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Notes and observations from around Pennsylvania
from Commission Waterways Conservation Officers
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Needle In A Haystack
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The protection and management of our native reptiles and amphibians is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC).  It is because of this that a timber rattlesnake population study and den assessment inventory was begun in 2003.  As an officer, and team member, I have had the opportunity to participate in countless assessments, and details, across the commonwealth.

After ten years and two districts, in 2005, I was able to transfer to my home county of Venango; where for the first 24 years of my life, which included thousands of hours in the woods, I never knowingly came across any of these creatures.  However, Venango is one of a handful of Pennsylvania counties which supports all three species of native venomous snakes (eastern timber rattlesnake, eastern massasauga, and northern copperhead).

Immediately, I took up the challenge of attempting to confirm/assess Venango’s resident rattlesnake population; an undertaking made all the more difficult since:

  1. all our known information on local sites was both outdated and/or rumor,
  2. their annual coming out overlaps with trout stocking, trout season, and the start of the summer boating season, and
  3. snake hunters are not known to be Chatty-Cathy’s.

Nevertheless, in 2006, as I was traveling the windings of an illegal ATV trail, there they were; two coiled atop a weathered stump.  Over the course of the next eight years, we located more rattlesnakes, including young, in the immediate area around the stump.  We knew a den had to be close; however, despite countless searches, we weren’t able to locate it.  In the spring of 2014, Sergeant Tarkowski and I had another opportunity to return.  We saw only one snake, but weather conditions were poor.  Given the snake’s location, we were able to conclude that a waypoint, marked into the GPS on Valentine’s Day 2013, was very likely a den entrance.

Captain Nestor, Sergeant Tarkowski, and I returned shortly thereafter; weather conditions were much improved.  Upon reaching the promising coordinate, we were greeted with numerous timber rattlesnakes basking around those holes which had prompted the waypoint entry.  For the first time, as known to us, the PFBC had documented a timber rattlesnake den site within Venango County.

On its face, to many, the achievement may not seem newsworthy; however, for us it was the culmination of eight years of trial and error, as well as frustration and, finally, validation.
Since 2005, we have located several other basking populations of rattlesnakes within the county.  The site discussed here is still the only den entrance we’ve verified.  Obviously, we still have miles to go before we rest.  However, the lessons learned will pave the way for new discoveries in 2015 and beyond.

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— WCO Mark T. Kerr, Venango County
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Safe Hockey
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While patrolling Shawnee Lake in February looking for ice fisherman, I noticed a vehicle parked in the Colvin Lot. As I parked, I saw an adult male wearing ice skates and pushing a puck around the ice with a hockey stick. This activity is not uncommon on the lake, but much to my surprise, the hockey player was actually wearing al life jacket! I was impressed with this his way of thinking by putting safety first while engaging in this activity.

Everyone who ventures out on the ice, whether it be for ice fishing, skating, walking, etc… should wear a USCG approved PFD, along with a pair of ice awls/spikes. Ice conditions can be so variable; it pays to put safety first. Check out the Pa Fish and Boat Commissions website for additional information on ice safety.

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— WCO Ted Kane, Bedford / W. Fulton Counties
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Trading Down
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One afternoon DWCO Ammon and I pulled our patrol boat to the shoreline. While eating lunch we noticed a canoe making its way across the river towards us. DWCO Ammon made the comment, “I bet they don’t have life jackets.”

We continued to eat our lunch as they pulled in alongside us. Looking inside the canoe we noticed that in fact they didn’t have any life jackets onboard. But that’s not the best part of the story. It turns out that these guys happened upon this canoe and decided they were going to take it for a joyride without the owner’s permission.

I still find it comical that this duo decided to steal a canoe and then pull up to law enforcement officers just to shoot the breeze. They left without the canoe but picked up a court date for their actions.

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— WCO Jeremiah Allen, Beaver County
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Painting without a license
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On a sunny winter morning I was watching a popular ice fishing lake in Susquehanna County. On this particular morning it wasn’t very popular so I decided to wait. I got busy shuffling papers and such in my patrol vehicle when I realized somebody had not only showed up but was out on the lake.

I grabbed my binoculars and looked for a displayed license. There was none. I sat there watching a man walk back and forth looking at stumps and bushes. He had a sled full of what I assumed was fishing gear, but didn’t have any tip-ups out or even an auger that I could see.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps he was trapping. I continued to watch him and decided to move my truck into a better vantage point. He went back to his sled and grabbed what I thought were wooden tip-ups.

To my surprise, he unfolded a wooden easel for painting. I’ve been called all sorts of variations of “fun police”, but on this day I decided that “paint police” was not going to be one of them. So I continued on with my day.

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— WCO Chad McKenrick, N. Susquehanna / E. Bradford Counties
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First Ice Angler of the Year
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Every winter the avid hard water anglers wait in anticipation for the first safe ice to venture out and try their luck. This winter the ice just formed and I was pondering how thick the ice had become when I noticed a mature bald eagle out on the ice.

A look through my spotting scope revealed that it wasn’t fish on the menu, but an unlucky duck. A few days later the human anglers started to appear.

