HAWKINSVILLE -- Before daybreak, Tim Butler stands outside his truck on a dirt track in sparse woods. The hunched outlines of winter-gray trees loom in the blue suggestion of dawn.
Butler is still.
He listens: The hiss of a cold wind blowing off the nearby Ocmulgee River. A distant clanking, probably farm-related. A rooster declaring his authority.
Then come the gunshots.
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Three in a row. That’s what he’s been waiting for.
“Duck hunting!” declares Butler, a law enforcement ranger for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
He jumps in his truck and pulls up the satellite image of his location, in south Pulaski County near U.S. 129. He extends a line in the direction the shots came from, estimating about three miles. The line roves across the satellite landscape, looking for ponds, creeks. “That’s dry this year,” Butler dismisses one under his breath.
After a few minutes, three more shots. (That’s the legal limit you can load at a time to shoot ducks.)
Butler is not sure exactly where they’re coming from, but he has a good idea. He jumps in the truck and takes off, racing daylight at 75 mph. He’s only got about 15 minutes -- maybe 30, if he’s lucky -- to find the hunters before the window for good duck hunting ends for the day.
“Duck season can be exciting because you hear ’em shooting, and you try to catch ’em,” he said. “It’s like a cat-and-mouse game.”
Butler figures out which creek the shots probably came from, and he stops at dirt tracks that lead off through fields of stubble flecked with cotton. He checks for fresh tire tracks.
He peers past a cattle fence.
“I don’t think anybody’s been in there,” he says. “I can see the pecans lying in the road. They’re not busted.”
Butler doesn’t know whether these hunters he’s chasing have done anything wrong, but it’s his job to check. After all, many hunting violations can’t be proven unless the hunters are caught in the act.
For Butler, DNR’s Ranger of the Year, that means working when the hunters are shooting.
It means racing dirt roads in Pulaski and Bleckley counties before dawn to check duck hunters or waiting half the night in the woods to catch someone shining a spotlight to kill deer. It means checking tax records during the day to find out who owns the land where he found illegal duck bait -- and whether they own any other land in the county that he should also check.
Butler is known for busting hunters who don’t follow the rules, particularly rules that are meant to protect the public and wildlife, said his supervisor, Sgt. Tony Fox.
“Tim is one of the most conscientious rangers I’ve ever seen,” Fox said. “He’ll look for duck bait at 2 or 3 in the morning when other officers are at home in bed asleep. He issues a lot more citations for illegal hunting, especially for waterfowl, than other officers within his area.”
Last year Butler arranged 16 special details, calling in rangers from other areas or even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help stake out illegal activity.
In one case, he caught three hunters with 22 ducks, when the legal limit is three a day per hunter. In another, he slogged through a swamp on foot to creep up on people shocking catfish in the river, Fox said.
In Butler’s area, duck hunting is by far the most popular shooting pastime. For 2011, Butler caught 85 violations related to duck hunting, Fox said. He found 28 percent of the total waterfowl violations detected in his 29-county region, including 35 percent of violations for hunting ducks over bait and 55 percent of violations for killing more than the legal limit, Fox said.
Earlier in the year, Butler also was recognized as the 2011 Waterfowl Officer of the Year.
Butler has a 100 percent conviction rate on waterfowl cases, Fox said.
“You got to be persistent and you also got to be lucky,” said Butler, who also credits local judges with supporting DNR’s enforcement efforts.
Butler’s persistence goes all the way back to learning how to work waterfowl cases at all. Ducks were one of the few game species the Lawrenceville native hadn’t hunted before he started his job in Pulaski County five years ago.
“He worked really hard on waterfowl violations, even though that didn’t come easy and he had to educate himself,” said Maj. Stephen Adams, who was on the committee that selected Butler as Ranger of the Year. “What set him apart was his willingness and desire to be part of the community.”
For example, Butler printed up business cards that list hunting season dates and his cell phone number. He leaves them at bait shops and hardware stores.
“A lot of people take my number off the cards and enter it in their cell phone,” Butler said.
Butler answers those cell phone calls in the middle of the night, responding to everything from folks stranded on the river to tips about something illegal going on.
That’s key, because less than 5 percent of all wildlife crimes observed are reported to authorities, Adams said. He said Butler also follows up to let tipsters know whether he was able to catch someone using their information, which he keeps anonymous if desired.
“Almost half of what I get I find out by word of mouth,” Butler said. “I’ve learned if you do what you say you’re going to do, they trust you and start to give you a lot of information.”
“I think Tim does a very good job of working his sources,” Fox said. “Several of his better cases came this way.”
As Butler made his rounds one day last week, he ran into a hunter he knew who told him about seeing people hunting ducks without permission on hunting club land.
“And you didn’t call me?” Butler asked. “Next time, text message me as soon as you hear them going in there.”
Butler, 30, is an avid hunter himself who loves the freedom of his job and being outdoors.
“I wanted to be a game warden since I was a kid,” Butler said. “Dad would carry me hunting dove and squirrel since I can’t remember.” When he was a student at the University of Georgia, Butler used to schedule his classes so he could hunt every day in season.
Sometimes the job is exciting, like when he’s trying to catch someone “shining” deer at night.
“That’s a rush, when you sit there and you’ve got your truck hidden and they shine a spotlight, and you know they’re going to want to run and they’ve got a gun,” Butler said.
No one has ever shot at him, although a few weeks ago Butler pepper-sprayed a guy who charged him after Butler caught him hunting deer at night.
But Butler says 99 percent of the people he deals with are friendly, even when they get caught breaking the law.
That was what Butler encountered Wednesday when he parked his truck out of sight at Dyke’s Landing in Bleckley County. Mist was rising off the Ocmulgee River when gunshots rang out just as the sound of a boat motor became audible.
Butler shook his shaved head. “You can’t shoot ducks while you’re under motor,” he said.
In a few moments, Anthony Rowland of Dublin and his nephew Kalen Rowland of Chester brought their small boat to the landing. They had shot only one wood duck. No duck hunters were having any real luck that day.
Butler met them at the bank. “Was that you shooting a minute ago?” he asked. Shaking in the cold wind, they said no.
“I heard your motor right after,” Butler said. “Did you see anybody else out there?” No, they said.
Butler checked their guns. “No plug in here?” he asked Anthony Rowland. A plug is required for duck hunting to prevent more than three shells being fired at a time.
“That’s my stepson’s gun I was shooting,” Anthony Rowland said. “Let’s break it down and talk about it.”
“That’s illegal, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Butler said.
Turns out, there was a short plastic straw stuck in the gun as a plug, but four shells would still fit. And Kalen Rowland lacked a state hunting license or waterfowl license. The two men waited patiently for their tickets.
“Since you were cooperative, I gave you a court date in February,” Butler told them. “That way, you’ve got longer to pay it.”
Butler folded his long legs back into his truck. He’d helped report and run down a missing johnboat, inspected the guns and licenses of seven hunters, written three tickets and checked boat landings in two counties.
It wasn’t even 10 a.m. yet.