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Stealing Beauty

Who's poaching the big bucks?

By Mike Cox

Backlit by a smoky campfire so only his gimme-capped silhouette shows up on the video, "Eddy" does not need much prompting to talk freely about his former life as a brush country outlaw - a poacher who made big bucks off big bucks.

"My best year?" he responds to the man interviewing him. "Forty-eight bucks. I hauled 'em out every day of the season."

Not that he paid any attention to the legal hunting season, except that it roughly parallels the time of year when bucks have their antlers.

Asked how many bucks he killed as a poacher, Eddy says he has to think about that for a minute.

"I don't know if I can add that high," he finally says. "A thousand, conservative 750, something like that." And as a "guide," who for $4,000 to $5,000 slipped wealthy clients on moonless nights onto big South Texas ranches to take trophy bucks, he says he was present when hundreds of other bucks were killed illegally.

In a good year, Samuel, another former poacher, says he made $60,000 routinely shooting deer most hunters would consider once-in-a-lifetime trophies, selling horns on the black market to wealthy collectors or unscrupulous hunters wanting to cash in on local big buck contests.

Eddy also killed for his own collection.

"I killed 20 or 30 [Boone and Crockett] gross-score 180-point bucks," he says with barely hidden pride. "I had three record-book bucks, and killed a dozen that missed the book by one point."

With a history of several arrests and a personal collection of 500 sets of big horns, Eddy, who learned the business from his peers, decided to retire from poaching when he reached his 40s. But 54-year-old Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden Mike Bradshaw of Carrizo Springs, who has spent more than half his life tracking men like Eddy, says plenty of other "Eddys" - who see a high fence not as a barrier but as an inviting target - are still in the outlaw business.

Poaching has been around since Robin Hood and his men gave the Sheriff of Nottingham fits in Sherwood Forest. William Shakespeare dealt specifically with deer poaching in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." In the bard's day, the deer belonged to the king. Killing a royal stag could cost an offender his head.

Stratford-Upon-Avon is a long way from Texas, where the deer and other game animals belong to the public. Poaching no longer is a chopping block offense, but landowners, game wardens and law-abiding hunters don't see anything merry about it in Texas.

So who's stealing your big bucks?

"I'd say they're 35 to 55 years old, middle-class, intelligent," says Jim Stinebaugh, TPWD director of law enforcement. "They have been handled before for game law violations, and they are... how can I say this... just eaten up with deer."

Bradshaw agrees. "They don't want to hurt the deer population," he says, "but if a big buck is out there, any poacher probably would want to shoot it. Most have an attitude, like bank robbers, that it's the rich ranchers controlling the herd, but the deer belong to everybody. 'What does it hurt? I have to pay restitution in court, but ranchers get free use of deer.' This is the rationale we're dealing with in poaching."

Some poachers are locals, others are from distant cities or out of state. Their common denominator is a love for hunting, but they don't see it as a sport. To their way of thinking, they are merely taking what's theirs. Though poachers have many similar characteristics, their motives can be split into three categories.

These money hunters are dead serious pros. They know what they're doing, and they're hard to catch. They don't leave tracks, but if they do, it's a set of fake tracks. Knowing that a shot can be heard for miles, they usually pull the trigger only once. That usually works out, because they've rattled a buck up so close they can hear him snorting.

The first is the opportunist. He's usually a relatively law-abiding hunter, often from one of the state's metropolitan areas, who pays $300 for a day hunt and doesn't see anything. On his way home, his ice chest empty except perhaps for a partially consumed six-pack of beer, he sees a fat doe or maybe a buck on the side of the road leading out of the ranch or on the highway right of way. He takes the deer, probably even tags it, and is on his way home, eager to tell his buddies about the deer he bagged.

A subset of this category, not nearly as common as he once was, is the meat hunter. The meat hunter likes fresh venison on the table and he doesn't care what time of year it is or whose land or right of way it is that he gets his groceries on. His daddy was a poacher, and so was his granddaddy.

