Poachers’ nemesis: ‘Casper’ in pursuit

Written By Jeff Davies

“The bottom line is, money talks and fish don’t.”

Randy Nelson

Among the poachers of the Cariboo, he was known as Casper the Ghost. Tall and lean, fleet of foot, and quiet of manner, Randy Nelson could sneak through the woods, crawl along riverbanks, and skulk in the shadows for hours, once even hiding in a hollow tree trunk, without being seen or heard.

Only when he knew he could catch poachers in the act, with their hands on a net full of flopping salmon, would he emerge from the darkness, tap the culprits on the shoulder, and introduce himself as a federal fisheries officer. 

“I never once got caught sneaking up on somebody,” Nelson says.

He was always armed. Often the poachers were as well.  He never knew what reaction he’d get. As far he knows, no one ever fired a shot at him, but he once had an oar smashed on his shoulder, cracking it, and, later the same day, took a fist-sized rock to the chest. Another time a man threatened him with an axe. 

As a fisheries officer, he never had a poacher outrun him.

Then there’s the four-legged wildlife; one time he shot a grizzly just as it lunged at his partner.

Fleet of foot: Randy Nelson after winning gold in the Grouse Grind at the World Police and Fire Games in Vancouver in 2009.
Nelson competing at the 1997 World Police and Fire Games in Calgary. [Photos supplied]

If the poachers ran, as many did, Nelson would simply run them down until they gave up, gasping. An elite distance runner, he won eight gold medals at the World Police and Fire Games. As a fisheries officer, he never had a poacher outrun him.

‘If a guy wanted to kill someone…’

But one summer night four decades ago, on the banks of the Quesnel River, Nelson may have wondered whether his luck had finally run out. He received a phone call at 3 a.m. from a First Nations fisherman complaining about poachers on his reserve. Nelson drove near the site, parked his truck, quietly climbed down the river’s edge, and found five people. 

He was close enough to hear them talking about Casper, the fisheries officer. His ears perked up.

“If a guy wanted to kill someone, now Larry here could just pull his gun out, shoot him, and throw him in the river,” one said. “It’s that easy, yeah.”

Recalling that moment today, Nelson says his mouth went dry. “You know, holy crap! If I had gone down there not knowing that, would I be floating downstream in a river? That’s what I thought.”

In his book, Poachers, Polluters and Politics: a Fishery Officer’s Career, he describes the moment: “It was shocking to hear those cold, deadly words and I started shaking as the reality of chasing poachers again struck me.”  

“If a guy wanted to kill someone, now Larry here could just … shoot him, and throw him in the river.”

Poacher (overheard)

Nelson crawled back to the trail, returned to his truck, and called the RCMP. All the police officers were busy. So, he called a conservation officer with a dog. Meanwhile, he tracked down the poachers’ vehicle and found a loaded handgun in a holster stuffed under the driver’s seat.

Was that the gun that might have been used to shoot him? He’ll never know, because he seized it.

When the second officer arrived, the pair hiked to the fishing site, and let the dog bark, to send a signal to the five men that the game was up. The poachers were at the bottom of a steep, rocky bank, with no escape route. The two officers called out the men, starting with Larry, and busted them.

Later, the group returned to the poachers’ truck and Larry found his gun was missing. As Nelson relates it, “he jumped up and said, ‘Where is it? You can’t take that!’ Proving our suspicions that Larry’s IQ was near that of the fish in his truck.”

Chilling detail, wry humour

It’s that combination of chilling detail and wry humour that illuminates Nelson’s two tell-all books. Poachers, Polluters and Politics was published in 2014 and became a big hit with the outdoor recreation crowd. 

A second volume, The Wildest Hunt, a collection of anecdotes from fish and wildlife officers in every jurisdiction in Canada and the U.S., was published last year.  The book documents not only poaching of deer and moose, trout and salmon, but also rare plants ranging from cacti to orchids. Even alligators, conches, and narwhals.  Then there’s the story of a stuffed beluga whale – found in a bus in Saskatchewan, of all places. 

