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Fishing, and hunting, for crimes is this officer’s job

BY HENRI GENDREAU, The Roanoke TimesJune 2, 2019
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In a May 17, 2019 photo, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Officer Mark Shaw grabs a brown trout that fell from the net while being transported from the truck tanks to Potts Creek for stocking. Shaw of Craig County won the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' most prestigious award as Virginia's 2018 conservation police officer of the year. (Stephanie Klein-Davis/The Roanoke Times via AP)
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In a May 17, 2019 photo, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Officer Mark Shaw grabs a brown trout that fell from the net while being transported from the truck tanks to Potts Creek for stocking. Shaw of Craig County won the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' most prestigious award as Virginia's 2018 conservation police officer of the year. (Stephanie Klein-Davis/The Roanoke Times via AP)

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Mark Shaw steps out of the vehicle, and he’s wearing a bulletproof vest, a full utility belt and a gun.

But in Shaw’s daily police work, he’s less likely to bust you for robbing a store than he is for bagging too many deer.

As an officer with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Shaw roams the forests of Craig County and the New River Valley, looking for scofflaws of wildlife regulations. He spends his weeks checking boaters’ licenses, monitoring turkey hunters and ensuring that anglers aren’t fishing fishily. During last fall’s hunting season — September through December — Shaw set out 83 times on foot patrols.

That dedication is one reason Shaw recently beat out 160 colleagues statewide to be named the 2018 conservation police officer of the year, the law enforcement division’s highest honor.

“He definitely was the cream that rose to the top,” said Maj. Scott Naff, chief of operations at DGIF. “Once he sets his mind on something, he definitely works to see it through.”

Shaw, 54, is humble about both the award and the work it recognizes.

“It’s not mine,” he insisted. “There was a lot of guys that helped me in this job that were just as much deserving as I am. It was a group effort. It wasn’t just for me.”

But Shaw’s nomination paperwork contains nuggets from a sterling career: arranging a decoy bear to catch illegal drive-by shooters, helping a hunter injured in a bear attack, saving a choking infant at a church. A former firefighter, Shaw is one of few conservation officers to keep up his EMS training, which, in that last instance, proved life-saving.

Then there is the case when Shaw caught “a true Craig County wildlife poacher,” the report said. “Shaw’s curiosity was piqued when he noticed the suspect and the suspect’s juvenile son annually tagged out on trophy deer and turkeys.” For more than two years, Shaw kept an eye on the pair. He couldn’t find any violations.

Last summer, Shaw came across areas those hunters frequented that were heavily — and illegally — baited. “On the opening day of bow season, Officer Shaw snuck into the area well before day break,” the nomination says. Shaw found the hunters standing over the bait, and the father admitted to the crime. As the report put it, “The hunters had been baiting for years and had not been caught until 2018 when they fell under Shaw’s radar.”

On a recent Friday, Shaw’s radar is trained on trout.

At the Paint Bank State Fish Hatchery west of New Castle, Shaw meets with manager Brian Beers as the crew prepares to stock Potts Creek with brown and rainbow trout.

“I like catching big browns,” Shaw tells Beers, who regales the officer with his days of fishing in Maine.

Shaw has a way of listening to fish talk — or anything else he’s interested in. He hooks his wrist to the side and cradles his chin and wears a grin that can only be described as mischievous. His blue eyes shine and his fingers flutter about near his mustache.

Of all his varied days with DGIF, “the ones that stand out to me most,” Shaw said, are when “kids catch a trout.”

“To see them all excited and full of energy,” holding a two- or three-pound fish, he said, is a rewarding part of the job. “It’s a bright spot of the day.”

Outside in the spring sun, hatchery workers net the trout and haul them to aerated tanks on the back of a truck. They weigh each net of medium-sized fish, then count the number of larger trout. Shaw oversees the operation like a kid making his first catch.

“Wow! That one’s 12!” he says. They load more fish. “There’s another one pushing 10!”

CJ Adkins tosses the last few fish into the tanks, which now contain about 500 pounds of trout.

“Christmas on a boat,” he says.

“That’ll make somebody’s day,” Shaw says.

“Hopefully yours, right?” Adkins says.

“I got to work,” Shaw replies.

Shaw grew up in Christiansburg and followed his father, and his father’s father, into firefighting. In high school, Shaw struggled with the decision: firefighter or game warden? He settled on the former. He volunteered in Christiansburg for a quarter-century and had a career at the Salem Fire-EMS Department for 16 years. Then he woke up and “decided one day I was going to spend the rest of my career in the outdoors.”

So in 2011 he completed the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Law Enforcement Academy and was assigned to Dinwiddie County, south of Richmond. Five years later, Shaw requested a transfer to be closer to home and he began work in Craig County, where he lives now.

“I was pretty fortunate I got to do both careers,” he said.

Shaw gets into his DGIF vehicle and follows the truck of trout to the creek like he’s the fishes’ own security detail. In a few hours, the agency will post online which body of water was stocked that day. Then avid anglers will be out in full force.

“It won’t be long,” Shaw says. “I saw some people looking at my truck. They’re probably on the phone.”

Shaw follows the trout truck to the end of a road along Potts Creek. The stockers gather up nets of trout and run to the banks, tossing the fish in the air. They drive a few meters and repeat the choreography. After a half-dozen stockings, they end back at the campground entrance.

A single truck sits at the end of the road. Could it be one of those eager fishers? An angler bent on snapping up the latest trout?

Shaw rushes down the trail through the understory, trailed by the stockers who carry the last trout in buckets.

A man and his two children stand on the banks, fishing poles in hand.

It’s Sgt. John Koloda, Shaw’s boss.

Just fishing, nothing to see here. Koloda’s 13-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter cast their lines in the breeze. It’s sunny, the warm air buzzing with dragonflies and butterflies.

No school today? “Today is a hooky day,” Koloda, in T-shirt and shorts, says, slightly sheepishly.

Shaw can thank Koloda for his nomination.

“He’s one of them that still gets out in the woods and chases people all hours,” Koloda says of Shaw. “He definitely earned it.”

Shaw doesn’t hear this. He’s too busy, crouched down, talking to Koloda’s son.

“I’ll be calling on you later,” Shaw tells him as the trout swim past, “to see if you caught one of the big ones.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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