PORT TOWNSEND — Gazing intently through binoculars, state Department of Fish and Wildlife Police Sgt. Kit Rosenberger spots some furtive movements by the occupants of a small fishing boat near the Point Wilson Lighthouse.
The boat itself is cut off from the main pack of anglers jig fishing the shallows off Point Wilson — a good choice for law enforcement’s first contact on a perfect summer morning during the hatchery-selective chinook season that wraps at 11:59 p.m. today (Thursday, Aug. 4) in Marine Area 9 (Admiralty Inlet).
Officer Bryan Davidson, a five-year veteran with Fish and Wildlife and a retired Army veteran, cuts power and guides the 28-foot Swiftsilver patrol boat, designed by Port Angeles’ Lee Shore Boats, up alongside the angler’s small outboard-powered craft.
As Rosenberger pulls the boats together he lets the anglers know the patrol boat is ringed with a protective fender to prevent damage to either boat.
He then initiates the stop, asking the two fishermen to reel in their lines to check their setups as well as produce their fishing licenses.
Quickly, Rosenberger spots a problem. The anglers are fishing with barbed hooks, a violation when targeting salmon in the state’s inside marine areas, all of which require the use of single-point barbless hooks.
The fishermen are informed of the rule, one of the anglers is cited for a $99 infraction and the patrol boat pulls away to make contact with another boat jigging nearby.
The same issue arises with the second boat contacted — a barbed hook nets another ticket.
“By far our most frequent issues are the use of barbed hooks and not reporting catches immediately on catch record cards,” said Rosenberger, an 8-year veteran of the force.
“Anglers are likely to impact endangered runs of wild chinook in Marine Area 9, so we are strict on the single-point barbless hook rule — it’s an effort to provide released fish the best chance at survival.
“And this has been the rule for something like 25 years now. Anglers should know better, but much of our job is educating the public.”
“I’d like to say that 90 percent of our job is education and the rest compliance,” Davidson said.
Rosenberger is the lead enforcement officer for the entire North Olympic Peninsula and is based out of Port Townsend.
He took over the post in January after previously working in the San Juan Islands out of Fish and Wildlife’s Anacortes office.
And he’s yet to figure out how he scored such plum postings.
“When I got out of the academy it was like, ‘Tell me where to go,’ I was just so happy to have the job,” Rosenberger said.
“But yes, I’ve been very lucky so far to work in the San Juans and now here on the Olympic Peninsula.”
Fish and Wildlife officers attend the same Basic Law Enforcement Academy program as municipal police and county sheriffs — a 720 hour course held over 19 weeks.
Candidates for entry-level and lateral positions are always sought and more information is available at tinyurl.com/PDN-WDFWPolice.
Both Rosenberger and Davidson say being short-staffed on the expansive North Olympic Peninsula is the most difficult part of their position. Fish and Wildlife officers often team up with local law enforcement agencies such as the Jefferson and Clallam County sheriff’s department for patrols.
“It’s hard to find qualified candidates sometimes,” Rosenberger said of recruiting potential officers.
“And there’s the basic geography of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s way too large to supervise with a limited number of officers.
“We try to be as proactive as we can be.”
That includes stepped-up marine patrols during the busier summer season. And always being on call when issues arise.
Rosenberger pointed to a recent Tuesday as an example. His one day off of the week was interrupted by one emergency after another.
“We had a fish checker’s life threatened in Port Angeles by a recreational angler who didn’t want to display a fish for inspection,” Rosenberger said.
“We had a restaurant in Forks that was serving an illegal species of rockfish. And we had a problem bear in Sequim up on the hill above Happy Valley that we had to trap. It really became a busy day.”
Some of Rosenberger’s patrols in the San Juans have been documented for the Animal Planet television show “Rugged Justice.”
He was one of the officers to give a family of three in a small inflatable boat a pair of illegally-caught chinook seized in an earlier stop during an episode of the show’s first season.
Another batch of episodes will air beginning at 10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25 with a new program title: “North Woods Law: Washington State.”
