When Backwoods Pirates Turn Violent

When Backwoods Pirates Turn Violent

Fish and wildlife laws mean little to shadowy violators who rely on threats, vandalism, and ugly reputations to silence neighbors or entire communities.

Some lawbreakers justify their aggression, saying they’re merely following local customs the outside world arrogantly disrespects. They can be uniquely unfriendly to locals who reject the old ways while embracing or enforcing a larger society’s laws and values.

One such “turncoat” was Joel McOlash, a conservation warden with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from March 1971 to July 2000. McOlash spent most of his nearly 30-year career patrolling the land and waters of Kewaunee and Door counties on Lake Michigan, where he grew up in a family of commercial fishermen.

After starting his law-enforcement career in southern Wisconsin, McOlash didn’t feel welcome when transferring to his old backyard in the mid-1970s. That was especially true after he cited an uncle and confronted cousins for catching and selling protected lake trout to local fish peddlers and Chicago fish markets.

Feuding Family

“I knew what I was getting into when I transferred to Kewaunee in 1974, and then Sturgeon Bay about five years later,” McOlash said. “I wouldn’t call it violent, but it was definitely volatile. I grew up in Gill’s Rock on the tip of Door County, so I knew the fishing industry. I was part of it. Sea lampreys had depleted the native lake trout in the 1950s and early ’60s, and the Fish and Wildlife Service started rebuilding the population in the mid-to-late 1960s.

“The commercial operations relied on whitefish when I was young. When the whitefish population fell, too, the fishermen did what they could to hold on. But when the lake trout started bouncing back, some commercial guys went wild on them. We tried to stop them, but it was tough to make a case. Many witnesses didn’t want to get involved. They were afraid or didn’t want to get their neighbors into trouble. We had to build cases on our own. When we put pressure on the violators, they didn’t like it. We were threatening their way of life.”

McOlash said threats were constant and varied. He said Wisconsin’s Justice Department once tried to infiltrate taverns in Jacksonport and Baileys Harbor after hearing rumors that violators were looking for a hitman to kill game wardens Chuck Olson and John Wilbur. Nothing came of the undercover investigation, but the Wisconsin DNR temporarily reassigned 15 wardens from nearby counties to protect Olson, Wilbur, and their homes.

Anonymous callers also used pay phones to dial McOlash’s home and tell his wife not to wait up for his return because they had drowned him or thrown him into the lake. In another case, a fish poacher told McOlash he’d shoot him if he saw him again in Little Sturgeon Bay.

None of this kept him from holding violators accountable. On July 4th, while patrolling Lake Michigan beneath Door County’s limestone bluffs, McOlash recognized an uncle dropping off a container at the foot of a cliffside staircase. After his uncle’s boat drove off, McOlash and his partner docked and found a washtub packed with lake trout and brown trout, and whitefish layering the top. They followed his uncle back to port, issued him a citation, and headed for the boat landing after a 14-hour day.

“When I reached my truck, my boat-trailer tires were slashed, and the trailer wiring and my truck’s black-out lights were cut,” McOlash said. “One of my cousins drove up laughing. He said I had it coming and that they had disowned me and didn’t want me in the family anymore.

“Another time, a federal agent was helping us investigate illegal interstate fish sales to Chicago markets,” McOlash continued. “We stopped a fish truck in Gill’s Rock and found three boxes of fish, with whitefish on top covering lake trout below. That was common. Their paperwork said they were selling whitefish for like $1 a pound and ‘frozen whitefish’ for like $3 or $3.50 a pound.

“Well, ‘frozen whitefish’ was code for lake trout, so we checked everything carefully. People started gathering around, and the longer we worked, the larger the crowd grew. One of my cousins showed up, grabbed a 2-by-4, and came toward me. He yelled that we had no business being there. Then the county sheriff showed up and calmed things down. The driver finally admitted he had another box of lake trout in Ellison Bay, and so we left to get it.”

Punches Thrown

McOlash said those illegal activities weren’t small-time operations. They were part of a well-organized racket, and it took a five-year regional investigation named “Operation Gillnet” to end it. Federal agents in Chicago—working with game wardens from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota—conducted searches, inspections, seizures, stings, and undercover investigations from 1980 to 1985. In many cases they received no help or reluctant aid from apathetic judges and sympathetic juries.

Early in that operation, two encounters turned violent for McOlash. A Kewaunee fish dealer slammed the back door of a cargo van on McOlash’s arm when he tried inspecting its interior. McOlash, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 215 pounds, suffered heavy bruising but no broken bones. In the other clash, a fishing boat’s crew jumped him and punched him repeatedly when he tried arresting and handcuffing his cousin at the dock in Rowleys Bay.

