News

Fewer fish and boat officers mean extra workload, less enforcement

Written by Brandie Kessler, York Daily Record | Apr 17, 2015 11:05 AM
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Darrin Kephart, a Waterways Conservation Officer with the Southcentral Region of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, talks to Joe Lutz of Lancaster County about where he can fish along Muddy Creek in Fawn Township during the first day of trout season. Officers like Kephart have more ground to cover and work to do, and that's partly why citations across the state are dropping. Part of Kephart's job is to work with private land owners to maintain public access to waterways that run onto private land. (Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record / Sunday News)

(York) -- As dawn came and sunlight washed over the damp southern York County countryside, Waterways Conservation Officer Darrin Kephart turned his truck down Owad Road along Muddy Creek in Fawn Township.

He steered past anglers' vehicles parked tightly along the bank. Some fishermen stood at their tailgates or trunks sipping coffee, or readying tackle for the opening day of trout season. Others in waders were already in the water, waiting.

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Photo by Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Waterways Conservation Officer Darrin Kephart enters a Fawn Township property during the first day of trout season. He was there to make sure anglers didn't trespass on private property or litter, a concern of the landowner who isn't sure he wants to continue to allow public access to the creek on his land.

It was around 7:30 a.m. -- 30 minutes before fisherman could legally drop their lines into the water.

Kephart and Lt. Col. Larry Furlong were out to check that anglers had fishing licenses and enforce other regulations -- for example, making sure no one was littering or trespassing on private property.

They walked several miles, hoping to continue building a relationship with a property owner whose land is the only access to a portion of the creek.

That wide-ranging workload has become typical for these officers. Their numbers are down, so their responsibilities have grown, and sometimes, enforcement takes a back seat to other duties.

Citations drop in York County, across state

In 2009, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission issued 8,025 citations throughout the state, according to information obtained by the York Daily Record through a Right To Know request. That number had dropped to 5,437 in 2014, although the commission expects that to grow to about 6,000 once all cases are closed.

The number of citations issued in York County over those years has also dropped, from 390 in 2009 to 144 closed cases so far for 2014.

Col. Corey Britcher, the director of the Bureau of Law Enforcement for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said weather can play a role, but it also probably has something to do with the number of officers on the force.

"When we're at a full compliment, we're at 98 badge-carrying officers across the state," said Britcher. "We're down 18 (officers) right now, so we have 18 holes across the state."

The reason there are so many vacancies, Britcher said, probably has something to do with the number of officers who are retiring, paired with the long process to get a new officer through school and in the field. Also, there wasn't enough money to have a school for potential officers last year, so the vacancies created by retirements weren't immediately filled.

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Photo by Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Two Waterways Conservation Officers Darrin Kephart, left, and Lt. Col. Larry Furlong, were checking with campers who were fishing along the banks of Muddy Creek to make sure debris and trash was properly disposed of.

Officers stock trout, investigate reports of poaching and patrol to make sure fishermen have their licenses, among other duties.

Officers now have to juggle more work.

"One of the things that does sometimes take a back seat is summary enforcement," Britcher said, pointing out that "there's no trout season if we don't get the trout in the water."

Lee Snyder, 78, of Dover Township, who has been fishing all his life, said law-abiding fishermen police themselves -- but from what he sees, those who don't follow the law are getting worse.

One officer covers all of Tioga County, which stretches more than 1,100 square miles, and has more than 1,100 miles of stocked and native trout streams and several lakes. But officers that cover other territories are taking parts of of Tioga County, too, Britcher said, since the position is vacant.

He said covering the same ground with fewer officers is challenging.

"It is a strain on manpower," he said of the "wear and tear" on his officers. But they're a dedicated group, he said, and he hopes there will be some relief, soon.

Britcher plans to hire 20 new officers, but those officers won't be out in the field until summer 2016.

Hiring a new Waterways Conservation Officer is a long process -- almost a year from the time they take the civil service test to when they're offered a job, Britcher said. Officers must go through 22 weeks of training at the police academy to learn how to be a police officer, and then the Fish and Boat Commission looks to "mold those police officers into conservation officers," Britcher said.

But even if all 20 potential officers make it through school and go into the field, Britcher is still looking at a deficit of officers, because five others will be retiring.

He said talk of pension reform likely influences officers' decisions to retire once they're eligible. Those officers hear the talk about pension reform and say "I want to take advantage of my retirement now," Britcher said.

One problem spot at a time

Officer Kephart paused along the damp dirt trail beside Muddy Creek, and lifted his binoculars to his eyes.

"People will tell me, 'I haven't seen a warden in 10 years,'" Kephart said. "And I'll say, 'That doesn't mean we didn't see you.'"

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Most of Kephart's enforcement efforts happen at a distance, he said. Through the lenses of his binoculars, he can see if someone is displaying their fishing license like they're supposed to, how many trout they have, whether they're littering, and other things. There's no need for him to disturb law-abiding fishermen, he said.

But when he finds a troublesome spot, he hits it hard to send a message.

Gut Road in East Manchester Township was one such area.

"When I first came here (in 2007), it was a bad party spot," Kephart said. People would go down there "mud bogging," or racing in the mud along the Susquehanna River, Kephart said. There were videos of the activity on YouTube, he said.

So Kephart went in and issued citations.

Usually, when Kephart hits a spot several times, word gets out, and the problem clears up, he said. But then he has to find the next problem spot.

That, at least in part, could explain why the number of citations issued in certain areas of York County has changed over time.

Take Lake Marburg as an example. In 2009, officers issued 129 citations for various offenses there. Since then, the number has fluctuated, and the unofficial number of citations issued at Lake Marburg in 2014 is 29.

Waterways Conservation Officers make their own schedules, Kephart said. They don't get calls for incidents like municipal law enforcement officers do. Almost all of their work is self-motivated, Kephart said.

"I have to ask myself, where's that (next problem) spot?" Kephart said.

And while the commission is down 18 officers right now, it does get help from Pennsylvania Game Commission officers, volunteers and other fishermen.

"We've got 860,000 other eyes and ears out there," said John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. "It's not like you're going to fly under the radar (if you fish without a license or break other rules). We're a state that has a proud heritage of fishing and boating."

Losing land

On their way to Fawn Township on the morning of opening day, Kephart and Furlong passed several fishing holes where they could have stopped for enforcement, and they could have cited more people in those spots than they did on the area of Muddy Creek where they stopped.

But they chose their spot on Muddy Creek because they wanted to check in with a new property owner who was initially unsure whether he wanted to keep his land open to public fishing.

"If the property owner posts their property (is private property), we can't stock that water," Kephart said.

The area of Muddy Creek is rich in natural brown trout, Kephart said. "It's fantastic fishing down here," he said.

It's not uncommon for property owners to want to close their land to public use.

According to Steve Staley, president of The Outcast Bass Club, it's a problem that is driving some fisherman from the sport.

Staley started fishing when he was 5 years old. He remembers grabbing his fishing pole, hopping on his bicycle and heading to the nearest creek.

"Now, somebody owns the property on either side of the creek where you were going to fish," Staley said. "It's posted. There's so much posted now."

That means there's less available space for people to legally fish, and those places fill up, Staley said. "A lot of guys say, 'Hell, I ain't doing it no more.'"

Kephart enforces the rules to make sure people are fishing and boating legally. But the core of his job is to promote fishing and boating in Pennsylvania, he said.

He wants to see as many waterways as possible stay open, he said, so that anglers will have more places to enjoy.

Cost of fishing without a license

Anglers in Pennsylvania age 16 and older must have and prominently display a fishing license.

But according to a review of citations issued by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, fishing without a license or without properly displaying it is among the most common violations for which the commission has issued citations from 2009 to 2014.

Since 2009, 371 people have been cited for the violation in Pennsylvania, according to the Fish and Boat Commission.

The cost of a one-year resident fishing license for anglers age 16 to 64 is $21.70.

The cost of a citation, court costs and fees for fishing without a license?

$162.50.

Fish for free days

There are two days in Pennsylvania where anyone can fish legally on Pennsylvania waterways without a fishing license: May 24 and July 4.

To learn more about the Fish-For-Free Days and other programs operated by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, visit http://fishandboat.com.

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Photo by Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record / Sunday News

Sometimes, officers check on anglers from afar, as Waterways Conservation Officer Darrin Kephart does here during the first day of trout season.


This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF.

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