“I battled poachers for 35 years, and the truth is it only grew more out of control in that time,” he writes in The Wildest Hunt

He notes a change in the make-up of the poaching community, from the average Joe to hardened criminals.  The trade in endangered species can be so lucrative it attracts international drug dealers.

The poaching community evolved from the average Joe to hardened criminals. 

Both books make a forceful argument that these officers do critical work under dangerous conditions, but they’re often poorly equipped, under-staffed, and under-appreciated by the public and politicians. 

Randy Nelson’s books reveal the under-resourced, sometimes dangerous, often thankless job of Canadian fish and wildlife officers. [Photo Jeff Davies]

Consider some of the numbers in Nelson’s books: Between 1980 and 2019, 22 Canadian fish and wildlife officers and 77 American officers were killed in the line of duty; fish and wildlife officers in Canada and the US are eight times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers; while B.C. has one police officer for every 500 residents, there is one fish and wildlife officer for every 13,300 residents.

Nelson is donating the proceeds of The Wildest Hunt to the North American Game Warden Museum, dedicated to officers killed in the line of duty, in the International Peace Garden on the border between Manitoba and North Dakota.

Direct line to the minister’s office

He’s not out to grind any ideological axes; he says he’s supported parties of all stripes. As an employee of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), he worked under more than 20 fisheries ministers, but in his writing, he praises only two: one, a Conservative, John Fraser, and the other, a Liberal, Brian Tobin.  

He was so impressed with Tobin’s activism that he wrote him a letter outlining his complaints with fisheries management. He not only got a response, but he also got a commitment from the minister’s office that he could call Tobin any time he wanted. 

A frontline civil servant with a hotline to the minister’s office? Almost unthinkable in any government. Nelson kept it quiet and used it sparingly, but got instant results when he did.

“I was this outspoken guy that usually had the facts to back everything up. And a lot of DFO senior people and politicians don’t like that,” he says.

When Poachers, Polluters and Politicians was published, Nelson says DFO had a senior manager vet it for errors. He never heard back from the manager.

Poachers, corporate greed and political indifference

If there is a political theme to his work, it’s that natural resources, fish, and wildlife need oversight and protection, not just from poachers, but from corporate greed and political indifference. 

What about self-enforcement? A popular idea in some political circles among those who decry government red tape, but Nelson says, “I view self-enforcement as about as likely to succeed as self-intercourse. It sounds good if you say it fast, but it will not work.”

The problem is human nature, he says. “We are a greedy people.” 

In his writing, he cites numerous examples of what he calls corporate greed and arrogance, summing them up with zinging one liners.

“We are a greedy people.” 

Randy Nelson

“Any time a large company initiates an ad campaign, you could be almost certain that they’ve recently been caught on the wrong side of the track,” he writes about energy companies spending millions to convince the public they’re good stewards of the environment while building pipelines through fish habitat.

On forest companies logging near streams, he says, “I found it pathetic how representatives from gigantic companies could plead like starving dogs to get approval for logging near streams.”

And on placer mining in rivers: “There may have been some ethical, environmentally minded miners but I never met any of them.

Nelson also documents an occasion when BC Hydro destroyed salmon habitat by opening discharge gates on a dam and releasing huge volumes of water: “The bottom line is, money talks and fish don’t.”

As for open net aquaculture, Nelson says, “aquaculture is the only industry I’m aware of that is allowed to discharge raw, untreated effluent and chemicals into fish-bearing waters.”

Even the brass at DFO don’t get off lightly. 

He denounces “brown-nosers and bobble-heads” in his first book, and, in our interview, says, “The skills I learned from dealing with poachers helped me equally in dealing with some of the shysters in government.”

The environmental community isn’t let off the hook either.

“I want everyone to think about wildlife poaching and the impacts it is having on the world and what they can do to help,” he writes. “I don’t mean for folks to donate to some alleged conservation group that preys on your compassion for dollars to support your pet project. I mean supporting the fish and wildlife enforcement officers who want to work with you.” 