“We were outnumbered, so we backed off and called the sheriff when the crew jumped back into their boat and went around to Gill’s Rock,” McOlash said. “The sheriff’s department was waiting at the dock and arrested all four of them. My uncle and two cousins got charged with obstructing our investigation. That was in 1980, and the jury found them not guilty in 1981.”

McOlash said the acquittal didn’t surprise him. “I lost 12 straight jury trials during all that because of apathy and hostility toward the agency,” he said. “The department was more on trial than the defendants. Local district attorneys made us out to be the bad guys and wouldn’t prosecute half our cases even though they were solid. The result was the fishermen kept doing what they pleased.

“One time, we ended up in a civil suit two weeks after the DA dropped our case against a wholesale fish dealer,” McOlash continued. “The woman sued each of us for $250,000 for false arrest, mental anguish, and other stuff. We won that one, though. We had photos that proved she had lied and manufactured evidence. The jury dropped the six charges against each of us, but the DA refused to charge anyone with perjury. He said everyone lies in court.”

McOlash said the region’s “outlaw culture” faded after Operation Gillnet, with the public supporting new laws that established the agency’s authority. “Our so-called harassment and inspections became part of the commercial fishing process,” he said. “The fringe operators who weren’t the best fishermen lost out to the more conscientious businesses.”

The Unfriendly ’80s

The 1980s were also unfriendly farther west in central and east-central Wisconsin. Game warden Randy Stark worked 30 years for the DNR, including 12 years as the state’s chief warden until retiring in 2014. Early in his career, he worked in Juneau County from 1985 to 1989, succeeding a warden whose garage had been fire-bombed six years before.

Stark said he’ll never forget opening day of the 1986 duck season. He awoke and drove off into the dark after only three hours of sleep so he could set up an observation post long before the noon start. Before dawn, however, a dispatcher ordered him home immediately. When he arrived, his wife and in-laws led him to the rear of his home. Its entire backside was charred and blackened by flames. An arsonist had doused the roof over the house’s rear porch and staircase with gasoline and set it afire. The flames, miraculously, didn’t penetrate the home’s exterior.

Stark’s wife, a nurse at the hospital, had worked until midnight the night before, and Stark didn’t get home until 2 a.m. after patrolling for deer-shiners. He recalled smelling something peculiar when arriving and checked their basement and furnace before going to bed. Fire investigators concluded the arsonist had struck before midnight, and most of the gasoline had drained off the shingles to the ground. The fire burned out on its own and in the surrounding grass.

“I had a good idea who did it, but we couldn’t make a case against him,” Stark said. “He lived about a mile down the road, and I had arrested him the previous 18 months for deer shining, timber thefts, and fishing violations. He was used to doing whatever he wanted to do. The sheriff’s department interviewed him, and he denied it, of course. Other wardens showed up and guarded the house for several nights, but he never tried that again, as far as I know.”

Still, Stark and his wife endured other threats and attempts at intimidation. Violators often threw nails across their driveway, which flattened three tires on his wife’s car as she left for work one day. Another time, after Stark arrested a violator employed at a nearby grocery store, the cashier refused to bag his wife’s groceries.

The worst threats, though, were late-night anonymous calls. “My wife would come home after midnight, and some woman would call to ask if she knew where I was,” Stark said. “Then she’d tell my wife I was wrapped up in a gillnet at the bottom of the Petenwell Flowage. We’d been married two years, and my wife was wondering what she had gotten herself into. She kept a handgun, and put pots and pans behind the doors in case someone tried breaking in.”

In the early 1990s, after Stark transferred to northwestern Wisconsin, a sheriff’s deputy from his previous duty station called to say he didn’t have to worry any longer about the suspected arsonist. “The game-warden gods got him,” Stark said. “He died driving a motorcycle.”

The River Pirates’ Revenge

One of Stark’s fellow game wardens at the time, Dave Algrem, regularly dealt with poachers to the northeast where the Wolf River flows through the marshes and wooded bottomlands of Outagamie and Shawano counties. Algrem said some folks in the little town of Shiocton had a long “tradition” of poaching walleyes and lake sturgeon during the species’ spring spawning runs.

“The Wolf River around Shiocton still had an outlaw culture during the 1980s,” Algrem said. “You’d see bumper stickers that read, ‘A shot in the dark puts venison on the table.’ The local fish pirates ran lots of setlines, snag hooks, and fish traps, and they viewed DNR citations as a cost of doing business. They even sold hats and jackets embroidered with ‘Shiocton Pirates,’ ‘Wolf River Pirates,’ and ‘Poor Man’s Caviar’ to raise money to pay their fines.”

Even though Shiocton’s “pirates” seldom threatened Algrem physically, they watched for him, called in anonymous “tips” to send him on wild goose chases, and left their mark in other ways. One night in early spring 1987, Algrem caught a group of poachers with gunnysacks of walleyes. He persuaded the district attorney to hit them with a maximum of $2,000 in fines, restitution, and court costs.

