Even the most well-intentioned hunters and fishermen can get into trouble with their local game warden. Sadly, most of the time, these situations are easily avoided. Most violations are the result of a poor understanding of fish and game laws or not taking the time to use common sense.
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, “Violations of wildlife laws can generally be characterized into two categories. First, the unintentional violators have committed violations which are unintentional, the result of a mistake, misidentification, inaccurate information, or other extenuating circumstances. Second, the intentional violators deliberately commit violations with the intention of improperly or illegally taking wildlife.” The instant a hunter crosses the line between unintentional and intentional violations, they become a criminal.
In an essay on the subject of irredeemable hunting and fishing miscreants, the author Jim Harrison refers to known poachers and cheaters as “Violators”. These violators act with full knowledge of breaking the law and take steps to hide their actions and avoid punishment. Game wardens are very familiar with these kinds of criminals and they’ll know the difference between someone who genuinely screwed up and an intentional violator. More severe punishments are reserved for individuals who knowingly commit wildlife crimes then make excuses or outright lie when they’re caught by a warden. In these cases, the penalties will be more severe. Fines will be steeper and hunting privileges may be revoked altogether.
For our purposes, we’re going to focus on unintentional violations. The vast majority of hunters and anglers are honest, law-abiding citizens and ethical outdoorsmen and women. But, sometimes, accidents happen and mistakes are made. If you do slip up, it’s better to admit a mistake than try to cover it up. Immediately self-reporting a violation may not get someone out of a citation but it can result in greatly reduced penalties. Game wardens tend be more understanding when they’re dealing with honest individuals.
In a Meateater podcast, Steve spoke with Idaho game warden Eric Crawford about his experience with these situations. That conversation was similar to one that took place on a recent mule deer hunting trip in Colorado where Steve and I had the pleasure of speaking with long-time Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager, Bill Andree. He’s seen all manner of hunting violations in his long career. So, we asked him about the most frequent mistakes hunters make that can result in a ticket, or worse. A little further research on fish and game websites from other states revealed more common violations. From Pennsylvania to Minnesota, to Montana, hunters tend to make the same mistakes. Hunting and fishing regulations do vary from state to state but, generally speaking, the following violations are the most common.
Shooting from a Road or Vehicle
We’ve all seen an unconcerned deer standing yards off the road during hunting season. But, in just about every state, a person must be out of or off of the vehicle and the vehicle’s engine must not be running in order to legally fire a weapon.This includes off-road vehicles and motorized boats in addition to cars and trucks. Transporting loaded firearms in a vehicle is also usually illegal during hunting season. “Road Hunting” is another common violation that gets many hunters in trouble.
Here is an example of the road hunting law in Pennsylvania:
It is unlawful to 1) hunt from a vehicle; 2) aid or assist another while hunting from a vehicle; 3) shoot at wildlife on a public road or right-of-way open to public travel; 4) shoot across a road unless the line of fire is high enough to preclude any danger to road users; and 5) alight from a vehicle and shoot at any wildlife until the shooter is at least 25 yards from the traveled portion of the roadway.
Shooting Before or After Legal Hunting Hours
With the exception of Alaska, where daylight hours vary widely, most states enforce legal daylight hunting hours between ½ hour before sunrise and ½ hour after sunset. This is a common sense law that prevents deadly shooting accidents or misidentifying an animal. Wear a watch and check your regulations booklet for a legal shooting hours calendar.
Evidence of Sex
Big game, upland bird and waterfowl hunters are often required to follow rules regarding the take of males or females. In most states, hunters transporting wild game must leave evidence of sex attached to certain animals. Failure to leave evidence of sex is a common hunting violation, especially in western states where hunters frequently pack out big game animals in pieces. Skinned and quartered big game animals require leaving the reproductive organs attached to a hindquarter. Or, the head must remain attached to the gutted carcass of big game animals. If you’re going to clean game birds in the field, waterfowl hunters are required to leave a feathered wing attached to the bird. Pheasant and turkey hunters should leave an entire foot attached to a leg on the cleaned carcass so the spurs can identify the bird as a male.
Evidence of Species
Waterfowl and upland bird hunters often encounter different species on the same hunt and they must adhere to different bag limits for each species. Transporting completely skinned birds or just breast meat could lead to a ticket. Leave a feathered wing attached to each bird even if you’ll be cleaning them in the field. It’s also possible you might be hunting whitetails in an area where it’s illegal to shoot a mule deer. Here, you’ll need to provide proof of species by leaving the head, tail or some other identifiable marker attached to the animal. Lack of species evidence is also a common fishing violation. Wait to fillet fish until you’re home. Or, if you fillet them on the water, leave the skin attached.
Failure to Properly Validate A Tag
In order to validate your hunting license, you must sign and date it. Hunting licenses may also have associated tags for big game animals, turkeys or other species. These tags need to be “notched” or validated. This involves signing and dating the carcass tag immediately after killing an animal. You may also be required to note what sex the animal was or where it was killed. Some states even require hunters to check-in their animal by phone, online or in person. When a game warden encounters a hunter with a dead animal and an unvalidated tag, it’s natural for them be suspicious.
Shooting the Wrong Animal
This violation can lead to serious punishment if the guilty hunter does not immediately self-report their mistake. What usually happens is an overly excited hunter acts too quickly and shoots a hen pheasant instead of a rooster or a doe instead of a buck. Or, a hunter might mistake one species for another and shoot a moose in thick cover thinking it was an elk. An impatient hunter who fails to make sure his target is clear could also unintentionally kill two big game animals with one rifle shot. Failure to report an error like this can lead to poaching charges that carry severe penalties.
The grass might seem greener on the other side, especially when the other side is off limits. “Fence jumpers” who can’t resist the temptation to trespass are regularly arrested during hunting season. There’s no doubt it’s possible for an honest hunter to get turned around, become confused about property boundaries and unintentionally trespass. But, even if you are legitimately unaware of where you are, landowners and game wardens usually take a hard line when it comes to trespassing. Just because you didn’t see a “No Trespassing” sign does not mean you’re not on private property, either. It’s unlikely any excuse will get you out of a trespassing ticket. Even with a bugling bull or a pond full of ducks just steps away, you better know where you stand. With technology available in the form of GPS chips and smartphone apps that show exact ownership status and boundaries in relation to your own location, it is very easy to prevent a trespassing violation.
It is possible for any hunter to make a mistake or unintentionally break a fish and game law. In the heat of the moment, a hunter might kill a spike buck instead of a doe or shoot a gobbler a few minutes before legal hunting hours. These mistakes don’t have to mean the end of your hunting career if you call the state fish and game agency and self-report your error. But, it’s better to avoid violations altogether by understanding and follow hunting rules and regulations. It is every hunter’s legal responsibility to do so. And, don’t assume that rules don’t change from year to year or vary from state to state. Ignorance is never an acceptable excuse for breaking a fish and game law. If you’re unsure whether or not it’s legal to do something, check the regulations first. Otherwise, you might find yourself having a very serious conversation with a game warden.
Check out your state fish and game agency website and these pages for more information on common hunting violations:
Brody Henderson is a hunter, fly fishing guide, writer, wilderness production assistant for the MeatEater television show and MeatEater‘s editorial contributor