Why become a fisheries officer?

Considering all the hazards, the demands of the job, and the powerful opposition, why would anyone want to put their lives on the line protecting fish and wildlife from poaching and habitat destruction? Nelson says he had fun chasing down poachers, knowing they’d always lose.

But to answer the deeper philosophical question of what motivates him, he goes back to the sense of fair play he learned growing up on a Saskatchewan farm, about 35 miles from Swift Current. 

“It was a very remote farm. We were very poor people. I’m proud of that, because it gave me a lot of things later in life, a lot of appreciation of things that would come,” he says in an interview at his home in Kamloops.

To answer the deeper philosophical question of what motivates him, Nelson recalls what he learned growing up on a Saskatchewan farm.

They raised cattle and chickens, had a wood stove in the kitchen, and relied on manual labour. “There was not much mechanization on our farm. Dad had a great work ethic,” Nelson says, describing his parents as “very honest, great people” who were taken advantage of. 

“Somebody would come by with a couple of head of cattle and I would sit there and watch the dickering, and I thought my dad was getting taken advantage of. And my mother was such a benevolent person, which is good, but again, I felt that some people were taking advantage of them. And that’s probably where I got this urge to go after [poachers].”

Randy Nelson is seen here as youth with his family cherry-picking near Williams Lake in 1970. [Photo supplied]

After Nelson completed high school, he took a course in renewable resources management in Saskatoon. He worked briefly in his home province after graduation, and then, in 1977, landed a job with Fisheries and Oceans in B.C.

“I had never seen the ocean,” he recalls. “I’d only seen Saskatchewan.” The only salmon he’d seen were in cans. He couldn’t tell a coho from a sockeye.

He was initially assigned to the DFO office in downtown Vancouver, working in the radio room, the nerve centre for patrol boats going up and down the coast.  It was a steep learning curve. His colleagues were amused when he had to ask what “chuck” fishing meant, since he was unfamiliar with the local term for the ocean.

When he was sent on patrol with another officer – “he was the expert; he had at least two months’ experience” – they had to get up to speed faster than a salmon leaping a waterfall. 

The two officers checked fishing boats for illegally caught coho during a closure. His partner went down in the hold in one boat where the frozen fish were stored. He tossed a salmon on deck. “That’s a sockeye, you idiot!” the captain roared. When Nelson’s partner chucked a second fish on deck, the captain’s face dropped. He’d been caught – with a coho.

The most decorated fisheries officer

And so it went until his retirement in 2012.  On the north coast, in the Cariboo, the Fraser Valley and finally Kamloops, Nelson pursued poachers, often on foot, sometimes on the water, on the riverbanks, in the ocean, and in the courts. He even busted a known poacher while riding a bumper car in an amusement park. 

Randy Nelson on the North Saskatchewan River after he retired from DFO. [Photo supplied]

He became the most decorated fisheries officer in B.C.’s history, winning regional, national and even international awards, such as the International Pogue-Elms Award for fish and wildlife enforcement officer of the year. They were hard earned. 

His wife Lorraine says there were times when she wasn’t sure he was coming home, particularly when he was working in remote areas in northern B.C., which she called “more worrisome … especially once the kids were born.” But that she had to “just take every day as it comes” and believe he would come home safely each night. “No point in stressing yourself out, as that is no way to live.”

Lorraine and Randy Nelson on a dog sled ride at Sun Peaks a few years ago. [Photo supplied]

Nelson says he learned a lot about human nature in those years.

Red-handed: “I can count on one hand the people that admitted their guilt right away.”

Randy Nelson

“I did develop a pretty good way to read body language. And I caught hundreds and hundreds of people. I can count on one hand the number of people that admitted their guilt right away. People just don’t do it. It’s bizarre. You can catch them red-handed, and they will still try to say something else … the trick is to try to get them to admit it in a statement,” he says. 

