Sunday, September 8, 2019

THE GHOST OF GAME WARDENS


 ONCE THEY RULED THE  COUNTRYSIDE

I have been watching out for game wardens for decades. I have even used them as a threat to fishermen hanging close to my point for days at a time. But I have only had one experience with them, and it was a nice one.
My grandfather had no fun in his life except for two days of fishing a year. He laboured putting the final finish on furniture at the big Krug Brothers factory in Chesley long after most retired because there were no pensions. Then he came home when he was 72, grey with fatigue, and died a few weeks later.
Every Victoria Day and Labour Day holiday, he dug worms in our second lot where he grew all the vegetables to feed us year-round and with bamboo poles for my two sisters and I clambered along the Saugeen banks fishing for bass, and if we were lucky, suckers.
The first stop was at the Three Sisters, three stumps that are still there decades later. He had fished first there with his five daughters, even though all we caught there were rock bass, more bones than flesh. If we were lucky, maybe a bucket mouth or more elite bass closer to the big dam.
By the time we got to Scone, a couple of kilometres from town, we would have a pail of fish, even real bass. Grandpa kept everything!
And then we would trudge back, chewing the last stick of Wrigley's Gum --the treat for the day--water sloshing over the top of the pail.
We met the game warden on the big bridge that has just had to be rebuilt. He was Mr. Sanderson (also my Grade 7 teacher with no first name because public school teachers in my day only had last names).
And he looked down into the big pail where there were a few bass that wouldn't be legal to catch for another five weeks. "Fine catch, Mr. Hoogstad," he boomed. Because he knew in a town of 1,800 where everyone knew everything about you that the jockey-sized man from Holland had taken in three orphans and had no money to do anything other than feed them and twice a year to go fishing.
So I remember Mr. Hetherington for that compassionate afternoon when he could have confiscated our humble gear and fined the old man for keeping a catch out of season.(He also once brought to class a large Snowy owl which stared at us with the hauteur of a dowager.)
For decades now at my point in the Trent River south of Havelock, the spectre of game wardens has hung over a few of us in our pursuit of pickerel, bass and muskie. Yet most cottage neighbours and the locals seem to pay no attention, just as they routinely speed far above the limit in the Northumberland Narrows.
The major reason for that is obvious. I have never seen a warden, or whatever you want to call them, at my point for the 39 years I have been the humble owner. And the OPP make a token appearance a few times a year, perhaps to get the dust off the boat.
Except you can still use wardens as a threat. One fall a boat showed up for five days and fished every daylight hour just feet from my shore. To hell with my privacy! So finally I stood there and said sarcastically that the five of them seemed to be doing quite well. They said they were from Ohio and came every year  to my point and fished for 10 days. "We catch our limit every day," one boasted drunkenly.
I said that meant they had caught more than 200 bass, walleye and muskie. Since the fishing regulations only allow you to have a fraction of that number in your possession, I said they must have great fish suppers every night back at the fishing camp.
They started to argue numbers of possession with me. I told them that they could debate with the game warden that I had called, and I was sure it would be OK. I walked back to the cottage and when I looked out, they were gone.
Indeed, they haven't been back.
They really had no excuse but I once said in an email to a friend who was appointed the provincial minister in charge of administering wildlife regulations that I find the regs to be as clear as mud. The minister sent my letter through the bureaucratic hoops and some official crafted an official reply in case I was going to write a column.
It was a lengthy defense of how complicated it was to set the rules for the various waters in this large province to protect the fish in the varying habitat. But at the bottom of the official letter, the minister scrawled agreement with my complaint.
Once upon a time I can remember when on the back concessions, farmers who did a little trapping and hunting did so with one eye peeled for the wardens. Shooting pike with a .22 in the spring creeks was normal practise.
 My late brother-in-law, Gordon Long, was overrun on his farm near Schomberg with deer eating his vegetables and cutting up his fields with their hoofs. He also appreciated venison. So if some big buck persisted in nibbling the lettuce, Gord would drop it with a crossbow and the thick bolt/arrow.
Why a crossbow? Because the theory with the area farmers was that a rifle shot or a shotgun blast might be heard by a warden who would come snooping. It wasn't just the threat of the fine and having your equipment confiscated. It wasn't unknown for a farmer to have a still above the pig pen that would mask the smell, and this was less than a hour north of the Big Smoke!
If you think that was unusual, you should know that years before just a short distance to the north there was a big swamp where rustlers kept their stolen cattle in the middle away from casual detection. One rustling ring was busted but they didn't get much punishment because their lawyer, one Nathan Phillips, got them a good deal. (Yes the same mayor they named a square after.)
As they sang on that TV show, those were the days, before we called wardens with the more PC title of  conservation officers and they weren't grizzle oldtimers but career people who may even have gone to college.
Now Queen's Park has changed the rules on pickerel. I am sure I will look them up if I ever catch a big pickerel again. Once my point was known around the area as the best place to fish and I was besieged by land and sea. But that has changed since the wonderful late autumn night when my cousin Dave Prescott and I practically had giant fish jumping into our arms.
Prescott is scrupulous and knowledgeable about the rules governing everything from Scrabble and golf to hunting and fishing. Except that night, we broke the pickerel rules and didn't realize it until months after we had consumed all the delicious fillets.
The fishing regs are still too complicated, and I still see fishing out of season all the time, but I have never been confronted by a game warden since Mr. Hetherington stopped Grandpa on the Chesley bridge.
Maybe wardens I mean, ahem, conservation officers, don't exist in any meaningful numbers since fishing is hardly high on the priority of politicians who are more carp than trout in their activities. The government has stolen the revenue from fishing licences to pay for their stupider promises - just like the taxes on our gas no longer go for roads, which was the original excuse - and it has closed most of the hatcheries that replenish the poor man's sport.
So it would not surprise me to find that most game wardens have vanished and the ghost of the threat is the only thing that stops those jerks from Ohio from coming every October and savaging all the fish around my Burnt Point.
I don't miss them at all. Neither does the great blue heron that flops down on the point to listen to classical music with me.  It is so peaceful then in cottage  country that I would even give a warden - I mean a conservation officer - a beer and not bitch about murky regulations.

1 comment:

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