Longtime East Texas dog hunter I.C. Eason killed his first deer, a big doe, with a .22 back during the Depression. When a private game warden caught him deep in the Pineywoods with the illegal deer, Eason threatened to kill him. His family did not have any food, he said, and he was going to keep that doe. The horseback warden believed him.

"If it hadn't been for the game and fish in here, I wouldn't have lived," Eason later told writer Blair Pittman for his book King of the Dog People. "As long as gunpowder burns, they ain't takin' this land."

The second breed of poacher is someone who couldn't care less about meat. He wants a trophy rack. Unfortunately for ranchers, who these days depend on hunting income to stay in business, this outlaw is not interested in paying for that Boone and Crockett deer. But he is willing to go to quite a bit of effort to steal yours.

"I started out right out of high school," says Eddy. "I enjoyed it... it was wonderful. I didn't start out for money, but the money got pretty good."

The third variety of poacher is the rarest of the three but the worst: a professional in it primarily for the big money. This is what Eddy became.

"A Boone and Crockett rack of 180 points or better is worth a lot of money on the black market," Stinebaugh says. "For 200 points or more, you're talking serious money, pickup truck-buying money."

These money hunters are dead serious pros. They know what they're doing, and they're hard to catch. They don't leave tracks, but if they do, it's a set of fake tracks. Knowing that a shot can be heard for miles, they usually pull the trigger only once. That usually works out, because they've rattled a buck up so close they can hear him snorting. If they're hunting from a vehicle, they keep the muzzle inside to muffle the sound. They hunt when it's dark - it provides good cover and that's when the big deer are out - and they stay off the beaten path.

"They wear full camo, face paint and netting," Bradshaw says. "They may have flown over the ranch looking for a big deer, marking where they see it with a global positioning device. And then they come backpacking in. They've got night vision goggles, infrared scopes, lights with red lenses."

Along with all their other state-of-the-art equipment, they use two-way radios, cell phones and pagers.

"In the old days, if we cut a poacher off from his vehicle, we had a good chance of catching him," Bradshaw says. "Now they call someone on the cell phone and tell them where to come pick them up."

Poaching big deer takes more than high-tech equipment.

"I'd do a lot of homework," Eddy says. "In the summer, I'd scout the ranches, learning where the gates are. I'd cut the chain on a gate that didn't get used too much and drive to a nearby city where a locksmith stayed up all night making me a key to the lock. Then I'd drive back and put the lock back on the gate. After that, I had a key to the ranch."

Eddy did not talk on the tape about the times he did get caught, but one time he eluded arrest sticks in his mind.

"I was looking over a real good buck, maybe 175 points with a long beam, when I saw a plane in the distance," he says. "When its lights went out, I knew I'd kept my light on too long. I knew he'd be radioing to his ground crew."

Eddy started moving out of the area as quickly and quietly as he could. "I knew the pastures like the back of my hand," he says. "Then I heard a radio squelch about 100 yards away."

The game wardens were between him and the gate he intended to use, but he knew where there was another gate four to five miles off.

"I made it to the gate and got out of there," he says. "When I got home, I listened on my scanner as they kept looking for me. About 3 or 4 a.m. I got tired and went to sleep."

Like Eddy, the best of the worst poachers know the country.

"They know every fence post," Bradshaw says. "They know right where to go."

Once they've killed the big buck they want, they remove its horns or cape. If they think it's too risky to pack out their illegally taken trophy, they hang it in a mesquite tree for the maggots and fire ants to clean and come back for it a few weeks later.

"A real pro won't mark the place with something obvious, like fresh orange tape," the warden continues. "He'll throw down something inconspicuous, like a piece of tire, or a turtle shell, or bleached-out survey sticks."

Just as younger bucks are more prone to make fatal mistakes than their heavier-horned elders, the less experienced poachers are the easiest to catch. But whether through the use of informants, surveillance or just doggedly following a trail, wardens are still making cases, even on the experienced, well-equipped professional outlaws.

"They get pretty smart around the campfire," Bradshaw says. "It's kind of a game with them, but when we get to laugh, it costs them plenty."

