Florida game warden Eric Meade always sleeps with a uniform slung over a chair near his bed, ready for those late-night calls: lost hunter, or shots fired in the woods. And even in Flagler County, there are plenty.
“We get people shooting deer at night in the middle of neighborhoods,” Meade said. “There’s a lot of hunting that goes on in Palm Coast.”
In his time as a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer patrolling Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties, Meade has caught people bagging illegal deer in local subdivisions and pursuing even larger game from their backyards.
Last week, he caught a man who had suspended treble hooks behind his waterfront home to catch alligators.
Meade, who has served in Flagler County since he entered the FWC in 1999, is one of a number of officers featured in a new book called “Backcountry Lawman: True Stories from a Florida Game Warden,” published this year by the University Press of Florida.
Author Bob Lee patrolled rural northeastern Florida as a game warden for 30 years before retiring to become an outdoor writer with stories in magazines like Florida Sportsman, Florida Game and Fish and SWAT.
“Few people understand what wildlife conservation enforcement entails,” Lee said. “I would like to offer people an opportunity to understand what really happens in the Florida woods after the sun sets.”
What happens can be dangerous for wardens, who spend hours alone in the backcountry hunting outlaws who are armed with something deadly — a firearm, a knife, a crossbow — and know very well how to use it.
Lee never had someone take a shot at him, but he once had to wrestle firearms from poachers who didn’t want to give them up.
Much of Lee’s time as a warden was spent hunting illegal hunters, on foot or from a vehicle. To do it, he used tracking skills that might seem magical to the uninitiated.
In a story recounted in the book, Lee and Meade tracked a hunter who had poached a deer.
All they had to go on was a Polaroid they had taken of his tire tracks near the kill site. Most of the remaining tracks had been obliterated by other traffic.
Still, that image was enough.
The two wardens passed through intersection after intersection, checking each for tire tracks, until the little slivers of sign — some as small as 2 inches across — led them to the poacher’s front door hours later.
The man couldn’t believe the wardens had found him with anything but pure dumb luck.
That kind of painstaking detective work is balanced by the excitement of the chase, Lee said.
“I’ve been in a lot of high-speed boat chases. Almost all of them were outlaw commercial fishermen,” he said.
And those men knew the local waters like the back of their hand, Lee said.
“You’ve got a handful when you chase those boys,” he said. “You don’t just drive down to the boat ramp and catch a poacher. Not a real poacher. They get used to looking for the silhouette of a patrol boat, and if they see it, Boom! They’re gone.”
And the wardens would tear off after them, sometimes running without lights at night to close the gap with their quarry.
But the men who fished illegally when Lee worked as a warden had one vulnerability: They had to run their traps or lines at least once a week. And if a warden could figure out where they were and when the poacher fished, he could set up a stakeout.
Now, he said, there isn’t illegal commercial fishing in Florida on the scale that he saw when he patrolled the state’s waters as a warden. Fish farms out of state have put the local illegal fishermen out of business.
Guns and gators
Patrolling Flagler County waters today, Eric Meade finds plenty of people over the bag limit on fish, but for them, poaching is less likely to be a full-time profession.
Now, Meade said, it’s alligator season, and much of his time on the water is spent out on Crescent Lake and other gator hunting spots, enforcing the hunting regulations.
When he’s not protecting alligators from people, Meade’s often protecting people from alligators, dragging nuisance gators out of swimming pools and ponds.
If they’re small enough, he throws them in a pen in the back of his truck, which has held plenty of Florida wildlife over the years: deer, gators, fish, eagles and even a road-killed black bear.
Out patrolling, Meade often hides the truck and heads out on foot. Many of his tips come from landowners who heard gunshots on or near their property. Not long ago, Meade said, he caught a Flagler County poacher with seven illegal deer. He confiscated the deer and the guns the poachers had used to kill them.
Catching people breaking wildlife laws — waiting, and then surprising them as they commit a crime — is one of the best parts of the job, Meade said.
“I like to catch people baiting turkey,” he said. Poachers who lay in wait over a pile of corn waiting to surprise a bird get a surprise of their own when Meade appears from behind a nearby bush or tree.
For Lee, one of the biggest rewards of the job was catching people who had no regard for Florida’s wildlife. Once, he said, he worked on a case where illegal commercial fishermen were taking hundreds of pounds of protected speckled perch. After days of surveillance, FWC offers finally nailed them.
“These guys, they had the intention to do wrong,” Lee said. “Those are the cases that are the hardest and the most fun.”
BOX: "Backcountry Lawman:"
In "Backcountry Lawman: True Stories from a Florida Game Warden," retired Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Lieutenant Bob Lee recounts the risky and often strange scenarios he encountered in 30 years as a Florida game warden.
In Chapter 23, “Finding Lost Tire Tracks,” he writes of tracking a poacher with Officer Eric Meade:
The air was still. At first I could only hear the skittering of small lizards across dry leaves. Then I heard it, a familiar sound that brought a warm flush to me. The buzzing of blow flies. “I hear them,” I said. “Going to be blood somewhere.”
Blood excites me. It’s earthy and prehistoric and visceral. No amount of innovation in modern society will ever change the realness of it, the sickening-sweet smell, the coppery taste, or the candy-apple-red brightness when fresh. The skills required to find and follow blood have not changed since man first hunted beasts with spears. In some small way, I have always felt a connection to those who came before me when on a blood trail.
Eric and I scanned the ground, casting our eyes down and around our feet. Four or five of the turgid flies— their iridescent green heads reflecting in the low-angled light — flew in lazy, erratic circles a few inches above the forest litter. One finally landed, crawled upside down under the corner of a turkey oak leaf, and disappeared. Eric bent down and flipped the leaf over with one finger. Underneath was a thumbtack-sized dollop of wet blood with one white hair. “Bingo,” he said, as he held up the belly hair of a deer.
Published in 2013 by the University Press of Florida. Reprinted with permission.
For more information about “Backcountry Lawman: True Stories from a Florida Game Warden,” visit Lee’s website at http://bobhlee.com/ .