THEY SHOOT DECOYS, DON'T THEY?

YEAH. THAT'S HOW THE GAME AND FISH DEPARTMENT CATCHES ILLEGAL HUNTERS WITH THEIR PANTS DOWN.

Just before dawn, with coyotes yipping from the trees across a narrow forest road just south of the Mogollon Rim, Arizona Game and Fish Department law enforcement specialist Ron Day pulls a tom turkey from the back of his truck. It's a mounted gobbler, a bagpipe-size bird that the Game and Fish Department uses as a decoy to catch hunters who shoot from the road, hunt in posted areas, poach game or commit other violations. The bogus bird has a brand-new, freeze-dried head--the original head got blown off in the line of duty--and it has enough loose buckshot in it from earlier decoy operations to qualify as a maraca.

October 9 is the second day of small-game season, "when everything that walks, crawls or flies gets it," as they say in the business: squirrels, rabbits and turkeys, which are the wariest of birds, hard to find, and getting harder. Some state wildlife experts fear they are being poached out of existence.

Day and a wildlife manager named Dave Carrothers set their "Tom" on a remote-controlled lazy Susan platter in a clearing before a stack of deadwood they piled the night before as a backstop.

"I had a college minor in landscape architecture," Carrothers jokes as he piles leaves around the lazy Susan. He's a lanky, woodsy-looking fellow with a red beard and a Game and Fish baseball cap that pushes down on his ears, friendly looking except for the handle of the automatic pistol that sticks out of a tear in his camouflage shirt. Day, on the other hand, is built like a gymnast, with a skullcap of black hair and a standard-issue policeman's mustache.

At first light, the trap set, Day drives his truck far back into the woods away from the road and the two men lurk at roadside waiting for the day's first customer.

Within minutes an old Plymouth Aries creaks down the dirt road. Carrothers jumps behind a giant old juniper tree, Day behind a pine where he can work the remote control. Across the road in the clearing, "Tom" rotates as stiffly as an amusement-park skill game, but when his red head catches the sunlight, the Aries stops with a screech and shower of gravel.

A strawberry-blond youth in Army-surplus camouflage jumps out, stands on the road and draws a bead on the turkey, then thinks a second, steps onto the grass by the roadside and squeezes off a shot louder than the crack of dawn. Feathers explode from Tom's backside, the glass-bead eyes drop out of the head.

Day and Carrothers jump out of the woods. "Arizona Game and Fish," they shout, and the kid instantly yells, "I was off the road, I was off the road!" He's been through this before.

In Arizona, it's illegal to shoot from a vehicle or from a roadway, though it's a common practice, passed down from father to son. The law requires hunters to get out of their trucks and step off the roadbed to lessen the likelihood they'll blow away their buddies or their own extremities in their excitement. A year ago, this young man shot the same decoy in the same clearing--though last year he shot from the roadway and was cited by the same two agents. This time, at least, he thought long enough to step from the road into the grass, but, as luck would have it, he's forgotten his hunting license.

The kid leans sullenly against the trunk of his car as Carrothers writes the ticket. "The last two years I got two decoys," he sulks. "That's pretty lame." He takes the ticket, opens the back door of the car, tosses his shotgun over the front seat, and sits down in the back. His elderly father, who hasn't moved from behind the steering wheel during the entire scene, puts the car in gear and they drive off.

Day and Carrothers step back into the woods to wait for their next turkey.
@rule:
@body:Many state wildlife management agencies use decoy animals to police hunters in and out of hunting season. They'll set up reflectors that simulate animal eyes to catch night hunters who use spotlights to blind and daze deer and elk. It is illegal to hunt at night. When game officers suspect that poachers are operating in an area, they'll stage a decoy operation to try to catch them in the act.

Past decoy operations have shown staggering rates of noncompliance to Arizona state game laws--often as not, half of the hunters that spot a decoy will break the law when they shoot at it.

Perhaps because the Game and Fish Department's deer decoys have received a lot of publicity, the number of hunters cited for taking deer illegally each year has dropped from 366 in 1988 to 185 in 1992. Still, the numbers of tickets that Arizona Game and Fish writes for hunting violations has not changed appreciably over the last five years. The gross total for all fishing, hunting and boating tickets written annually hovers around 6,000; 500 to 600 are for poaching, and of those offenses, about a third involve game birds.

But statistics can't measure the actual number of infractions over the course of a year. Last year the department issued more than 163,000 hunting licenses, yet there are only 115 full-time wildlife enforcement officers in the entire state policing the state's hunters and fishermen. Dave Carrothers, for example, covers a 1,500-square-mile territory and couldn't hope to catch more than the smallest fraction of offenders. Until recently, a single game warden covered a territory in the northwesternmost corner of Arizona that was bigger than the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts put together.

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