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— WCO Patrick W. Ferko, Somerset County
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Annual Advice
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As the trout stocking season fast approaches, I look forward to seeing some of the volunteers who assist the PFBC with this endeavor.  I am particularly interested in hearing the advice offered to the agency and me.

Two individuals that never miss a stocking are Yuotta and his friend Yushooda.  Yuotta generally has advice for the agency, while Yushooda usually provides me with specific advice.

Yuotta always states that you (the PFBC),  otta stock bigger trout, you (the PFBC) otta stock more trout and you (the PFBC) otta stock other waters not on the stocking list.

Yushooda usually provides specific advice such as: you shooda stocked more trout in that hole, or you shooda float stocked or you shooda got more people to help stock, or you shooda spread the fish out better, or you shooda put more fish where people could get to them easier.

As always, I take all of this advice with a grain of salt.  In return for this valuable input I tell them you otta contact the agency and you shooda carried some buckets today.

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— WCO Albert Colian, Cambria County
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Wear It!
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I regularly check hunters and anglers during the cold months of the year in small boats, those 16 feet and under. I watch them struggle into a headwind on their return to shore when the wind kicks up suddenly. They barely make it back to the boat ramp, the battery on the boat almost depleted, and the boat loaded to the maximum capacity with equipment.

I notice they have no oars on the boat, and they have two old conventional style life jackets in the boat, under the bow, covered with the slurry of water mixed with debris from the floor of the boat. One of them is wearing laced up high top hunting boots and both are wearing seven layers of clothing trying to stay warm.

I used to tell them that the water was cold and that they really should wear their life jackets when out on the lake. That was before the Cold Weather PFD Law.

I had one such individual then put his hand in the water and say, the water really isn't all that cold, "it actually feels kinda warm, that's weird", besides, I am a really good swimmer, I was on the swim team in High School.

If it is 15 degrees out, and you stick your very cold fingers into a 33 degree lake, the water will indeed not feel all that cold. However, you can be sure that if you decide to jump overboard and go for a swim, that it will be mere seconds until you realize just how cold that water really is.

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission regulations require that operators of small boats, those under 16 feet and all kayaks and canoes must wear a type l, ll, lll, or V while underway or at anchor from November 1st to April 30.

If your old life jacket isn't comfortable to wear in cold weather, then replace it with one that is comfortable that you will actually wear. If you are not sure that you are worth the extra few dollars that a comfortable, quality made life jacket costs, I am sure that if you ask the people in your life you can find someone who does.

Don't forget to tie a whistle to your jacket, as it’s pretty exhausting to try to yell for help when the water is freezing cold, you keep sinking, and you are trying to get your darn boots off.

Wear your PFD, it will not only save you from a ticket, but more important, it might even save your life.

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— WCO Thomas Benevento, Southern Chester County
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Try it before buying it
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As the opening day of trout season was now underway for a few weeks, I was on patrol along the Weissport Canal checking anglers and engaging in conversation about their fishing experiences for the day. Most anglers were found to be in compliance with the exception of a few not displaying their fishing license. After a quick reminder to display their fishing license, it appeared that all were now in compliance, and I continued with my patrol along the canal.

Further downstream along the canal, I observed a young man fishing and not displaying his fishing license. Upon speaking with him, I asked him if he was having any luck which he replied “No.” He continued to tell me that he usually fly fishes the river and does well catching trout and bass. After a brief conversation about his fishing experience for the day, I requested to check his fishing license which he informed me that he did not have one.

I asked him why he did not have a current fishing license. He immediately replied that he knew he needed one, but he wanted to try it before buying it. During my career as a Conservation Officer, I thought that I have heard almost every possible excuse for not having a fishing license, but his excuse was a first.

Upon hearing his excuse, I looked at the young man somewhat confused. He then replied, you don’t understand I just bought the spinning outfit and tackle about an hour ago, and I wanted to try fishing with it before buying the fishing license. If I like it then I will go and buy the fishing license. He even went so far as to show me the receipt for the spinning outfit including the fishing tackle that he purchased for a total of about $70.00.

Being familiar with the store where he purchased the equipment, I asked him if he noticed a sign about fishing licenses at the store when he purchased the equipment. He replied that he seen the sign and even indicated it was next to the cash register.

I informed him that if he wanted to try fishing before buying a license he could take advantage of the Fish for Free Days that are designated each year where no fishing license is required, but today was not Fish For Free and he was required to possess a valid PA fishing license. After informing him that he would receive a citation for fishing without a license, the young man told me that he was done fishing and asked me if the store would take the spinning outfit back.

After completing and issuing the citation to him, I looked at his spinning outfit and noticed that he now had a bird’s nest of fishing line around the reel. In response to his question, I informed him that he would have to ask the store if they would take it back. Upon leaving the young man, I had no doubt in my mind that he was going back to the store to return the spinning outfit and tackle in exchange to hopefully purchase a fishing license or pay towards his fine.

