I shifted my position slightly, but the rain found another way inside my rainsuit and ran down between my shoulder blades. The light rain had been falling for three hours and I was getting wetter by the minute. This last trickle of water made me think about giving up and calling it a day. Then I thought back to the day that started all this and I decided to stick it out to the end.
I had just finished my supper and had sat down to read the paper when the telephone rang. My wife answered the phone and said that it was Ed Teck, one of my deputies.
When one of the deputies calls this time of the day, it usually means that my quiet evening is over.
When I asked Ed what had happened, he told me he was watching Bradys Run Lake, and a man in a boat was catching a trout every couple of minutes. Every time he caught a fish, he turned his back to the road and did something with the fish. Ed couldn't tell if he was putting them on a stringer or releasing them. Bradys Run Lake has only one side from which you can fish from shore or watch someone. The other side of the lake borders a steep hillside. Ed decided to wait until the man in the boat came to the launch ramp and he would check him there. The angler continued to catch trout, and each time, he turned his back to the road and did something with the trout.
It was almost dark when the angler in the boat decided to call it a day. DWCO Teck waited until the boat was about 25 feet from the launch when he stepped out of the shadows of the old boathouse. When the man in the boat saw Ed, he made a quick movement with his right hand and then came into the launch ramp. Ed asked to check the man's fish, and the man told Ed that he didn't have any fish, that he had released all the fish he caught. That's when Ed noticed the end of a nylon stringer attached to the boat. When he looked closer, he saw that it had been cut with a knife. Ed questioned the angler about the stringer. The man told him it had been cut a long time ago.
Ed knew what had happened. When the man saw Ed step from the shadows, he cut the stringer, and whatever trout he had were now at the bottom of the lake. Ed questioned the man a while longer and he continued to stick to his story. Ed knew he was not going to be able to get the man to change his story, so he got all the information on the man he could and then he called me.
Ed told me that the man's name was Harold, and that he lived in New Brighton. He was driving an old yellow pickup truck and he had an old aluminum boat. Then Ed said something that stuck in my mind&SHY;the man had a bushy white beard and he looked like Santa Claus. The name stuck. Anytime I or any of the deputies checked Harold, when we told one another about it, we called him "Santa Claus."
It became standard procedure. If any of us saw "Santa Claus" fishing, we made sure to check him. He had either changed his ways or we were wrong about him, because we never found him with more than his limit of fish.
One sunny day in October, I saw "Santa Claus" fishing at Hereford Manor Lakes. I decided to hide my state vehicle as well as possible and watch him for a while. It didn't take long. I had only been watching "Santa Claus" about five minutes when he caught a trout. When he took the fish off the hook, he looked all around. I was hoping I was hidden well enough. I had evidently hid my vehicle well enough. He never spotted me. He walked up into a thicket of pine trees and I couldn't see what he was doing. He was in the pine trees only for a couple of minutes, but he didn't have the fish when he went back to his fishing spot. I watched him catch five more trout, and each time he went through the same routine. This was the extended season and the daily limit of trout was three. I knew I had him now.
When he was done for the day, he gathered up all his equipment. Then he pulled a stringer out of the water and it had three trout on it. He walked to his truck and put all his equipment in the back of the truck and left. I knew he would come back for the fish he had in the pines. I left my hiding spot and walked into the pine thicket. It didn't take long to find the fish. I saw a black garbage bag immediately behind the spot where "Santa Claus" was fishing. When I looked in the bag, I saw eight trout, two more than I knew about.
I positioned myself in the most likely avenue that he would take to retrieve his bag of trout and sat back and waited for him to come after his fish. I guessed wrong. He came in from a different direction from which I thought he would. When I saw him, he had already picked up the garbage bag and was headed out of the pine trees. I knew he would get to the road before I could catch up to him, and I went for my state vehicle. He had just turned onto the main highway when I pulled in behind his vehicle. I turned on my red light and blew the horn. I saw him look in his rearview mirror, but he didn't pull over to the side of the road. Finally, I pushed the switch for the siren. Then he decided to stop.
When I approached his truck, he started calling me every name in the book, and when I told him why I was stopping him, he went wild. I could see the black garbage bag in the bed of the truck, and I told him I knew what was in the bag. You could see the resignation in his face grow as I related to him how long I had been watching him and when he had caught each one of his fish.
He confessed, and asked how much the fine would be. When I told him the fine would be $105.00, he told me he would beat me in court. I told him that was his right and I thought that I had enough evidence to win, and if he wanted a hearing, it was his right. I issued him a citation and he went on his way without any of his trout. I needed them for evidence at any hearing that would be held.
One week later I saw his truck parked at an old road that leads to the backwaters of the upper lake at Hereford Manor. I decided to take a walk and check him. It looked like rain, so I got my rainsuit out of the trunk and put it on. I almost blew it before I even got started. The old road leads right into the lake, and most people fish on the left side of the road. I eased into a position where I could see to the left of the road and there was no one there. I glanced quickly to the right, and there he was, and I was in plain sight. I eased back out of sight as quietly as I could. Luckily, he didn't see me.
I tiptoed into the woods behind him and settled down for the wait. I had no sooner sat down when it started to rain. It was now three hours later and "Santa Claus" had not caught a fish and I was getting wetter by the minute.
This brings me to the beginning of my story. Another hour passed and still no fish. I was about ready to call it quits, when suddenly he grabbed his fishing pole and set the hook. He landed the trout and laid it on the shore. Then he climbed up the bank and looked all around. This caused me to bury my face in the wet leaves and hope I was hidden from his view.
After a couple of minutes, I chanced a quick look. He was pulling up his hip boots. I wondered what he was doing. When he had his hip boots pulled up, he again climbed up the bank and looked all around. Once more I had my face buried in the wet leaves. I glanced up and he was wading the shallows to the other side of the lake. He bent over and pulled up a stringer full of fish. He placed the fish he had just caught on the stringer and started wading back to where his fishing poles were. He gathered up all of his equipment and started up the old road to his truck. He passed within 10 feet of me and never saw me. I dropped in behind him and started up the road. He was carrying his fishing poles, bait bucket, tackle box, and the stringer of fish.
About halfway up the hill, he needed to take a break and I decided to re-introduce myself to him at this point. I said, "I'll give you a hand and help you carry your fish." When I spoke, he jumped and turned to look at me, and said, "Don't you have anything better to do than bother me?" I said something to the effect that I had nothing better to do than apprehend people who catch too many fish. I asked him how many fish he had on the string and he told me he thought he had 18 fish. I said we would count the fish when we got to our vehicles.
We had a good conversation on our way to the truck. Mainly he wanted to know where I was hiding because he never saw me. When we arrived at our vehicles, I started counting the trout on the stringer. He was off on his count. There were 23 trout on the stringer. He was 20 trout over the limit, and when I told him the fine was going to be $225.00 this time, he wasn't very happy. It seems he had stopped at the district justice's office and paid the first fine on his way to the lake. I issued him another citation and told him to start heeding the creel limits. He smiled at me told me I couldn't be watching all the time.
He was right. I couldn't watch him all the time. We ran into "Santa Claus" several times over the next couple of years, but we never found him to be over his creel limit. I don't know if he mended his ways and started heeding the creel limit, or if he just became more adept at breaking the law.
He died a few years ago, and in a way I miss the challenge. It was us trying to catch him and him trying to get away with breaking the law. When my deputies and I reminisce, telling "war stories," we all smile when someone mentions "Santa Claus."
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November/December 1998 PA Angler & Boater
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