August 27, 2012
"Really? That's a law?" I have heard these words uttered a few times when going over Colorado regulations with clients at my outfitting business. As an outfitter, either myself, or one of my guides, always reviews the regulations with clients before hunting. We do this to keep both them, and us, from getting crossways with the law. It can be difficult because a lot of game regulations are complex, difficult to understand, or are totally different from state to state.
For example, just a few months ago, one of my clients was taking a few practice shots at my camp before going turkey hunting the next day. I said, "Are those lighted nocks?"
"Yes," he said. I then informed him we needed to swap them out then, because they were not legal to hunt with in Colorado. See the first sentence of this article for his response.
Was it an honest mistake? Of course. Lighted nocks are legal in his home state, so he just assumed they were legal in Colorado. Unfortunately, for traveling hunters, it's an easy mistake.
Another example of an honest mistake is my first hunt in Illinois. I put my bow in the bed of my friend's truck and started to get in the cab when he said, "You have to unstring your bow." My answer? See the first sentence again. My friend saved me from unintentionally breaking the law.
Some laws are obvious. Others, not so much. One embarrassing mistake I made was on my first hunt in Kansas. I'd read the regulations, and felt I understood the game laws. While hiking around and doing some scouting, I found an old deer skull. It was a small buck that had been dead for years. The skull was in rough shape, and squirrels had gnawed on the antlers. I thought it looked cool, so I picked it up and put it in the bed of my truck. I didn't think anything else about it until I stopped and started chatting with a local game warden. He was doing his job, and while talking he looked in my truck and asked where I got the deer skull. I proceeded to tell him about where I found it. He was very polite, and when I finished talking he said, "Do you know that's illegal?" My response, I am embarrassed to admit, was the opening sentence once again.
The game warden was very professional, and I fully expected a ticket. He checked my license and equipment, and since everything else was fine, he didn't write me up for it. He did explain the law, and he gave me a "Found Dead" tag so the old deer skull was legal. I was humiliated that I didn't realize this was a law in Kansas. Does my not knowing make it excusable? No. As a hunter, it is my responsibility to know all the laws in any state I'm hunting.
I've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of hunters and guides. What I am constantly surprised by is how many times hunters, and even guides, are not aware of all the game laws. Laws are constantly changing too, so it takes some effort to keep up to date on the regulations from year to year.
Still, the most common mistake is assuming something is legal, just because it is legal in another state. In fact, it's not unusual for laws to be completely different from state to state. For example, when turkey hunting in Colorado, we can legally hunt a half-hour before sunrise to sunset. In Missouri, you can only hunt until 1 p.m. It can be tough to keep track. There are other examples involving turkey hunting. In some states you can harvest a bearded hen; in others you can't. In some states you can use a pop-up blind; in others it's illegal. In some states you can shoot a gobbler out of a tree during legal hunting hours, and in others you can't.
Deer season is no different. In some states you can shoot an albino deer; in some you can't. Some states allow you to harvest spikes; in some you can't. Some states' deer tags are valid for either bucks or does. In others they are gender-specific. In some states you can bait... The list goes on and on.
Properly tagging an animal can also be tricky. Some states have no tag at all. Others require a tag that must be attached to the animal. Some states require that a kill be reported by phone or at a check station. Sound confusing? It is.
What I've learned over the years is to never assume your hunting buddy, a landowner, guide or outfitter knows the law. It is your responsibility as a hunter to know the law, and to be in full compliance. That's not my opinion, but it's almost always the court's opinion.
If you're reading this and think you could never get caught up in a mistake or bad situation, think again. Take this scenario for example. You hire an outfitter and pay them your hard-earned money, but you are not worried about violations because you've studied the regulations. The guide takes you to some leased property, where you find yourself walking up to your first elk kill. Suddenly, a game warden appears and says you're trespassing. If you think your guide or outfitter is the only one in trouble, guess again. You might think you're innocent, but the eyes of the law might not see things the same way.
I can say that over the years, I've met and been checked by game wardens all over the country. The majority of them are super men and women, who got into the field because they are outdoors people themselves. Most are more than willing to answer questions, and I often call up game wardens for clarification on laws I'm unsure about. I also check with wardens regarding outfitters to find out whether they're legitimate or if I should steer clear. Game wardens can also be a good source of information on hunting areas. Are all game wardens good people? Nope. But neither are all hunters. Some are poachers who are stealing from all of us.
It's my opinion that most of us are trying to do the right thing. Despite our best efforts, mistakes in the field are made. The best bet is to call a game warden, whether it's a big mistake or a small one. They appreciate your doing the right thing, and it's usually taken into consideration. If you get a ticket, it's because you broke the law. Cowboy up, accept it, and move on.
Remember, without game wardens protecting our wildlife, we wouldn't have any wildlife to hunt. Help them concentrate on the people who are harming our resources. Report suspicious activity and help game wardens. And, if you're unsure of a game law, ask a warden. It has saved my butt a time or two.