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On the hunt for illegal hunters

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By Laura Clark

If the temperatures weren't near freezing, these deer would smell a lot worse.

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They lie on the side of the road, their torn skin and strewn guts overlapping. One buck's head is gone. The antlers on the other simply have been hacked off with a saw.

"That's all they want – the trophies," said Doug Detherage, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officer for Shelby County.

These two deer's final resting place, just before Cry Baby Bridge on Bellview Road in northern Shelby County, is a popular spot for dumping poached deer, and Detherage ambles over to peer beneath the bridge and into Clear Creek, just in case someone has pitched a deer carcass over the side.

Then he climbs into his mobile office, a rumbling pickup, to check out some private property that has seen too much illegal hunting activity.

Poaching, as illegal hunting generally is called, can be using the wrong weapon during a particular season, such as using a gun in bow season. It can be hunting out of season or without consent from the landowner where one's hunting.  

It is also considered illegal to spotlight, a common activity on the back roads of the county.

Most poaching is done at night, and that’s especially when the spotlight is used.

Someone will drive up to a field, shine a light out to find deer. The deer freezes, its eyes a beacon for the hunter's bullet.   

Often people shoot with low-caliber guns, Detherage said, so as not to wake people in nearby houses.

"They don't know what they're shooting at,” he said. “That's dangerous."

Besides putting people in harm's way, by shooting in the dark on unfamiliar land, the poachers really irk Detherage for the way they simply waste a fine deer.  

A poacher may cut the back straps off the animal, but often he won't take any meat.

So its not like people are shooting the deer for food, and Detherage points out the Hunter's For the Hungry Program can more than compensate for those in need of some meat.

"People say, 'Oh I was hungry.' I don't buy that," he said

The odds of catching a poacher aren't in Detherage's favor. He's the lone officer in Shelby County, so he relies heavily on public input.  

Before the hunting season begins, Detherage will drive some the country roads, asking people if they've seen anything odd, like increased traffic at night.

"People are aware of it. They're starting to call more," Detherage said.

If Detherage gets a call, or comes across an area like Bellview Road that seems to be popular, he will arrange a night post, calling in some officers from other counties and setting up a lifelike mechanical deer in a field off the road.

"I'll sit out there from 10 p.m. to 2 or 3 a.m. for a week, and nothing will happen," Detherage said. "Then the next night, when I'm gone – bam – that's when something happens."

So far this season, the poaching calls haven't been as heavy as years past. He said he has received about 10 calls to 2008's 20 calls.

"We've caught the same person three times poaching. He's had his stuff taken away three times. And he's right back at it next year," Detherage said. "We just try to manage it the best we can."

Trespassing is his top complaint during deer season, with poaching a close second. The fine for poaching is a minimum of $1,000, and those caught typically see their weapons or equipment, such as a four-wheeler, confiscated.

Farmers have entrusted Detherage with keys to the gates on their land, giving him rein to check things out through the season. The farmers get frustrated with the destruction caused by cut fence line and off-road vehicles.

But many poachers are, well, lazy about dumping deer. The exit of Interstate 64 toward Waddy is another popular spot. The remnants of a deer lay just between the road and construction off the exit.

Looping back toward Shelbyville on Hempridge Road, Detherage spies a carcass on a sharp curve. The deer is well-decomposed, mostly bones. The vultures and coyotes do a pretty quick number on any dead deer, he said.

Detherage holds up the carcass, drawing on his forensic knowledge in determining, yes, this deer was probably poached. The head is gone, and the bones don't show any damage to imply collision with a car.  

This bend or road will be on his radar, because we're in the thick of poaching season.

"People that haven't gotten a deer yet," he said, "they're going to get anxious."