Oak Harbor, Ohio — Reid Van Cleve said he never had trouble getting ready for work.
“I love it. Every day I get up and I want to go to work,” the 42-year-old wildlife officer said. “I can’t wait to get started.”
This reporter got up long before the sun rose on a recent Sunday and traveled with Van Cleve as he worked his territory, Ottawa County, enforcing the state’s wildlife regulations.
In August, the seven-year veteran was named Mississippi Flyway Waterfowl Protection Officer of the Year for Ohio by the Mississippi Flyway Council. In 2013, Van Cleve made more than 1,500 field contacts with hunters and anglers, resulting in numerous arrests for a variety of citations.
While we did visit a number of locations where waterfowlers were on the water and coming off, we also spent much of the day shooting the breeze with folks.
The black Ohio DNR pickup Van Cleve drives is marked “State Wildlife Officer,” though it might be more accurately marked “If You Have Any Questions, Just Ask Me.” As Van Cleve peered through a spotting scope watching three groups of hunters on Lake Erie, two with small spreads near shore and another with a layout spread about a quarter-mile offshore, he had no trouble conversing with visitors.
One pair of hunters had tried their luck on public land at Resthaven earlier that morning, and sought insight on Ottawa County locations.
Van Cleve delivered the goods.
“Yep, those are mergies,” Van Cleve said to himself as a low-flying group of mergansers passed over the water off shore.
He went on to give advice on where, and how, to bag ducks in the area.
“We just wanted to ask about places to hunt, where we’re allowed to and where we’re not,” explained Brad Jett, of Bellevue.
Van Cleve said he appreciates questions from people, because it means they’re trying to avoid breaking laws.
But even law-breakers don’t mind chit-chatting with Van Cleve, whose soft-spoken demeanor and southern drawl are disarming.
One man who recently ran afoul of Van Cleve visited as the officer counted birds, by species and sex, of the three hunting parties.
The novice trapper had left meat-baited traps uncovered, and consequently received a citation.
“I can’t believe he didn’t catch an eagle,” Van Cleve told me, offering a list of reasons why meat-baited traps must be hidden from plain view.
Van Cleve’s waterfowl enforcement expertise comes backed up with years of experience.
The Evansville, Ind., native has been duck hunting since he was 15.
“A guy that worked with my dad in the coal mine took me for the first time and I fell in love with it,” he explained.
The love of outdoors runs in the family: Van Cleve’s brother, Matt, is the ODNR officer assigned to Pike County in southern Ohio.
Successful waterfowling is best attained through getting started sooner, rather than later, according to Van Cleve. And hunting with experienced duck hunters is the best hedge against violations, he said.
The most common violations in Ottawa County are shooting more than one hen mallard and taking other birds, like widgeons or wood ducks, during early teal season. And some hunters, during both seasons, simply can’t resist taking that one last shot – after shooting hours end.
Van Cleve said the most challenging aspect of the sport is identifying birds on the wing.
“You can watch all the movies and videos you want, and there are some great ones out there, and read all the books, but until you get out there and until you hold them and feel them in your hands,” he said.
“Unless you see them all the time and you’re around them, it’s very difficult.”
Patience, too, is a virtue, and an especially difficult one to master.
During his days around the marshes, ponds, fields, and Lake Erie, Van Cleve observes far more hunters than he makes contact with. When he does speak with folks in the field, he often knows the answers before he asks the questions.
In one incident, he checked a pair of closely placed blinds on Sandusky Bay. After checking the first, a hunter in the second blind appeared to be aware that Van Cleve was coming, and apparently tried to make lead shot disappear. The hunter told Van Cleve he must have accidentally grabbed his dove loads. But, Van Cleve chuckled, the shot size was way too large for dove. The man received a ticket.
Conversely, not every violator gets a citation.
He stopped a fellow leaving a fishing area with a rod.
“You have a fishing license?”
“Were you fishing?”
The man’s honesty paid off, and he avoided a citation, subsequently purchasing a license.
During the day, Van Cleve frequently stops to check out bags of trash and other items indicating illegal dumping. If he can find evidence of where the items originated, he’ll pay a visit to the litterers, and they’ll definitely receive a citation.
When it comes to citations and arrests, Van Cleve said the especially gratifying incidents are ones where violations are intentional and egregious. But most, he said, are simply oversights and mistakes.
When asked about the award, which included a handsome plaque, Van Cleve was lukewarm.
“I’m not one for publicity,” he explained. “It’s an honor and a privilege to receive it, but I really just enjoy doing my job. I think most of the game wardens doing it have the passion, they love to hunt and fish and be around it.”