A warden's ultimate trophy
By Steve Wasylik

Hunters and fishermen have their trophies. They range from a species of animal or fish right down to an individual critter from a specific population in a specific area. The thrill of the pursuit is as important as a chance at catching the quarry.

As a game warden, I have earned trophies too. In every district I've covered there have been individuals I just had to try to catch. It wasn't personal. They were the bad guys and it's my job to catch them. Johnny was one of these guys. I could never have him stuffed and mounted on my wall, but I could have a file in my cabinet with "convicted" stamped on it. Trophies come in many forms.

Johnny is not his real name of course, and any similarity to a living person is not just a coincidence. He loved to poach steelhead from one of the rivers in my district. The big silver trout were an addiction to him. He had been doing it for years and successive game wardens had tried to catch him. He made no secret of his activities but he didn't brag about them either. He was just going to fish whenever he wanted to and that was that. Other fishermen hated his poaching but they had to admit that he was a highly skilled angler.

Once the rivers closed you never saw Johnny. He still went fishing, but he seemed invisible. One spring I decided that I would devote as much of my time to catching him as I could. The river he fished wasn't that big and had some serious canyon water that couldn't be fished. The upper reaches were off limits beyond a gate guarded by power company security guards. You didn't get by these guys just to go fishing. This left me with several short stretches of remote water and some sections that ran through private property. Steelhead didn't stay in the river all year round so I picked the time they were absent to plan my pursuit.

I started out by mapping all the access points and trails that led from the road down to hidden stretches of the river. I hiked every trail and looked under every bridge. I quizzed the security guards at the gate about any possible access beyond the gates. After some long days I figured I had it all covered. My maps were in place. I knew all the hiding places. I'd spent time finding ways into the river to spy on pools and runs from hidden viewpoints. I knew what kind of car he drove and where he lived. Now all I needed was the steelhead and Johnny.

The season for steelhead came far too slowly for me. I had to wait for the open season to pass before the river closed and for Johnny to then disappear. As time passed, I saw him several times fishing his favorite water. We spoke on several occasions about fishing and his rods. He was always polite and friendly, I almost felt guilty for what I had planned. Almost. The rivers eventually closed and Johnny disappeared. I started my patrols and for weeks whenever I could I was on the river. I would sneak into my hiding places and wait. I would watch for tracks on the trails down to the river or a vehicle parked near the water. Day after day, I watched. But Johnny had vanished again.

Late one rainy afternoon I decided to check a trail to a bridge that spanned an 80 foot canyon of the river near the power company gate. I had been down the trail many times, but it was an unlikely spot for Johnny. The bridge's main structure was two old water pipes about three feet in diameter with a wooden deck suspended a couple of feet above that on steel beams. The bridge was part of a hiking trail and was about 60 feet over the water. A six foot chain link fence on both sides of the bridge protected people from falling or jumping off the deck. The attraction for a fisherman was a deep pool below the bridge.

Only the most nimble of anglers could negotiate the rocky cliff to the narrow ledge near the river. I didn't figure that Johnny could do this, but I didn't rule it out.

The steady rain had made the trail muddy and slippery. On the last and steepest part of the trail down to the bridge I stopped to look over the area. A movement on the other side of the bridge caught my eye. I watched and could see a person dressed in camouflage sitting in the bush beside the bridge. They seemed to be looking down at the river. I stepped onto the steep trail and started down to the bridge. I watched the person on the other side of the bridge as I walked. As I got closer, the person looked up and saw me.

"Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!" I could hear a voice shout over the noise of the river and the rain. Knowing that my quarry had to be close, I ran down the remainder of the trail. Johnny had to be on the ledge near the river. He couldn't get away if I could get to the bridge.

I hit the bridge at full speed and skidded to a stop on the wet deck. The person on the other side was scrambling out of the bush and heading toward the trail. I looked over the edge of the bridge. No one was below. There was nowhere for Johnny to have gone. I ran to the other end of the bridge and looked back. Still no sign of Johnny. I took off up the trail and soon caught up to the camouflaged figure now walking away from me. I called out and the person turned around. It was Johnny's wife.

I asked where Johnny was and got a cold stare for an answer. I turned to look back at the river and then saw a figure under the bridge deck. Johnny was partially hidden by the two big pipes. I ran down to the closest end of the bridge. I could see where the fencing had been cut and pulled aside to allow Johnny to crawl between the deck and the pipes. I climbed down to the pipes, grabbed the fence with both hands and swung feet first under the deck. I turned to face Johnny. He was hunched down between the pipe about 30 feet away with a stunned look on his face. As I let go of the fence to get closer look, a piece of the cut wire jammed up under my wedding ring and held me fast to the fence. Johnny used this time to throw his fishing rod out between the deck and the pipes and down into the river. I freed myself at the expense of some flesh from the palm of my hand and finger.

I don't know who was more stunned, him or me. I was surprised to catch him and he was obviously surprised to be caught. For a long time we just stared at each other.

"What are you doing?" was the best I could eventually stammer.

"Just watching the river," was his stuttered reply. From a legal standpoint I knew I was in trouble. The fishing rod was gone and I had not seen him with a line in the river. I knew I would never convict him with what I had as evidence. I spent five minutes telling Johnny why I thought he was lying. The frustration of the hours of watching and waiting boiled over. He just squatted there under the bridge and said nothing. Eventually I tired out and let him get past me. He joined his wife on the trail and wandered off into the rain.

For a long time I stayed under the bridge looking down into the river hoping the fishing rod would pop to the surface. It never did. I had come so close and I knew it would be a long time, before I got another crack at Johnny. In pursuit or any type of trophy, sometimes the big ones do get away.

Steve Wasylik is a Conservation officer at Castlegar, British Columbia.

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