Behind the Badge
District Game Warden Tim Phalen
It was a crisp fall night in late October when shining was usually at its peak. Most of the Region One game wardens were spread out across southeastern North Dakota in anticipation and eagerness to move when the radio call would come from our warden pilot, “I’ve got a light.”
For those not familiar with the term “shining,” it is the illegal use of a light source to spot animals at night.
Most shiners would then attempt to take the animal illegally using various weapons.
Most people equate shining with deer, however early in my career raccoons created a lot of sleepless nights.
Catching shiners is not as easy as most think. They don’t let you drive up to them with your headlights on.
Tactics continually changed, but when I started most wardens had sneak lights on their trucks and cut out switches for brake, backup and taillights. Sneak lights were a light pointed down on the road, to keep you on the road but not visible to vehicles ahead of you.
Sneak lights were eliminated, and the new method was driving with no lights.
That did not work well unless there was enough moon light. Thus, most of us used the method of holding a flashlight out the window (like a sneak light) to illuminate the road and flash it into the night sky letting our pilot know our position.
It worked but at a price, now we were trying to drive, hold a flashlight and talk on the radio with only two hands and crisp October nights required good batteries and good gloves.
So, on this crisp October night, sitting on a high hill overlooking a vast area near Kraft slough, we monitored our warden pilot’s activity.
Our pilot contacted all the units that he needed to refuel and was landing in Oakes and would let us know when he was airborne again. A short time later, we heard the radio call. The plane was airborne and was going to head northwest.
He had no more made that radio call when off to the west, I caught a quick glimpse of a bright light flashed across the countryside. I could no longer see it so I contacted the plane and asked if he could return and take a quick look around Kraft slough.
The plane turned and within seconds the radio lit up, “I’ve got your spotlight.”
I stayed blacked out coming off the hill but once in lower ground the headlights were turned on and I raced to get into better position. The pilot had my position and radioed, “the shiner has just turned onto the same road and is moving in your direction.”
I needed to find a secondary road to hide on. We would then let the shiner go past, coming in from behind to make the stop.
I was having difficulty backing up on the trail in the dark and I needed to get far enough back so he would not see my vehicle when he came over the hill. I turned my backup light on to allow me to see the trail as I backed up.
Suddenly a vehicle came over the hill, the pilot radioed your backup lights are on, I was already in the process of shutting them off. The vehicle slowed down and began slowly turning around before my location.
I radioed the pilot, “do you think he saw me?” The pilot radioed back, “we are going to soon find out.” The next transmission was, “he saw you, and he is west bound at a high rate of speed.”
The chase was on.
The shiner had the advantage of a good road and a head start. I had the advantage of an airplane overhead.
Once off the trail, red lights activated, state radio notified of the pursuit, the pilot informed me there was about one mile between us.
The shiner had another advantage, road dust. I knew if he continued west, within five miles, he would have to make a decision and turn north or south. Once we knew that direction it would be easier to get other law enforcement units into position to hopefully stop this vehicle.
Once at the intersection, the shiner turned north, best guess headed for state highway 13. I had gained very little ground, but I also knew that when I crested the next hill, the terrain flattened, and I should have him in view.
I crested that hill and to my surprise the shiner had brake lights on and was pulling over onto the side of the road. He came to a stop. As I pulled in behind him, he already had his hands in the air and was apologizing for his behavior.
I asked him “why did you decide to stop?” He replied, “When my truck and the road around me lit up and your plane’s engine roared over the pickup, I knew it was over. I might have out run you but I was never going to out run the airplane.”