Going after road hunters Poachers: Natural Resources Police use decoys to try to catch people who shoot from their vehicles on the road if they see a deer.

December 20, 1997|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Call them poachers, not hunters: the guys who blast out of their pickup windows when they see a deer by the side of the road.

To curb this hazardous and illegal practice, Maryland Natural Resources Police are willing to sit in the cold for hours at a potential hot spot -- assisted by a remote-controlled stuffed buck.

They don't call their decoy Rudolph or any other cute name. The battery-packing buck can spin its head around like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," although the officers go for more subtle movements.

On a recent stakeout, Cpl. Paul M. Hanyok hauled the foam-filled body while Officer Aaron Parker carried the head by the antlers to set up the decoy along a little-traveled road north of Westminster in Carroll County.

The spot was chosen after citizens called the Department of Natural Resources, said Hanyok.

"It takes a long time," he said of the setup and stakeout. "So with the deer decoy, I only like to use it where we have complaints."

Landowners had reported people hunting on their land without permission, firing from vehicles and jacklighting -- using light to make the animals freeze. Further, said Hanyok, a buck had been found shot days earlier along the same road.

That made it a prime site for the decoy, he said. "When you're hunting from a vehicle on a road, that's a major safety violation."

Dressed in waders and warm clothing for a cold gray afternoon, Parker hopped a fence and slogged through the bottom land to drive the decoy's metal-spiked hoofs into the field. After some minor adjustments, the head was attached and tested.

Moving the head sometimes isn't even necessary, Hanyok said, "because some of them start blasting as soon as they see the eyes." This decoy hasn't been shot although it has been out five or six times.

"It's Styrofoam: The round goes right through it," said Parker. As long as a bullet doesn't hit the electronics, "it could probably go through 20 shots," he said.

Returning across the road, Parker took up a position on a ridge above the road overlooking the field, with a walkie-talkie ready to radio descriptions and tag numbers to Hanyok, waiting around the corner in a vehicle to pursue any suspects.

"If he says, 'They shot,' then I go and stop them," said Hanyok.

Near dark and after about two hours of waiting, the previously described suspect vehicles appeared, but no violation was observed. Hanyok said they would return and asked that the location not be revealed.

The firearms season for deer ended Dec. 13, but that doesn't stop the poachers, who are loathed by hunters, John E. Surrick, a DNR spokesman, said.

The word poacher has broadened to refer to a variety of offenses, beyond its original meaning of hunting on private property, he said.

State law requires hunters to carry written permission from a property owner on land where they are hunting. But poachers can't be charged with criminal trespass unless the property is marked with No Trespassing signs or with vertical lines of blue paint, at least 2 by 8 inches and 3 to 8 feet above the ground on trees or posts. No Hunting signs don't suffice.

He and the officers urged people to call the Natural Resources Police rather than confront poachers -- who are not only armed but sometimes are using drugs or alcohol. Hanyok recently made a drug arrest on a poaching stakeout.

During the season, deer-hunting hours begin a half-hour before sunrise and end a half hour after sunset, they said.

It is against the law to shine a spotlight on fields or woodlands, except in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City, which allow it only if no weapon is present. Having loaded weapons in or on a vehicle is illegal.

The officers said the no-lights law makes their job easier: They can see jacklighters at night from a helicopter, which gives them a legal basis to check for guns.

Some road hunters leave the deer to return later to take the meat or the head and antlers.

In addition to hunting out of season, trespassing and jacklighting, it is illegal to shoot within 150 yards of an occupied structure, from a vehicle, from the road, across the road or to shoot an animal that's on the road.

But even a law-abiding hunter might be tempted by this decoy's rack.

"Some hunters just can't stand to go a season without taking a big buck," said Hanyok.

That's why officers prefer to set up the decoy after the regular hunting season, when the people they catch are clearly flouting the law, he said.

Officers group poachers into three types: the accidental hunter who doesn't know the law; the opportunistic poacher who sees the bait and takes the opportunity; and finally, "the criminal -- the one who goes out with the intention of violating the law," he said.

Hanyok and Parker said on some stakeouts, they've had to chase off teen-agers -- who like the same lightly traveled roads for parties. The risk to others from road hunters is "why the department puts so much time into it," Hanyok said. "The main thrust would be the safety aspect."

Statewide, the Natural Resources Police has eight to 10 stuffed deer, said Surrick.

"It's a big area to cover, but we know where to go -- if people call us."

The first three days of the regular deer season brought 25 calls, resulting in 17 citations. Citizens calling the Catch A Poacher hot-line number -- 1-800-635-6124 -- since its inception in 1984 have been awarded about $25,000 for tips that led to convictions, Surrick said. Tips can be made anonymously. Hunting, fishing and conservation organizations and private individuals provide the reward money.

Fines can be as high as $1,500 for each violation, including shooting from a vehicle; having a loaded rifle in a vehicle or shooting from a paved public highway.

Pub Date: 12/20/97

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