He would keep people talking and make them feel relaxed. Treat them as humans want to be treated. “It’s old school thinking but it works,” Nelson says. “They’re not the worst person in the world.”

Robert Koopmans, a former journalist now working as executive communications officer at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, describes Nelson as a fascinating individual. They’ve worked together on podcasts about resource management. 

“One of the things that’s always struck me about Randy is his passion and his genuine care for the environment. He’s very passionate about protecting the environment for future generations,” said Koopmans.

Jesse Zeman, the executive director of the BC Wildlife Federation, credits Nelson for shedding light on what goes on behind the scenes at DFO, and for raising the alarm about the decline in salmon and steelhead stocks in B.C. 

“Randy puts it well, that if we don’t take care of these things, we’ll continue to see this downward trajectory,” says Zeman. “It’s an important message to get in, in his own way, which is not all doom and gloom. It comes across as entertaining.”

Nelson’s former boss at DFO, Patrick Chamut, says his soft-spoken manner worked in his favour when he confronted poachers. “He was not willing to get in screaming confrontations with the guy, so he tapped him on the shoulder (and said) ‘DFO. We’ve got illegal fish here. We’re going.’”

Nelson describes his approach: “In a group of people, if things go ugly, shooting isn’t the answer. You get your butt out of there.” He says he’s been fortunate many times. “But it isn’t all luck, because I was cautious in some ways of trying to get all the information I could before I approached people.”

‘I worked every hour of darkness’

Nelson’s skills were particularly needed during his years in Quesnel, where he moved in 1985, when poaching was “incredibly out of control.” In his first book, he recalls those years as the most fun, but also the most challenging and dangerous in his career.

“The problem was compounded by the fact that virtually everyone in the community was involved in illegal fishing,” he writes. 

The fisheries officers weren’t armed until he joined in the late 1970s, so they didn’t do nighttime patrols on the rivers. In those days it was wide open to poachers.

“Virtually everyone in the community was involved in illegal fishing.”

Randy Nelson

“Going down to the river at night with a group of friends to catch some ‘Chilcotin turkeys’ (sockeye) was acceptable to almost everyone – schoolteachers, loggers, social workers, farmers and just about anyone else who wanted to participate,” Nelson writes. “My boss told me there wasn’t a lot I could do about it without a lot of support.” 

He took it as a personal challenge and worked with a seasonal officer to tackle the problem. 

“I worked every hour of darkness except one night,” Nelson writes of his first year there. 

Sometimes, after busting dozens of poachers, he’d book them for court appearances on the same day, to send a message to the judge about the serious and widespread nature of the problem. He wrote impact statements to present in court. He worked with the media to raise the profile of poaching and with the RCMP to launch a Crime Stoppers program targeting the culprits.

 Of course, there was pushback.   

‘Federal bureaucrat on a witch hunt’

Nelson says the former mayor of Quesnel once described him as “a federal bureaucrat on a witch-hunt,” but later the same fellow became an enthusiastic conservationist.  That mayor was Mike Pearce. A lawyer, and later mayor of Penticton, Pearce is now semi-retired and living in White Rock.

Today, Pearce remembers Nelson as “a young, aggressive, straightforward guy who was just out to bust their balls, if that’s the expression … he certainly was doing his job.”

The ex-mayor says the Cariboo in those days was “wild, wild country. There were a lot of right-wing people who thought ‘to hell with the law!’” 

Pearce remembers being asked by an acquaintance to go with him, netting salmon in the river. 

“All of a sudden, this plane comes over the hillside … I remember running like hell.”

Mike Pearce

“All of a sudden, this plane comes over the hillside – department of fisheries guys looking for guys poaching salmon,” he said. “I remember running like hell.”

Now, Pearce says, times have changed.  Environmental protection has entered the mainstream. 

Randy Nelson likes to think he played a role in that. 

Patrick Chamut, who served as regional director general for DFO, has high praise for Nelson’s work. He bristles at Mike Pearce’s suggestion Nelson was aggressive. 

