By Steve Lightfoot
Texas Parks & Wildlife
Few things will give a dove hunter pause for concern like the sudden appearance of a dark pickup with the words “TEXAS GAME WARDEN” emblazoned on the door. But, the sight of that white cowboy hat-clad officer shouldn’t spark panic unless, of course, you’re among a very select group who’ve broken the law and are about to face the music.
Perhaps the most common violation wardens come across involves something that is easily corrected – hunter education certification. Last September, Texas game wardens filed over 1,000 cases for hunter education violations. The law says if you were born on or after Sept. 2, 1971, you are required to have hunter education certification. There are several options for meeting these requirements, and more information is available on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department web site www.tpwd.texas.gov. Not only is hunter education mandatory, but it has also been proven effective in enhancing firearms safety and reducing hunting-related accidents. Game wardens and fellow hunters will be glad you took the time to get certified. Few things worry a game warden greater than coming in contact with an armed hunter lacking in basic firearms safety, whether it involves leaning a loaded shotgun against the truck or handing it to a warden with the safety off, there’s a heightened potential for disaster. You can go a long way to putting a game warden at ease by demonstrating safe gun handling: point the muzzle in a safe direction, unload and leave the action open before handing it over to be checked. Be mindful of your safe zone of fire at all times, know what you are shooting at and what’s behind it at all times.
By design, game wardens do not announce their arrival because let’s face it, scofflaws have a tendency to hide evidence of criminal activity if given the chance. A word of advice: Don’t bother trying to cover your tracks, it will only make matters worse. There’s a good chance by the time you see him pull up, the warden has already seen enough to know whether or not you are following the rules. Game wardens spend a lot of time scouting dove fields and watching dove hunters from a distance. They patrol the backroads ahead of the season opener looking for telltale signs of baiting and often set up surveillance well before daylight during the season on adjacent properties to observe hunters in action. They’ve also heard it all before, but as one affable warden likes to say as he tips back his hat with a grin, “Hey, buddy, it’s your story, tell it however you want.”
“Last year Texas Game Wardens filed over 1,000 cases of Hunter Education Violations.”
When caught hunting over a baited field, some hunters will go to great lengths to try and wiggle out of trouble. Ignorance is no excuse, but a good story can go a long way to entertain the game warden while he’s writing your citation. Perhaps one of the most creative tall tales goes to a Louisiana dove hunter after being shown the grain spread over a bare spot in the field he was hunting. “We didn’t put that out there. Those red ants must’ve carried that grain from a silo nearby,” he theorized, to which the warden replied that the nearest grain silo was over two miles away.
Game wardens also have a trained eye for counting birds, particularly those that were shot and recovered and those that were not. They can also tell the difference between a mourning dove and a bobwhite quail or a Mockingbird, even from afar. While observing a group of hunters, a warden recalled one hunter brag to his buddies that he was going to shoot a bobwhite that was perched on a nearby fencepost. He took the shot but missed. Later on, when the warden was checking the hunting party, he inquired about the bobwhite. “What quail? How did you know about that?” asked the shocked hunter. The warden smiled and allowed that he had heard the boast and saw him miss. The embarrassed hunter got off with a warning that time but could’ve faced a hefty penalty for hunting quail out of season.
Bag limits are set for a reason, to ensure stable and healthy wildlife populations, and are enforced by game wardens for that same reason. If every one of the 400,000-plus dove hunters in Texas exceeded the bag limit, it would have a noticeable negative impact on the resource. Despite weighing in at just a few ounces, dove are hard to hide, and game wardens can match a well-heeled retriever when it comes to finding birds, whether it’s a few stashed inside the spare tire of your pickup truck or tossed in the brush. A Class C misdemeanor ticket for exceeding the bag limit or failure to recover game might not set you back a lot (potential fine of $25-$500, plus court costs), but be warned the additional civil restitution you could face will be substantially more painful. Restitution for mourning dove is $105.50 for EACH bird taken illegally, and since dove are considered migratory game birds, there’s the additional risk of federal fines and punishments. That one bobwhite quail that got away? It carries a civil restitution value of $273.50!
One of the most egregious bag limit violations game wardens come across, particularly among groups of hunters who travel from out-of-state for a weekend of dove hunting, is the illegal practice of double bagging. This act involves taking a limit of birds during a morning hunt, packing them back to a motel, and then returning for a second limit during an afternoon shoot. The law states you are permitted only one daily bag limit of birds per day, not per outing. Wardens check literally thousands of dove hunters each season and frequently work in teams to cover more ground. Thanks to technology and some old-fashioned policing tactics, they can usually spot double-baggers.
Game wardens realize that most of the people they come into contact with in the field are armed, but one veteran warden, in particular, recalled a time he was most fearful of being shot in the field came as he was hunkered down behind a large clump of cactus observing a group of dove hunters. They began firing at the cactus for fun, forcing the warden to toss his hat in the air and yell, “Don’t shoot! State Game Warden.”