Warden Brad Meloni, stationed at Hebbronville, has been a warden for only six years, but he's already handled quite a few poaching cases. Even in his relatively short career, he's seen things change.

"Road hunting has really slowed," he says. "People are shooting across a fence, or walking in, but the high fences have reduced hunting in the right of way."

Wardens refer to practitioners of this older methodology as those who do their illegal hunting by "burning a light." Thanks to high fences, which tend to keep deer off the roadway, the newer manifestation is dealing with those who trespass on a ranch, often on foot.

Some of these "walk-ins" are outlaw hunting guides, taking someone on a big ranch with big bucks so they can get a deer. Sometimes they drop them off and pick them up at a predetermined point, and sometimes they stay with them. On a moonlit night, they rattle up a buck or wait patiently with night vision equipment for a big deer to come to a feeder for a midnight snack.

Last year, Meloni said, one rancher in his county told him he had patched 40 holes in his high fence. Most, if not all of those holes, are presumed to have been made by poachers.

Until Sept. 1, 1999, all poaching-related violations were misdemeanors. Even the maximum fines amounted to little more than walking-around money for a serious violator. Now, someone caught hunting on private property without the landowner's permission faces a state jail felony conviction. That carries jail time of 180 days to two years and fines from $1,500 to $10,000.

Anyone taking a whitetail, mule deer, pronghorn antelope or desert bighorn sheep while hunting from a vehicle on a roadway or other public property, or at night, runs the risk of a similar penalty. A second offense of either of these two violations can result in two to 10 years in prison. Convicted trespass poachers also can have their hunting equipment forfeited, including their rifles, and see their hunting license revoked.

"Both forms of illegal hunting (trespassing and road hunting) are deplorable," says Darwin Avant of Cotulla, director of the Los Cazadores big game program. This big buck contest, started in 1986, is the state's largest and accepts entries from all over Texas and northern Mexico.

Avant believes the new law has had a significant impact. "I would guess that the number of arrests for illegal hunting has gradually been reduced over the past 10 years," he says.

Indeed, cases filed for hunting without a landowner's consent dropped from 458 in 1997 to 131 in 2000. Hunting from a vehicle cases decreased from 414 to 113 during the same time period, and night hunting cases went from 280 to 41.

"We are real pleased with it," Stinebaugh says of the new law. "It has a psychological effect. Sometimes they plead it down [to a misdemeanor], but it used to be a $500 maximum fine. The new statute is a real strong deterrent."

So are sophisticated TPWD enforcement actions like Operation Venado Macho (Spanish for buck deer). Code name for an 18-month undercover operation which climaxed on Feb. 5-6, 1998, the investigation led to the filing of 115 criminal charges against 14 men involved in illegal trophy hunting in Webb, La Salle, McMullen and Duval counties. The effort was the largest such operation in Texas history.

"We have an undercover operations unit, and we are going to be doing more of these," Stinebaugh says.

But in the long run, Stinebaugh believes, honest hunters and others who don't sanction the breaking of any law are going to make the biggest difference.

"I'm convinced that the best thing we have going for us is peer pressure and hunters' ethics," Stinebaugh says. "Most poachers have friends who are 100 percent law-abiding. We need these people to speak up."

One way to do that is to call (800) 792-GAME (4263). Now 20 years old, Operation Game Thief, the outdoors version of the successful Crime Stoppers effort, has stopped or prevented a lot of poaching.

Another way to discourage trophy deer poaching is for the various big buck competitions to adhere to strict standards.

"Ever since Los Cazadores was started in 1986, we have annually mandated polygraph exams for some of our top winners," Avant says. "We ask them things like: Were you properly entered in the contest prior to harvesting your deer? Did you have permission from the landowner of the property on which you harvested this deer to hunt and harvest this deer? Did you follow TPWD rules and regulations? Did you not kill this deer at night?"

Avant says no hunter has ever failed the test, though one did decline to take it. The only thing that stopped Eddy from poaching was a change in his attitude. But others are still in the business of stealing your deer. They think like Eddy used to think: "If I don't have a place to go hunting, any place is just fine."

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