A day in the life of a Virginia game warden--from boredom to bedlam By RUSTY DENNEN
Date published: 1/2/2005
IT'S 9 DEGREES on the coldest morning of the season. A gut-rattling whoosh of wind ruffles the collar on John Cobb's camouflage uniform as he climbs into his green, state-issued Chevy Tahoe and heads to work.
There's no cushy cubicle awaiting him: Cobb is a game warden. His office is the great outdoors.
Today, he'll drive and walk the backwoods and fields of Caroline County, checking on hunters and running down complaint calls.
Pulling out of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' Fredericksburg office parking lot, he smiles.
"In the summertime, people say they'd love to have my job. I think not too many would want to go out today."
First stop is a swath of snow-dusted woods off U.S. 17 just over the Caroline County line.
"Last year, I caught five people here," he says over the squawk of a police radio. He wrote several tickets: No blaze orange (which hunters must wear to be seen), trespassing, using a rifle in a shotgun-only area, and borrowing and lending a license.
For the hunters, it was an expensive outing: Court costs of about $60 each, fines of up to $100 on each count. For an illegal deer, add another $500 replacement fee.
Cobb has the authority to go where anyone is hunting, fishing, trapping or operating a boat.
He steers the SUV into the 934-acre Pettigrew Wildlife Management Area, a narrow strip of land running along U.S. 17. With dense hardwoods, thickets, streams and marshy bottoms, it's a favorite spot for deer hunters.
Cobb wants to see if anyone is illegally hunting with dogs or using a rifle.
He pulls up in a small parking area. With the snow cover, he can see that there are no vehicle tracks, and he moves on.
Finally, on a gravel road, a deer hunter appears in the distance. He's walking back to his car, a shotgun slung across his shoulder.
Cobb approaches, turns on his blue lights and greets David Sauer of Spotsylvania County with a smile.
"Any luck today?" Cobb asks.
Sauer shakes his head. Too cold. He's heading back to the car after only an hour or so in the field.
Cobb asks him if his gun is loaded.
He asks Sauer to hand over the weapon, pumps out three shells, and hands them and the gun back. Sauer is hunting legally and has done nothing wrong, as is the case with the vast majority of people Cobb checks.
Sauer can walk with a loaded gun on this road. But since no shooting is allowed along a highway, it should be unloaded for safety's sake, Cobb says.
He tells Sauer about new deer-checking regulations, wishes him a good day, and hits the road.
More than game
Interactions with hunters, Cobb says, are a great part of the job. Most of the time he spends a few minutes shooting the breeze and then gets down to business, checking licenses, animals killed and equipment.
On weekends, when hunters are out in force, he might check 20 or 30 people. Though his primary responsibility is Caroline, he also works with wardens in Fredericksburg and the counties of Spotsylvania, Louisa, Orange and Stafford.
Primarily, game wardens are responsible for enforcing Virginia's hunting, fishing, trapping and boating regulations.
But they do much more.
Fully empowered police officers, they assist sheriff's deputies and state police on traffic and search-and-rescue operations.
Cobb is part of the security team that protects the North Anna nuclear power plant.
He's ticketed drunken drivers and occasionally comes across illicit drugs, illegal weapons and felons while doing his job.
When the Rappahannock River's Embrey Dam in Fredericksburg was breached last February, Cobb was in a johnboat downriver to prevent anyone tempted to paddle in the high water that followed the blasts.
"I wasn't even supposed to work that week," he says.
One time, he apprehended a robbery suspect at a McDonald's in Bowling Green.
Most of the time, he works alone. And most of the people he meets are armed.
A game warden for 10 years, Cobb has never had to fire at anyone, though he's had to chase people on occasion.
The job can be dangerous. The men and women in green have been shot at, run over and assaulted. In Virginia, eight have been killed in the line of duty since 1903. A game warden was seriously injured last year in Stafford while patrolling on an all-terrain vehicle.
One thing in Cobb's favor: He's 6 feet 8 inches tall, lean and muscular. At 40, he's in prime condition.
"It's pretty good exercise. I've never had a job when I wasn't out and about."
Cobb grew up in Hopewell and graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in wildlife management. He did a stint in the Army, worked for a security firm and as a county deputy before becoming a game warden.
"I always knew that's what I wanted to do," he says. He's married and has an 18-month-old daughter. His wife supported his decision to take the job; they discussed the potential dangers before he accepted the position.
"We have an agreement. I tell her when I'm coming home. She's not to worry until I'm two hours late.'' If that happens and he's out of touch by cell phone, he has a sheriff's office dispatcher call her.
For a game warden, there's no 9-to-5. One day, he's up before dawn; the next, he might not be in bed until dawn.
"The hardest part of the job is managing your hours," Cobb says.