A week later, Algrem parked his state truck at a local boat landing and drove off with another warden on a night patrol. When he returned to his truck hours later and headed home, a powerful, mind-numbing stench overwhelmed the truck’s cab.

“Someone had poured liquid pig manure into my truck’s hood vents below the windshield,” Algrem said. “That shit went everywhere. As soon as the engine heated up and I turned on the heater fan, the odor filled the cab and soaked into the seats, my clothes, my skin, and my hair. No matter how much I washed and scrubbed, my truck’s interior stunk for a year. The truck’s engine and engine compartment had so many wells, pockets, and compartments that I couldn’t clean it all out. Every time I turned a corner or hit a bump, more pig manure went into the heater’s intakes.”

Algrem and Stark, as with McOlash, said the region’s poaching culture softened by the early 1990s. “Most people I worked with in Juneau County were kind, friendly, and law-abiding,” Stark said. “I didn’t have any more issues after those first couple of years. Over the course of my career, the real hardcore poachers faded away, and poaching stopped being passed along culturally. Attitudes changed as communities started helping us protect the area’s natural resources.”

Algrem agreed. “By the 1990s, Shiocton started becoming a bedroom community for nearby businesses and bigger cities,” he said. “The old culture was dying out, and neighbors quit looking the other way. Local sportsmen’s groups started patrolling the river each spring and helping the department with local habitat projects.”

Arson Attack

Even so, acts of revenge and intimidation still occur in most states, with “bad actors” taking advantage of neighbors who fear them or simply remain quiet. In January 2021, for example, Brandon Butler of Columbia, Missouri, lost his cabin to an arsonist after reporting a poaching attempt next door to his 43-acre property near Timber in the Ozarks of Shannon County.

Butler, cohost of the “Driftwood Outdoors Podcast” and former executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, bought the property 150 miles south of Columbia in September 2016 and later built the cabin with help from friends and family.

Two weeks after the arson, police arrested Corey J. Landrigan, 33, a felon who was then denied bail because his criminal past posed a threat to public safety. Landrigan had been on parole after serving prison time for possessing a firearm and controlled drugs. After Landrigan’s arrest, authorities sent him back to prison, but not for torching Butler’s cabin.

“He’s still in jail and remains the suspect in my case, but I doubt he’ll ever get tried for the arson,” Butler told MeatEater. “We have trail-cam pictures of him at the scene coming and going, but the prosecutor didn’t think the pictures were clear enough to convict him.”

Butler has since sold that land and has no plans to return, even though most people in the area were helpful, supportive, and shared his values.

“My only regret is that I didn’t turn the guy in earlier,” Butler said. “I tried being diplomatic and being ‘neighborly’ the first four years, but I felt hypocritical looking the other way. Fear had kept me from turning him in. If I’d been more aggressive, maybe he would have burned me down before I moved so much of my valuable stuff down there.”

Avoiding Hard Feelings

Can hunters, anglers, and others navigate the problems created by poachers and other backwoods pirates? Professor Tom Heberlein, a retired rural sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he doubts Butler could have done anything to avoid the felon’s rage. Sooner or later, criminals find a reason to lash out.

Heberlein said a more common problem is absentee landowners and other “outsiders” accidentally causing tension or hard feelings with neighbors.

“We all bring our beliefs and blind spots to places we assume we understand,” Heberlein said. “And then we make mistakes and assumptions that bother the people living there. They take it as disrespect, and resent you and your attitudes. You get the cold shoulder or worse, and you probably don’t know why.”

Heberlein isn’t just speaking as an academic researcher. He’s hunted from his family’s shack on 40 acres in northwestern Wisconsin for over 60 years, and he’s owned the property himself for the past 50. Through the years, he’s made local “investments” to instill goodwill and earn benefit-of-the-doubt with would-be skeptics. That means eating regularly at nearby taverns and restaurants, hiring local skilled workers for property improvements, donating to local charities and libraries, maintaining a local bank account, and writing checks from it so residents know he’s invested in their community.

Heberlein also doesn’t assume it’s OK for him and his friends to hunt anywhere they please on the vast public forests surrounding his property.

“We all share that land,” he said. “We ask where our neighbors are hunting, and we leave their stuff alone if we stumble across it. One of my guests recently brought back a hollowed-out chunk of log that bear hunters use for holding bait. My guest thought it was a cool artifact and planned to take it home. He had no idea one of my neighbors put a lot of work into that log and used it for a specific purpose each year.

“I had no idea who put it there, but it was probably some neighbor I know or don’t know of. They might only use it only a few months each year, but they’d wonder who took it. I didn’t want them suspecting me, so I told him to put it back, and he did. Unintended slights can ruin long-term relationships.”

Feature art via Dave Burgess.

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