officers, and these operations work. The public has responded well to the RAP Hotline number (800-292-7800) to report suspected violations. However, the urge for children to follow in their parents or grandparent’s footsteps, and take fish and game illegally, is a difficult one for some kids to resist. Manhood and social acceptance by one’s peers have always been a thorn in the side of a growing young man. One wonders just what manhood and peer acceptance really means to many of the state’s young men from 14-25 years of age? How can a male child achieve manhood without retaining the acceptance of his peer group? Those questions have troubled children since Day One. There’s no quick fix. Today’s society would like young people to be someone and to have heroes. Kids need to be recognized for their achievements, either through sports or in everyday life. But not everyone can excel at football or in a classroom, and many find it difficult to gain any recognition. Bob’s story is a good example of being an outcast. Youngsters who grow up in a poaching family have heard Pa tell of outwitting conservation officers or have heard about the daring deeds of Grandpa. So, youngsters may turn to poaching to gain recognition from family and friends.
The law speaks out
Studies and conversations with conservation officers indicate most poachers are social people, but are only at ease with their own kind. Many poachers are cheaters and as often as not cheat the Internal Revenue Service, the Welfare Department, Aid to Dependent Children, and the Department of Social Services, to name a few. These facts are well-documented by the Department of Natural Resources and other state and federal law enforcement agencies.“Many young poachers and their families have a ‘Billy The Kid’ attitude,” said one conservation officer who prefers anonymity because he has worked undercover and in uniform against poachers. “The kids grow up believing in their God-given right to take fish and game at any time, and they play the game of rugged individualists fighting the establishment. In reality, they are fighting themselves and their personal image. Many poachers have a real identity crisis. A few of these young men (few women become poachers but are often rounded up when officers stop their male friends) grow up seeing their mother being beaten by their father, Many longtime poachers possess a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde personality flaw, and many abuse alcohol and illegal drugs. Many poachers are long-term violators and bullies who surround themselves with people they can intimidate. “It’s too bad, but in some cases,” the officer said, “boys in poaching families may grow up to be high-school bullies while trying to emulate their father. It could be a good idea but in most cases it results in choosing the wrong person as a role model.” Many kids from such families reach puberty feeling that poaching puts food on the table and that Dad is a good provider and a real man, and they quickly learn to do as their father does. In reality, Dad feels the days of the Old West are still available where fish and game can be taken at any time by any means and sold for profit. “They seldom realize the long-range effect such acts have on their family,” the game warden said. “It’s a tragic loss when these kids follow in their father’s footsteps.” Poaching is considered a non-personal crime by fish-game thieves, but an old axiom states: “There can be no crime without harm to the public.” A major harm to the public is done to impressionable kids, and constant exposure to poaching leads to a breakdown of childhood principles and the child’s willingness to adapt to society. All too often they become society’s misfits, which more often than not, leads to a life of crime in one way or another.