On a warm February afternoon Game Warden Don Powers quietly watched a group of young men attempting to spear steelhead trout in a scenic and remote hole along the Garcia River.
After a while of seeing them fumble with the equipment, wounding fish but landing only a few, Powers emerged from hiding and approached them.
"What are you guys doing," he recalls asking. The men hesitated. "Uh," they said slowly. "Poaching?"
"Poaching. That's a good word; I like that word," Powers said last week, laughing at the memory of the bust while playing with a pile of their confiscated spear guns and wetsuits in the back of his truck.
The men were among dozens that Powers and his fellow agents have cited along the river in recent years.
Poaching of the threatened steelhead and endangered coho salmon is common on the beautiful Mendocino County river, agents say, and is undermining more than two decades of pioneering restoration efforts by environmentalists, timber companies and private landowners. The issue is aggravated by a disagreement between state and federal agencies on how to enforce the law on a section of the river that goes through Native American tribal land.
"Poaching is a problem on every river I patrol," said Powers, who is assigned to the Mendocino Coast by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, "But nothing like the Garcia."
While officials won't put a hard number on the losses to poaching, Powers said the picture is clear on the ground.
"They're clubbing and gigging, and gill netting and spear fishing," he said. "I'm like, Dude, how long do you think it's going to take to have an effect on your fishery?"
And it is already having that effect. Powers and area landowners, who are reluctant to go on record for fear of retaliation from the poachers, say they saw a slow but steady increase in trout and salmon populations through the early 2000s, but in the last three or four years, the numbers have dropped off considerably. They no longer see many legitimate sport fishermen venturing up river, where they are allowed to catch and release fish provided they have a license and don't use barbed hooks.
"I'm seeing some fish, but I am not seeing the fish you see in other rivers," Powers said. "I talk to a lot of fishermen and they're not catching them in the numbers they used to."
The law enforcement effort is complicated by the presence of two pieces of riverfront property that are part of the Manchester-Point Arena Rancheria and controlled by the Manchester Band of Pomo Indians.
Federal agents have deputized state agents to enforce fishing regulations on Native American lands and federal property all over the state, said Special Agent Derek Roy of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Santa Rosa field office.
"They are federal agents, just like we are," Roy said.
Roy is one of just two federal agents to enforce federal wildlife laws in all of the fisheries between Santa Cruz and the Oregon border, though there are plans to add a third this year. Deputizing local officers is the only way to make sure there are reasonably frequent eyes on the places where endangered species live, he said.
State agents, however, say they have been instructed not to work on Native American land without the presence of a federal agent.