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— WCO Scott J. Christman, Southern Carbon/Western Monroe County
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Angler Ethics
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While I was cleaning and organizing my office I came across a decal from Future 21 Dupont Stren. On the decal is written ANGLER ETHICS. I thought these nine suggestions would be worth a reprint for those who have never seen it, so here they are.

ANGLER ETHICS

  1. Keep only the fish needed
  2. Do not pollute – Properly dispose of trash
  3. Sharpen angling and boating skills
  4. Observe angling and boating safety regulations
  5. Respect other anglers’ rights
  6. Respect property owners’ rights
  7. Pass on knowledge and angling skills
  8. Support local conservation efforts
  9. Promote the sport of angling

I have some of my own that I could add to this like:

  • Always purchase a fishing license when required to. It supports the cause and is a lot cheaper than the fine.
  • Take a kid fishing, better yet, take a parent & a kid fishing, be a mentor.
  • Support the COOP fisheries in your area with the hatchery work and the stocking of trout.
  • Never prevent kids from fishing a hole by crowding them out or fishing over top of them.

As you can see there are many points that can be added to this list of angler ethics so add your own and practice using them in hope that others will follow your example of what is good angling ethics.

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— WCO Daniel McGuire, Southern Somerset County
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Got Caught
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This summer PPL at Lake Wallenpaupack and the PFBC sponsored a program where they handed out tee shirts to youth who were boating and wearing their life jackets. The shirt stated “I Got Caught Wearing My Life Jacket”.

The program was very successful and rewarding for both the boating public and us as officers on the lake. It not only was a good idea to encourage, especially, youth to wear their life jackets but it also showed the youth and adults that we as police officers were not something to fear. The look on the young faces when they received a free tee shirt for wearing their life jackets, were priceless.

There was even this one instance where Sgt. Bendock and I were patrolling Martin’s Cove, as we noticed this one pontoon boat full of youth that kept watching and waving at us from a distance. As we made our way around the cove and closer to the boat, all ten of the youth were all proudly standing at the edge of the railing wearing their life jackets and smiling from ear to ear just waiting to get their reward. If this is what it takes to save lives then it was a success.

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— WCO Robert A. Plumb, N Wallenpaupack District (Pike County)
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Buried Treasure
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While on foot patrol along the Stonycreek River, I observed two people out on a rock in the middle of the river drinking from plastic bottles. I decided to ensure that the empty bottles did not remain behind.

The drinks were consumed and the two people carried them back to shore where their ATV was parked. The one person opened his back pack up and for whatever reason decided that the empty plastic containers didn’t belong there. He then bent over and dug a hole in sand and buried the two plastic bottles and covered them up much like a dog would bury a bone.

Shortly thereafter, I approached these two people and made small talk and then asked about the plastic drink bottles. The one person told me they were in his backpack, while the other took a few steps away and stood over the spot where the bottles remained buried.

I told the person with the backpack to show me the empty bottles. He searched for a long time in the backpack before I finally told him that he would have better luck digging in the sand where his companion stood nervously.

Needless to say the bottles were dug up from beneath the sand and both individuals carried home a citation, while I carried out the two empty plastic bottles as evidence.

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— WCO Patrick W. Ferko, Somerset County
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It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Fish
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Working with the public you hear a lot of fish and other animals being misidentified, with snakes being at the top of the list for being confused with the wrong species. I experienced a case of misidentification while on patrol at Tuscarora Lake with SGT Sabo that really made me scratch my head in amazement.

A man approached us near the boat cove and said there were three Copperheads alongside a moored boat and one of them was eating a bird. I heard many complaints in the area of Copperheads and none proved to be accurate, so I had my doubts.

We approached the area and saw three watersnakes with one trying to swallow a nice sized fish, which looked to be a bluegill or crappie. The two snakes that were just watching the meal slithered into the water but the feasting snake remained for some good photo opportunities.

I had a good laugh with SGT Sabo, the snake confusion is common but I never had someone confuse a fish with a bird before!

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— WCO Doug Daniels, Eastern Schuylkill County
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Measure Twice Cut Once
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This past ice-fishing season Sgt. Bendock and I were patrolling Promised Land Upper and came across two fishermen with a nice catch of Bluegill.

Promised Land Upper and Lower Lake are both regulated as panfish enhancement lakes and the minimum size requirement for harvesting bluegill is seven inches. Although the fish appeared to make the seven inch mark, (barely) I asked the two gentlemen if they had measured their catch. “Yep, all eight inches or better,” one replied. Sgt. Bendock and I looked at each other doubtful that these fish were eight inches.

I picked up one of the fish and asked the gentleman to measure it. He proceeded to place the fish on a cutting board equipped with a graduated scale, but instead of placing one end of the fish at the zero he started at the one inch mark, adding an inch to the fish’s length. “See, eight inches,” he announced.

Sgt. Bendock and I commented on the unusual method he had for measuring. “What do you mean?” he asked. We explained that he had just added an inch to the fish’s length by not starting at the end of the scale. “I’ve always measured that way,” he said indignantly.

“You’re not a carpenter I hope,” I said jokingly. “As a matter of fact I am!” he shot back. Oh well.

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— WCO Tereschak, NE Region
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