By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Alabama’s chapters racked up numerous awards at the recent National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) Convention in Nashville, and one of the state’s game wardens was selected for a prestigious honor.
Conservation Enforcement Officer Drake Hayes of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division was named the NWTF’s Wildlife Officer of the Year at the awards banquet.
The NWTF states the Wildlife Officer of the Year Award is given to individuals who have excelled and demonstrated exceptional performance in the following areas: teamwork and innovation, attitude and leadership, and achievements and accomplishments.
One of those accomplishments involved Hayes’ work during Alabama’s 2021 turkey season, especially on opening day. Hayes had not only scouted areas prior to the season to search for possible illegal baiting; he was also training one of the Law Enforcement Section’s new officers.
“I had located bait on multiple properties in Shelby County on opening weekend of turkey season,” Hayes said. “I was in the middle of our field training officer program. I was training Officer (Trent) Robison, our officer for Bibb County at the time.”
Hayes and Robison went to the first property well before daylight to be in position to listen for hunters who might be illegally hunting over bait.
“Where I found the bait, we had to cross a log over a very large creek that was over our heads,” Hayes said. “You could cross the log and stay dry. But we had a significant amount of rain between the time I had located the bait and opening day. We heard the turkey hunters calling. We saw lights and activity and knew they were there at the bait. We get to the log, and it’s completely submerged. You couldn’t see the log; I just knew where it was. We had already put in so much work that we just had to go for it.
“The water is moving. It’s looking like whitewater rapids. I used a 6-foot stick to find the log, and we just had to feel with our feet where the log was. At this point, the water is up to our knees and cold. Opening day last year was pretty chilly, especially when you’re walking through a creek.”
Hayes and Robison managed to cross the log with wet pants and boots full of water to locate the hunters.
“We issued multiple citations, including hunting over bait,” Hayes said. “Then we have to traverse the exact same log coming back. It was that or swim. We got to the next property and cited three individuals for hunting over bait. The next day, we worked a hunting over bait case in Bibb County.
“It was a very successful opening weekend. During the course of the season, we issued citations in nine hunting over bait cases, using an electronic call, several harvest record violations and other violations, like loaded guns in vehicles and multiple license violations. I think it was 25 turkey-related violations for the season. It was a very productive season for me, and I was able to have our new officer with me for the majority of those cases. He got to experience a unique and productive season.”
Hayes had already been selected as the Alabama NWTF Chapter Wildlife Officer of the Year when he went to Nashville and was surprised when his name was announced as the national winner.
At the ceremony, Hayes said, “I would just like to thank God first and foremost. And thank Him again for all the blessings in my life, and thanks to the NWTF for this wonderful opportunity and for my family for putting up with my career choice – all the early mornings and late nights and everything in between. I would also like to ask for a round of applause for all the other officers and their families that are here as well tonight. Each and every one of them is just as deserving if not more than me.”