BRIDGEPORT, Calif. — It's Friday. The tall man in khaki with the badge and the gun is working the fish and game beat in the Eastern Sierra. He works alone. He is a few minutes late.
"I had to check out a tip from the campground host at Chris Flat about over-limits (of fish)," he says.
Routine. Not many calls for bank robberies or drive-by shootings on his beat. But he could handle those if he had to. Richard J. (Dick) Padgett, 53, has been a game warden for the California Department of Fish and Game for 25 years. Part of his job is checking folks for fishing licenses. But he still is a cop.
"And he has the reputation for being cloned," says Rick Rockel, proprietor of Ken's Sporting Goods in Bridgeport. "Like, he's everywhere at once."
One of the few times that Padgett was caught off guard was earlier this year, when he attended the annual advanced officers' training program at Napa College. The state's warden of the year was to be honored. Lt. Mike Wolter in Bishop had nominated Padgett.
"But after hearing the qualifications of all the other wardens who had been nominated, I sat back and thought, 'Well, I'm not on the hot seat,' " Padgett said.
And the winner was. . . .
"You could have knocked me over with a feather."
Wolter said he nominated Padgett primarily because of his investigative report and testimony on the successful East Walker River case against the Nevada farming group that destroyed the prime fishery when it drained Bridgeport Reservoir four years ago.
Wolter also cited Padgett's teaching of defensive tactics, a successful hunter safety program in his area and "25 years of service and complete commitment to protect the wildlife to which he was entrusted."
A day with Padgett gives a hint of how he does that. It starts at 9:10 a.m., when he pulls away from Rockel's store in his state-supplied dark blue '88 Dodge pickup with the scratched-up sides from driving through brush. He radios the Mono County sheriff's office, his local contact base: "(This is) fifty-five eleven. . . . I'll have a ride-along today."
He drives north on U.S. 395, on his way to Lobdel Lake. En route he meets sheriff's deputy Larry Sherman coming south. They talk on their radios about suspected deer-poaching in the area the previous night.
Near the Lobdel dirt turnoff, Padgett sees a pickup truck parked by a barbed-wire fence next to rolling, sage-covered hills. He does a U-turn and parks behind it. Hands at his side, he approaches it slowly and looks inside, then walks to the fence.
"Two sets of (human) tracks going through the fence," he notes.
He searches the landscape with binoculars, finds nothing and says, "It's the time of the year when archers are out scouting."
He jots down the license number of the truck.
At 9:45, along the dirt road to Lobdel, a stick standing at an odd angle catches his eye. He stops and finds some shot-up bottles and cans and several .30-06, .22 and .45 shell casings--the remnants of someone's informal target practice.
"A fine example of your upstanding sportsmen leaving a mess," Padgett says.
He places the trash in a bag in the camper shell of his truck. It's illegal under California law, he explains, to shoot \o7 from \f7 a road but OK to shoot \o7 across \f7 a road--but not OK to shoot an \o7 arrow \f7 across a road.
Farther along, he checks out tire tracks leading off the road, a place where a grader has pushed dirt and rocks into Cottonwood Creek--only three feet wide but still under his protection--and a wisp of smoke in an empty campground.
"Looks like somebody went off and left their campfire burning," he says.
He scoops up some water from the creek in a plastic bag and puts out the smoldering ashes.
"It probably wouldn't be a problem," he says, "but as dry as it's been, and with the afternoon winds we've had. . . ."
The recent flurry of brush and forest fires in California underscores his concern.
At 10:45, there is Lobdel Lake--or what's left of it. Lobdel is a shallow basin dammed by ranchers as a water source many years ago. But the drought has reduced it to half the size of a football field. Padgett's concern is for the rare population of Arctic grayling, although he is surprised not to find any dead fish around the edges.
Continuing on the back road, he encounters the campers who left their fire smoking and politely cautions them. Then, an approaching pickup sees him and stops 50 yards away. Padgett stops, too. It's against the law to carry a loaded weapon in a vehicle, although some hunters do it.
"You certainly don't want to go running up on a vehicle where you may have an individual in there trying to unload his weapon," Padgett says, watching the other truck. "I used to do that when I first came on, in the interest of making a case. I'd rather get home safely now."
Padgett says he has never drawn his handgun, although "over the years several incidents have been very close."