The two Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police officers stealthily walked through the woods. They silently approached a tree stand where a hunter, not wearing the required blaze orange, was sitting with his 12-gauge in his hands. As they neared the stand one officer called out, “Conservation Police! Please empty the ammunition from your shotgun.”
Think about this. How scary would it be to approach a stranger carrying a loaded gun in the woods just before daybreak?
I can answer that question for you. It is gosh-darned scary. I know because I was walking with the officers. I think it takes a lot of guts to do that once, let alone on a regular basis.
I recently rode with Officer Rich Riedel as he went about his duties on the first Saturday of firearm deer season. Riedel and I have been talking about doing this, and finally agreed on a date. He had given me the option of a night of surveillance, trying to catch some guys who were reported to be illegally shooting deer after dark, or riding with him for a shift. I chose to ride with him.
I met Riedel in the Algonquin Police station parking lot before dawn. We drove to meet officer Eric Schreiber to check on a tree stand where they knew something was odd. Schreiber had checked this tree stand a couple days earlier and found a good-sized pile of oats and hulled corn a few feet from it.
It’s illegal to attract deer with bait in Illinois. Schreiber figured someone would show up to illegally harvest a deer.
He was right. There was a hunter in the tree stand over the bait, waiting for a hungry whitetail to move in to have breakfast.
I must say that I really wasn’t scared at the time. The fear set in later. I guess I came to my senses. There was danger in being a Conservation Police Officer.
It hadn’t dawned on me that there could be trouble, even though Riedel showed me how to use the squad car’s two separate police radios to call for help in case of an emergency while still in the Algonquin parking lot.
I hadn’t really think about the fact that we didn’t wear orange to not alert any possible poachers. It didn’t register that the officers were in bullet-proof vests and I was wearing a sweatshirt.
Why would anyone want to shoot a Conservation Officer?
Riedel told me he’d once stopped a hunter only to discover that there was a warrant out for him. Arresting him would put him in jail for six years.
Is six years in prison worth the risk of shooting an officer in the woods where he might not be found for days?
Luckily for Riedel the man didn’t consider it. He was arrested without incident.
Our poacher came down from his tree stand agreeably.
He swore that he did not see the bait pile under his stand. He said he had his orange clothing with him but had taken it off when he climbed the stand.
When questioned about the fact that he didn’t have permission to hunt the private property where the stand was located, he claimed confusion about the property line and didn’t realize he had permission to hunt the land next door.
Schreiber wrote the citations. Riedel explained the reasons for all of these laws that hunter had broken.
That was certainly interesting.
We then checked a waterfowl blind where there were supposed to be unlicensed shooters harvesting over their limit of ducks. The blind was vacant.
We checked a field on private property where there were reports of trespassers shooting geese. We found no one.
We went to a couple of lakes to check fishermen to see if they had licenses. Everyone we checked had them.
We spent some time moving quietly through the woods to sit and wait for someone who was a suspected poacher.
When Riedel explained what the guy was allegedly doing, my stomach soured. I can’t explain the circumstances because he is still being watched.
I will say that what he’s doing is one of the most heinous examples of poaching I’ve ever heard of and he was doing it with incredible arrogance.
For our last stop we went to the Fox River.
We saw one car in the parking lot, an SUV with a temporary Tennessee tag in the rear window. It was obvious the cardboard tag had been altered with White-Out and a magic marker. That is a felony.
We saw the fisherman on the bank and approached him.
He pulled out identification and a license but spoke no English. He was an illegal alien but amazingly had purchased an state resident fishing license.
I must admit that I jumped a bit when the man thrust his hands into the pocket of his hoodie. Who knows what he had in there? Would the threat of deportation make a man desperate enough to attack a uniformed officer and an overweight gray-haired guy wearing a sweatshirt?
Thankfully nothing happened. My imagination had just run wild. Riedel called the Carpentersville Police for the assistance of a Spanish-speaking officer.
The officer arrived, the man was questioned, and all was good. He was not the owner of the SUV. The Carpentersville officer called for backup and we all waited for the owner to show up.
I’ll tell you what happened after that the next time out. Believe me, it will be worth the wait.
I will also give you my take on what being an IDNR Conservation Police officer is all about and what their jobs really are like.
• Northwest Herald outdoors columnist Steve Sarley’s radio show, “The Outdoors Experience,” airs live at 5 a.m. Sundays on AM-560. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.