Disclaimer: All names have been intentionally changed.
It was many years before the largemouth bass size limit and bag limit changed in Florida. After the change in regulations, Game Wardens were in an educational mode and attempted to get the word out to the public about the new requirements. Officers educated and warned most of the violators and only took enforcement action during the most blatant violations. This was one of those times.
I was enjoying an afternoon of water patrol on the north end of Lake Okeechobee and decided to set up a surveillance of a popular boat ramp and marina from a hidden location. I was able to hide my billboard of a patrol boat within plain sight, undetected by most people coming to or from the boat ramp and marina. I would only come out of hiding to reveal my presence if something or somebody looked out of place.
After a short wait, a bass boat came into the marina after coming from the lake. My attention was drawn to the 2 men in the boat because they were acting unlike any of the other boaters or fishermen in the area. The bass boat came into the marina and stopped as if they were looking for someone. The boat idled in circles and both occupants stood and looked in every direction. I suspected they could be looking for me, the Game Warden!
I watched the boat leave the marina and idle under a nearby bridge stopping in a cove next to the bridge. The bass boat pulled up to the bank and the passenger got out of the boat carrying a 5-gallon bucket. He then placed the bucket in a patch of tall grass and returned to the boat. To even the most untrained observer, that looked suspicious! The boat idled back to the marina and the two men began to load their boat on the trailer.
I came out of hiding and motored over to the bridge and cove. I did not have time to look at the contents of the bucket because the 2 men in the bass boat were expected to return in any moment. I quickly hid my patrol boat along the bank and set out on foot to get close to the hidden bucket.
I stopped and hid in a clump of tall grass about 50 yards from where the man placed the bucket. Within a matter of minutes, the men returned in their truck with their bass boat in tow. The truck stopped and the passenger got out. He walked around and stopped to pretend he was relieving himself, all the while turning his head on a swivel. He was looking for me!
When the coast appeared to be clear, the man took off in a run towards the hidden bucket! As soon as he picked up the bucket, I jumped out of my hiding spot and ran towards the men at a full sprint. I just let out a yell, “Wildlife Officer, STOP!” when I noticed a ditch full of water in between myself and the bucket holding suspects! I did my best “Air Jordan” leap across the ditch, only splashing down halfway in a failed attempt. My legs never stopped moving and I came splashing through the waist deep water up and out of the ditch. The men looked shocked and surprised to see this crazy amphibian looking Game Warden come splashing out of the ditch while water and hydrilla were going everywhere. They had no other choice but to stop and put their hands in the air!
I ran up to the men and grabbed the 5-gallon bucket out of their hands which was full of undersized bass. I reached down to my gun belt to grab my handheld radio to call in the stop to dispatch when I discovered that my radio was missing. My radio holster was full of hydrilla! During my failed jump attempt, my handheld radio fell out of the holder and into the water when I landed in the ditch.
The two men were one of the first people in the state to be cited under the new largemouth bass size requirement.
After I fished my radio out of the water, I was worried about 2 things. The first was getting in trouble from my chain of command for writing citations to the two men during a time when normally warnings were being issued. The second was getting into trouble for dropping may radio in the water. After hearing my explanation, my supervisor gave me a “Good job!” compliment and told me not to worry about a thing. Several days later, he handed me a new handheld radio and I was back in business.
By Steve Wayne
About the Author:
Steve Wayne has spent 30 years as a Fish and Wildlife Officer in the state of Florida. Steve has worked in various roles and locations throughout the state and has promoted to the level of Area Captain supervising 30 officers in 3 counties. During his career, Steve was selected as the State Wildlife Officer of the Year and 16 years later was selected as the Statewide Investigator of the Year by both his agency and from the State Law Enforcement Chief’s Association. In 2019, Steve was part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Port Investigations team which received national honors as Team of the Year.