The best way to get to know what game wardens do is to go on patrol with one. One of my initial research ventures for getting to know California game wardens was to accompany Lieutenant John Laughlin on an afternoon patrol near Sacramento.

After filling out the required paperwork, John said that we’d be working a patrol along the Sacramento River, which flows through the state capital. The shad and striped bass were passing through, sturgeon were possible, and a Chinook salmon run was about to kick in.

We began in Miller Park. Sitting in John’s truck, we watched people fishing. The river level was down a little and so when we walked up to the first group and looked down from a high bank, what we initially had thought was one man turned out to be seven.

I hung back a little as John approached. One of the men had a fillet knife on top of his tackle box. No doubt they all were carrying knives and we were outnumbered seven to two. This is normal with game wardens. Everyone they meet in the field is presumably armed.

As John began to check licenses, one of the men headed off for his car at a brisk pace. I called to John and pointed out the fleeing man. Laughlin caught up with him before he reached his car.

The man had a fishing license hanging around his neck, which is the law in California, but it was for the previous year. He insisted that his current license was at home. Laughlin listened patiently and then said that the law was to have a current license display when fishing. As John was writing up the ticket he called in the man’s name and driver’s license to see if he had any outstanding warrants. Wardens encounter a number of people who have outstanding warrants, and when they do, things can get ugly.

The guy had a clean record. Laughlin told him how to respond to the ticket and we returned to checking fishermen.

Remember, if a warden does check you, he or she doesn’t need probable cause or a warrant to search you and your gear. He should ask first politely, and you should say, “Yes.” Also, if you’re carrying a gun, don’t start unloading it. Ask him or her what they’d like you to do.

Next we checked a group of four men and a boy. Laughlin is 6’2,”and plays rugby in a police league. Three of these guys were bigger than John, all carrying knives. These guys were very nice. John gave the young boy a “Deputy Game Warden” sticker, and told them about where he’d seen people catching fish and what bait was working. It was all smiles.

We continued checking licenses, catch numbers, and lengths of fish. Mostly shad. People were friendly. No tickets.

John spotted some people on the opposite side of the river who appeared to be littering beer cans and other trash. We headed for a bridge.

The litterbugs must have seen us coming. They were gone by the time we got there.

Next, we met a couple fishing. The woman had picked up a big plastic bag of trash. John thanked her profusely. Unfortunately, the “Caught Doing Good” program that gave out positive citations to people performing exemplary conservation work and a chance at prizes had been scrapped in the tough economy. This is a great program for conservation groups to sponsor.

On patrol in the truck, we drove up to a car with expired plates in a brushy area. John called in the car’s plates. It was stolen. John picked up footprints that led to a cane thicket, where a trail cut through toward the river. Most police would’ve called for backup. Wardens work alone. John said that he was going to investigate and if I wanted to follow, I should stay back a few paces and if anything started to happen I should run to the truck to radio for backup. He also showed me how to unlock the shotgun, just in case.

With his gun drawn, we approached a fire pit and tarp shelter. Smoke was still curling up from the fire but no one was there. John radioed to the sheriff. They replied that someone would be there in an hour or so.

We stopped at a convenience store for some water. Without any prompting, the clerk asked Laughlin how much game wardens make. John told him. The clerk broke out laughing and said that his brother who was a prison guard earned more than that—which, unfortunately, is true. Wardens in California are the lowest-paid of all law enforcement officers.

Back in the truck we came upon a depressed homeless man sitting in his car along the river. Laughlin talked with him. The guy was coping. John reported him to the local dispatcher, and we drove off.

John showed me a stretch of river where many people gather at night to fish, drink, and party. He said that almost every time he checked that area at night, he made at least one arrest.

On the way back, John was in the middle of a story when a guy in a sports car coming the opposite direction suddenly swerved right in front of us to pull into a gas station. Laughlin turned on a dime and followed the guy to the station. This guy was also bigger than Laughlin. John showed no fear as he wrote out a ticket for reckless driving. Wardens cover all area of law—criminal and civil, as well as wildlife.

We returned to the office; four hours from start to finish. “A normal day,” was John’s comment.

Image courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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  • Joseph Wisgirda

    Remember, if a warden does check you, he or she doesn’t need probable cause or a warrant to search you and your gear. He should ask first politely, and you should say, “Yes.” Also, if you’re carrying a gun, don’t start unloading it. Ask him or her what they’d like you to do.

    Bullshit. They absolutely need a warrant or probable cause. Where do you think this is, North Korea?