On a recent Saturday, he started work at 1 p.m., got home at 6. He had dinner, then staked out a field for illegal night hunters until 2 a.m.
He works many nights, weekends, holidays. He handles all his investigations from beginning to end. There's no handing off paperwork or cases to others.
"Saturday is usually the longest day," he says. The week between Christmas and New Year's is especially busy, because it's the tail end of deer season and people are on vacation and out in the woods. Yesterday was the last day of the firearm season for deer.
Slowing the vehicle to peer occasionally into roadside thickets and ravines, Cobb swings by hunt-club shanties tucked way back in the woods. At Sportsmen Club, Cat Club, Sparta Hunt Club, no one's around. No trucks, no activity.
After weaving through more back roads, he pulls in to Sparta General Merchandise to grab a barbecue sandwich, chips and chocolate cake for lunch, which he eats in the truck.
Because of the frigid weather, no hunters' pickup trucks are in their usual spots outside.
"I knew there wasn't going to be much happening today when I saw the parking lot," Cobb says. Still, he has to make the rounds, rain or shine, freezing or warm.
Cobb is prepared for whatever happens. He's had police training, and specialized game warden education. Weeks of additional in-service training are required each year for him to keep up with changes in the laws.
Cobb helps train new wardens, and is one of four certified to administer polygraph tests.
The training regimen is being updated. Virginia's new Game Warden Training Academy in Richmond will graduate its first class of officers this spring.
A big part of the job, Cobb says, is reading people.
"You begin to learn quickly if something doesn't look right, or sound right."
For example, he checked a man dove hunting one afternoon. As he approached, the man came across the field to greet him.
"He said he just wanted to save me the walk. He was nervous for no reason."
Cobb knew better.
Later, he went back to the spot where the man was hunting and found it had been strewn with sunflower seeds, doves' favorite food.
The next week, he went back to the field and caught the man's son-in-law, who admitted he'd sown the illegal bait. Both were charged; the elder man for two offenses.
Many of Cobb's tips come from good hunters who follow the rules and don't like it when others don't.
For example, some aren't content with killing the number of deer they are allowed, or kill a doe on a buck-only day.
Information also comes from landowners and the public. Hunting on the road and trespassing are the two most common complaints.
Drawing a bead
Cobb may spend hours working on a case.
Deep in Caroline on a back road, he recently staked out a cut-over field along a wood line at night, waiting for spotlighters who illegally illuminate and shoot deer after dark.
He'll sit for hours in the dark and cold in his green truck with his windows down waiting.
If he's lucky and someone else is very unlucky, boredom turns to bedlam in a split second, as it did one night recently.
"This car, a hatchback, went by. No big deal," he said. Until it stopped, a window rolled down and a rifle shot rang out. The car then sped away.
Often, spotlighters will shoot and return in the morning to pick up the deer.
He stopped the man and wrote him a ticket.
One of his most challenging cases a few years ago involved a man who was shooting deer out of season with a .22-caliber rifle. The weapon is preferred for poaching: deadly but not as loud as a shotgun or high-powered rifle.
"Someone would drop him off, he'd walk a mile or so, get a deer and take whatever [meat] would fit into a standard-size backpack."
Through investigation and a tip, Cobb went to the man's house. As as luck would have it, the poacher had just finished cooking up a mess of venison tenderloin and bacon.
"When he answered the door he was still chewing. I said, 'Are you this person? I want the deer.' His jaw just kind of dropped."
"That was a really good one," Cobb says. He's especially pleased to nail a poacher, spotlighter or one of a small number of shooters who hunt trophy deer out of season.
He hastens to add: "Most people who hunt are great people." If there is a problem, "You have to be able to tell the difference, have the upper hand, and the quicker you [act], the better off you are."
Cobb's job generally follows the ebb and flow of wildlife, and of boaters.
Fall and winter are prime time for hunters.
During the spring, migratory fish make their way up the Rappahannock and turkey gobbler season opens.
During the summer, he works with Spotsylvania's wardens, enforcing boating and fishing laws on Lake Anna.
One day on the lake, he was in plain clothes, looking for jet-ski violations.
He came across a pontoon boat a man had rented to promote his business. The man had hired some girls in bikinis to draw attention to ads on the boat, and some "professional" jet-ski drivers to create a little extra buzz.
The four jet-skiers were doing so many reckless things, Cobb recalls, "I barely had time to count them all."
One zoomed toward another at about 50 mph, turning away at the last second.
"By that time, I'd had enough," Cobb says. All four got tickets.
Some people never learn.
"Last year, I caught the same guy [fishing without a license] in three different jurisdictions," Cobb says. Each time, he claimed to have a license, then couldn't produce it in court.
"A fishing license costs $12.50. He ended up paying about $400."
To reach RUSTY DENNEN: 540/374-5431 email@example.com
Date published: 1/2/2005