Rosenberger even shared a yet-to-air tale about coming upon a group of blissfully unaware cannabis-smoking Canadian commercial fishermen illegally fishing in U.S. waters.
That situation remained more comical than dangerous, but every contact the officers make has the potential to quickly turn deadly serious.
“Every stop we make somebody is armed,” Davidson said.
“Out here on the water, every fishing boat has a knife to gut fish. During hunting patrols we are contacting hunters with rifles or bows. On those patrols we are out in the middle of nowhere a lot and by ourselves much of the time.
“We find its a lot easier to talk yourself out of a situation.
“And you have to make friends with other law enforcement agencies and keep them informed.”
Back at Point Wilson, a third contact produces a warning for a Rochester angler who had yet to fill out his catch card despite the presence of a freshly-caught king inside the boat’s fish locker.
Content with the patrol at Point Wilson, Davidson puts the pedal down and pilots the boat toward Port Townsend’s best-known fishing ground — Midchannel Bank.
This is a troll-fishing area, anglers slowly motoring around and fishing mainly with spoons close to the bottom in 90 to 120 feet of water.
While never hostile or dangerous at Point Wilson, the tone and feeling of the stops conducted at Midchannel Bank is much lighter and friendlier.
Seattle angler Karen Overstreet explained with typical angler regret that a 20-pound clipped chinook had just slipped the hook as fishing partner John Reed waited with the net.
As the patrol boat pulled away, Davidson joked that if Overstreet didn’t find another fish that day the size of the escaped king would surely balloon to 30 pounds before they hit the dock.
Later, while turning around to head toward a closed portion of Marine Area 9, the patrol boat sees Overstreet reeling in a salmon. Davidson cruises over to see the netting of the fish — and it’s a keeper. Not the 20-pound fish she had lost, but a king in the lower double digits — a solid consolation prize.
The chinook bit on a green spatterback spoon with some red color.
In a loud voice for all to hear, Reed jokes,“‘Make sure to mark that on the card now, dear.”
He then explains he spent three summers while in college working as a state fish checker at La Push.
“The best summers of my life,” Reed said.
Davidson then aims the boat toward the Partridge Point/Eastern Bank area, a spot that is closed to salmon fishing.
“Last year this was a spot where we had an awful lot of of misunderstandings with fishermen,” Rosenberger said.
“We gave out a lot of tickets for fishing in a closed area.”
This day finds no such scofflaws, so the patrol heads west toward Protection Island.
While crusing at speed the boat is followed by a flock of fast-flying rhinocerous auklets that eventually zip past the boat likely heading to their nests.
Minke whales, Dall’s porpoises and a puffin are some of the other wildlife spotted on the trip.
“You have to have a love and respect of the outdoors to do this job,” Rosenberger said.
“Bryan and I both fish, so living in this area is perfect for us.”
Both men also are raising children here.
“We take personal ownership of the area and the fish and game found here,” Davidson said.
“I have two little girls and my oldest, by the time she was 4 [years old] she was my first mate.
“That makes it difficult for launching the boat,” he laughed.
“But she demanded a catch card when she first went out. And she knows the sex of Dungeness crabs already. She can’t tell salmon yet, but she’s close.”
A commercial shrimping boat is the last stop of the morning. The Ellie Marie is hauling in its net as the patrol approaches.
Rosenberger boards the vessel, checks for a commercial fishing license, looks into the hold and gives a glance at the findings in the net — a grand total of three shrimp.
Not the best of hauls for the commercial shrimpers.
Davidson guides the patrol boat around the northern edge of Protection Island and through the rip at Point Wilson — still choppy on a glass-calm day — and back to the marina at Point Hudson to drop off Rosenberger and passengers.
“I am very satisfied with my job,” Rosenberger said.
“We aren’t moving from criminal call to criminal call like most law enforcement agencies. That can be grueling and can wear you out. We have our difficult days, to be sure, but our focus is making sure anglers and hunters know the rules, are following them and staying safe out there.”
A noble calling, to be sure.
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecarmanpdn