It's early in the morning on the second weekend of rifle hunting season, and I'm decked from head to foot in camouflage gear following two Department of Natural Resources conservation officers into the woods. We settle into a damp hiding spot behind a moss-covered dirt mound. And wait, because today we're not hunting deer. We're hunting human and it's the sound a slowly moving pick-up truck rumbling down a gravel road that sets us into motion.
DNR officers have hidden an animatronic deer across the way in a wooded area just off the road and are hoping frustrated hunters on their way home will take the bait by shooting our deer decoy. If they do, they run afoul of Indiana's hunting rules due of the deer's location and its proximity to the road.
" We're trying to prevent people from number one driving around and shooting out the window of a vehicle, which is unsafe its unethical, its not fair chase to the animal. So we try to prevent that. Often times people who drive around and shoot from the vehicle they don't have permission to hunt where they're shooting" said Ryan Jahn, DNR Conservation officer.
Jahn said when people hunt from the road they often haven't considered what might be behind the deer if they miss or who else could be in the area. He said the goal of using a deer decoy to catch poachers is to get the word out that somebody is watching -- so scofflaw marksmen will think twice before aiming for a roadside target. And Jahn said besides being unsafe, the practice is unfair and unsporting too.
"It doesn't give everyone a fair sporting chance. If I got out and hunt in a tree stand and sit and get cold and someone else is driving around in a warm vehicle listening to the music and shooting from the window that's by no means fair, so we try to keep things fair for the hunters. It really aggravates legal hunters who are sitting in the woods doing it right when there's slobs out there driving the roads shooting from the window and having a real good time doing it."
The decoy deer is made of a foam-like base created for target practice. It's covered in a real deer pelt so the animal's foam body absorbs the bullets and his furry coat covers any bullet holes. The deer's electrical components reside in a narrow area on its neck and behind its tail. A conservation officer operates the deer with a wireless remote control that looks like it might be used for a child's r.c race car. Conservation officer Angie Goldman says the movement is meant to make the deer seem more life-like. She said people have heard enough about the DNR sting operation that it has become almost like an urban legend and causes a few would-be-law-breakers to pause until they see the deer moving. Some even go so far as to get out of their truck or blast their horn before aiming at the deer that looks too good to be true.
On this day, a few drivers stop and some even circle back to get a second look at our deer, but none take the bait -- until dusk begins turning to night and conservation officers put reflectors in the deer's eyes in an attempt catch vehicle headlights as they drive by.
Conservation officers rush out of the woods, one on foot, another in a chase car to pull over the offending gunmen who by now realize they've been had.
Officers ask the pair to step out of their truck. One admits he fired the shot out his driver's side window. Both have a loaded rifle next to them the front seat. They're apologetic and a little ashamed.
You know one of the things is a lot of people think this job is very dangerous because we deal with a so many fire arms and people out in the woods. The thing is just like those folk, you know they look like good people and such, and that is the majority of the people we run into, is not bad people, its good people who make a lapse of judgment and they make some bad decisions."
Officers confiscate and unload the hunter's guns. They'll receive tickets and be required to appear in court, but Jahn said it could be worse. Conservation officers can arrest offenders and in some cases even confiscate their vehicles. Goldman says she and other officers will be in the field through the end of muzzle loader season Dec. 19.