November 16, 2003
CO saves day for hunters
By LOUIE STOUT
For conservation officers working duck hunters on the St. Joseph River, timing is everything.
But during Indiana's waterfowl season opener, it wasn't the hunters who paid the price for an ill-timed error in judgement.
Shortly after 6 a.m., Indiana officer John Mortimore walked through an Osceola boat access site lot to survey the number of hunters headed out that day.
"I do that to get an idea of how many hunters are in the parties," he explained. "Duck hunters are usually squared away, but we still have to keep an eye out for those who aren't."
He and other officers work the river hard. A few years ago, residents tried to shut down waterfowling on the river. The DNR defended it, and promised legislators that they would invest more time there and come down hard on those who disobey legal shooting hours, bag limits and other waterfowl regulations.
It was about 6:15 when Mortimore crossed paths with South Bend hunter Chris McDonald.
"My buddy and I had set up our decoys when I realized I had forgotten my goose call," recalled McDonald. "We had a few minutes before legal shooting time, so I paddled the canoe back to the access site to get the call."
When Mortimore saw McDonald beach the canoe and walk toward his truck, he knew why. He had shined his flashlight inside the red pickup truck only minutes earlier and saw the hunter's goose call lying on the console.
"I bet you forgot something, didn't you," Mortimore grinned.
McDonald nodded, retrieved the call and hurried back to his decoy spread just as the clock ticked into legal shooting. The officer drove away shortly after the shooting began.
But Mortimore didn't leave the area. He parked his vehicle down the road and slipped into the bushes close to the access site.
"This job requires we spend a lot of time hiding in the bushes," he joked. "The plan was to observe the hunting parties in that area and count the birds they killed to make sure they stayed within the limit."
That's when the swearing began.
A man who had walked into the access site began yelling vehemently across the water at the hunters. The man was agitated that the shooting awoke him and that they were killing "his ducks." It caught Mortimore's attention.
"I saw the guy walk to the red truck and stoop down by the tire," said Mortimore. "I had a hunch he was up to something, so I decided to investigate. He'd already broken the law by harassing the waterfowlers."
Mortimore returned to his vehicle, called the county sheriff's department for backup, and drove back into the parking area.
"When I pulled in, the guy closed the red truck's door and began to act like he was picking up trash," said Mortimore. "I began asking questions and was getting pretty vague answers."
Because he had seen McDonald retrieve his goose call earlier, he knew the truck didn't belong to the man pacing the lot. He also noticed one of the tires on the red truck was low and that a considerable amount of change was missing from where he saw it when he inspected the vehicle earlier.
The officer walked to the shoreline and called McDonald and hunting partner Leon Patton of Galien, Mich. off the water. Mortimore asked McDonald to examine his truck for missing items.
A large quantity of change was gone.
"That conservation officer saved the day for us," said McDonald. "It's sort of strange. He was there trying to catch us doing something wrong and wound up protecting us and our property. I had a flat tire, but overall, it turned out to be a pretty good day."
Mortimore said he was just doing his job.
"Sure, it's our job to keep an eye on hunters," he said. "But we're out there to protect them, too. We'll back them up when something like this happens."
The man, whose name is being withheld pending further investigation, was arrested for hunter harassment, vandalism (letting air out of the tire) and theft. He faces up to a $500 fine and jail time.
Mortimore said harassment issues are common and that hunters should keep their heads and contact authorities.
"We don't want them confronting the harassers," he said. "That's what some 'antis' want hunters to do -- lose their cool. It's best to call the sheriff department and let us handle it."
Unless, of course, an officer is hiding in the bushes.