“I wouldn’t call him aggressive. I would call him highly effective,” Chamut says, adding, Nelson epitomized the “fisheries protectors” at DFO. 

“Randy was always very, very capable. He was just very committed to his duties, and he was a remarkably likeable person. And he had skills beyond the normal things you expect of a fisheries officer. He was honest. He was dedicated.”

Chamut also remembers Nelson as a conciliator who helped foster a new relationship with First Nations during difficult times.

‘Darkest day’

It was back in August of 1986, on a day Nelson describes as one of the darkest in his career, that he suffered painful injuries on the job. He and 30 other officers had been assigned to deal with a protest on the Fraser River. DFO biologists had announced a total closure of a First Nation fishery.  The local band defied the closure.

Nelson was filming the protest from a boat. But, as he relates in his first book, things “turned ugly” after the officers began seizing the nets. 

“Our boat was propeller-driven and ended up being disabled with a net around the propeller. Several small boats quickly surrounded us. I continued filming until my camera quit from the buckets of water thrown at us,” Nelson writes. 

One officer tried to free the snarled propellor with a long pike pole. But two protestors grabbed the end of the pole and a shoving and tugging match ensued. Nelson was afraid the officer would be pulled overboard or that the pike pole would be used as a weapon. He grabbed an oar, yelled at the protestors to let go of the pike pole. They refused. He hit them twice on the fingers with the oar.

“I turned away as the oar narrowly missed my head, but struck me squarely on the right shoulder.”

Randy Nelson

“I was reaching out to hit them again when I noticed one of the men standing holding a seven-foot oar above his head and swinging it toward me. If I hadn’t seen the oar coming it would have struck me on the head. I turned away as the oar narrowly missed my head but struck me squarely on the right shoulder, The blade smashed in several pieces when it hit me,” writes Nelson.

He was flown out and taken to hospital, where he was treated for a cracked shoulder.  The ensuing media coverage went on for weeks. First Nations groups demanded DFO fire Nelson.  Senior management drafted a letter of apology for him to sign. He refused, and, in an angry phone call, told a manager to f*** off, and hung up.

Nelson was charged with assault for striking the protestors. The judge ruled the force was necessary and dismissed the case. The First Nations chief who struck him with the oar was convicted of assault and fined $500.

Passionate advocate for reconciliation

But in the years that followed that ugly confrontation, Nelson often sat down with First Nations leaders to negotiate cooperative ways of managing the fishery. Today, he is a passionate advocate for reconciliation with First Nations and for restorative justice. 

Canoe journey with First Nations members and Department of Fisheries officers in 2010, with Randy Nelson in bow. [Photo supplied]

“I ended my career with some of the best relationships,” Nelson says. “I trusted some of the First Nations groups more than I trusted people in DFO. And I mean that in all honesty.” 

“Randy was always very, very capable. He was honest. He was dedicated.”

Patrick Chamut

DFO’s Chamut sums it up: “He was the sort of person that could go and talk to First Nations and be able to advance some of our new policies that we were trying to put in place. And that was a real tough time, because a lot of it wasn’t just having to deal with Aboriginal concerns. It was dealing with internal concerns, because of court judgements that basically changed all the authority that we had to command and control. So, we really had to work cooperatively. And Randy was the sort of guy that you could give him a job like that, and he could get it done.”

Today Nelson is enjoying his retirement in Kamloops with his wife Lorraine. He speaks with pride of his daughter Janna, who has followed his lead and become a fisheries officer. He still runs, fishes, hunts, and curls – even competing once in the Brier, the men’s national championship.

As he speaks, he’s surrounded by awards, citations, and framed photos. Among the memorabilia, there’s a pair of old and weathered hockey gloves, passed on to him by his father when he couldn’t afford to buy new ones. It’s a reminder of his upbringing on the farm in Saskatchewan, and all the tough lessons he learned that helped motivate him during his years as a fisheries officer – the one who moved like a ghost and could outrun poachers.