Disclaimer: All names have been intentionally changed.
Growing up in south Florida gave me the opportunity to enjoy world class fishing along with breathtaking scenery on the popular Lake Okeechobee. Many years later, I graduated from the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (GFC) law enforcement training academy and was first assigned a Wildlife Officer’s position on the north end of Lake Okeechobee. It was a dream come true! I was embarking on the career of my dreams on one of the most popular fisheries in the world!
I was fortunate enough to be trained by one of the best game wardens alive, Jeff Greer. Jeff was all “game warden” through and through and he could catch anybody doing anything wrong. He was that good. Anytime Jeff had an idea about catching a bad guy, I was all in. One afternoon, Jeff wanted to target illegal commercial fishermen who made a living from the unlawful taking and selling of freshwater gamefish from the waters of the “Big O”. The illegal commercial fisherman would wait for the popular gamefish called speckled perch (also known as black crappie) to migrate into the shallow grassy areas of the lake to lay their eggs and spawn. This spawning ritual repeated itself year after year. The illegal commercial fishermen would set metal fish traps hidden beneath the surface of water. Unsuspecting speckled perch would swim into fish traps and get caught. After several days of “soak time” the commercial fishermen would return under the cover of darkness to find and retrieve each trap and dump the contents of speckled perch into their boat. The fish were later sold on the black market for thousands of dollars.
Jeff arrived at my house during the afternoon to pick me up. The strange thing was, Jeff was not in his patrol truck, he was driving his wife’s van. It was Jeff’s idea to leave our marked patrol trucks parked at our houses because the illegal commercial fishermen would drive by our homes to see if Jeff and I were working. If either of our patrol trucks were missing, the fish poachers would stay home instead of running their illegal fish traps.
We loaded up our gear into our GFC airboat and off we went across the lake. Jeff was one of the best airboat operators in the agency and we stood a better than average chance of overtaking a fleeing fish poacher in another airboat because of Jeff’s skills. We drove about 30 minutes and stopped in a beautiful looking cove of the lake full of peppergrass and bullrush. I grabbed our homemade trap retrieving pole with an attached hook and climbed up on the bow of the airboat. Jeff idled back and forth while I stabbed the pole and hook into the lake bottom. As soon as I hit a hidden trap with the hook, the hook snagged the trap and I pulled it up to the boat. We photographed the contents of each trap which were full of speckled perch. We documented about 10 traps before night fall and then moved over to a hidden location to conduct surveillance of the fish traps.
We swapped stories and swatted mosquitos for several hours until we heard the faint sound of an airboat running in the darkness. The sound grew closer, and loader and it soon drowned out all other noises. We watched as a dark object approached and noticed the airboat was being operated without navigation lights or even a spotlight. We thought this to be suspicious because the airboat was being operated stealthily. The airboat stopped in our cove directly in front of the location of the hidden fish traps. The airboat had to know exactly where the traps were hidden by reading the vegetation and water. This was many years before GPS and any other forms of electronic navigation. We believed the airboat could be our suspects!
We watched from our hidden location in the darkness with binoculars as the airboat idled back and forth in the area of the fish traps. The airboat would stop and shut down and we would watch and hear each trap being pulled from the water and dropped on the deck of the boat. We listened to the sound of hundreds of fish being dumped from each trap into laundry type plastic baskets in the bottom of the boat. Each trap was placed back into the water carefully on a migration route of the spawning speckled perch. The process was repeated over and over again.
Our plan was to let the fish poachers weigh down their boat with fish before attempting to stop them. A heavier boat would be much slower than our patrol airboat and we could stand the chance of catching them if they fled. We idled out of our hidey hole under the cover of darkness and slowly moved towards the poachers at a snail’s pace. Any increase in speed would have created too much noise and we would have been detected. We hoped to silently pull alongside the fish poacher’s airboat before lighting them up and announcing our presence. I moved up to the bow of our boat and was ready to jump into the poacher’s boat when we got close enough because they were likely to run.
We idled within 5’ of the airboat and for some reason, the poacher’s felt or heard our approach. Instantly, we activated our blue lights, navigation lights, and spotlight pointed directly at the occupants of the airboat. We looked at two men with total shock on their faces! We had them red handed with a boat load of thousands of pounds of illegally caught speckled perch. Jeff and I recognized the airboat’s operator as Chris Withers, one of the most notorious fish poachers on Lake Okeechobee. Chris made a substantial living selling fish and alligators illegally taken from the wild.
Withers instantly spun his airboat around, placing his prop and rudder in our direction and then mashed the gas pedal. He was trying to blow us over and sink us from the prop wash of his airboat! We held on for all it was worth, and the hurricane force winds blew half of our equipment out of the boat and into the lake. Our patrol boat jerked to the side and we held on for our lives. Fortunately, we stayed upright and we were off to the races! We were in pursuit of one of the biggest poachers on Lake Okeechobee!
Withers got a big jump on us before we could get our bearings and begin our pursuit. Jeff rapidly closed the distance between us. Withers soon reached a narrow airboat trail that was only a couple feet wide and surrounded on both sides by cattails. We got right behind the fleeing boat but there was no room to overtake the airboat due to the narrow trail. As we were pursuing the poachers, we watched as the second man in the boat dumped basket after basket of fish into the marsh. They were attempting to get rid of all the evidence and lighten their load as we were right on their tail.
We were almost running wide open and were only a boat length behind the whirling prop of our suspect’s airboat when Withers made a hard 90-degree right hand turn in the trail. We were going so fast we were unable to make the turn and crashed our boat sideways into the curve! Fortunately, we stayed upright and were not thrown from the boat. We gathered ourselves and Jeff mashed the gas pedal to get us unstuck. It only took several seconds but seemed like an eternity when chasing after a fleeing fish poacher. Once back in the trail we attempted to catch up to the fleeing boat but lost sight of them.
Jeff reached the Herbert Hoover Dike which surrounds Lake Okeechobee, and we noticed a dark figure running on foot away from us up the dike. I jumped out of our airboat and attempted to pursue the man on foot. By the time I ran over the dike, the man swam the Lake Okeechobee Rim Canal in the darkness. The men got away from us that night and we never saw the airboat again.
All was not lost. At sunrise, Jeff and I boarded our GFC helicopter and photographed the crime scene. There were dead fish floating everywhere! After our flight we returned to the area by boat. We found and collected the hidden fish traps and recovered hundreds of dead speckled perch dumped in the airboat trail. Several weeks later, we arrived at Withers’ house with an arrest warrant in hand. We placed Withers under arrest for Taking Gamefish by an Unlawful Method, Taking Over the Limit of Speckled Perch, Fleeing and Attempting to Elude a Law Enforcement Officer on the Water, and Reckless Operation of a Boat.
Withers spent several days in the county jail and he was given a very small fine. The other man was never identified. Sometimes it was tough work for such as small reward. It wasn’t the first time Withers was arrested, but it wasn’t his last either, …
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.