DALLAS PLANTATION — Turning off more than two decades of tenacious back-country detective work protecting Maine’s fish and wildlife resources is going to be tough for Reggie Hammond.

The Maine game warden who had an uncanny knack for catching lawbreakers in his nearly 400-square-mile Rangeley District, retired on March 31 after a 25-year career.

“Pretty much, anything that happened in the last 25 years — fish and game wise — eventually, I found out about it down the road,” Hammond, 55, said in a recent interview.

That’s why retirement “is going to be difficult,” the 1977 graduate of Deering High School said. But now is the time to transition into it, because there isn’t much happening.

When his and wife Janet Waugaman’s children, Luke and Allison, were younger, winter meant skiing and snowboarding at Saddleback Ski Resort. But now that they’re adults and on their own, winter isn’t as appealing to Hammond, who is an ardent fly-fishing angler.

“What do you do now?” he asked. “You put wood in the fire, you watch a rerun of ‘Law & Order,’ and you go to bed, day after day.”

A longtime fishing and hunting guide, Hammond and Waugaman have owned and operated Kennebago River Kamps from May through the end of deer hunting season for 17 years. Hammond also spends time tying flies and working out while his wife works as the librarian for the Rangeley Lakes School District.

Hammond’s real test to stay retired begins sometime in late April to early May, when the smelt start running in Rangeley waters and the fish start biting.

“That will be a challenging time for me and my wife, because she’ll probably be throwing me out in the snowbank by then, because I’ll be driving down there all night for the smelt run,” he said.

“When the smelts come running, I hate to say it, but I’ll be out. You can’t stop that after 25 years and that was what I lived for — hunting and fishing enforcement. You can’t just pull the plug on that, you know. Maybe I’ll just drive around in my truck, but I’m not going to be out there at night and not doing something. That was the fun part of the job.”

The job

Hammond started “the job” at the age of 30 in April 1990 after a four-year stint as an emergency medical technician and regular firefighter with the South Portland Fire Department.

“I never would have left the fire department had it not been for the warden service,” he said.

Ever since he was a little boy and growing up in Portland, Hammond wanted to be a game warden.

He credits Waugaman for telling him to follow through on that dream. They met in college at the University of Southern Maine and got married in 1988. She ran a landscaping and gardening business in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

After becoming a warden, Hammond was assigned to the Biddeford/Saco District. “It was great the first few years in Portland being a game warden. I lived in South Portland and I was busy — crazy busy. I worked with some great guys down there, too, like Chris Simmons.”

Then, in Dec. 1993, he and Janet moved to Rangeley where he took over the Rangeley District and they raised their two children and a large menagerie of injured or starving Rangeley wildlife that Hammond couldn’t leave in the wild to die.

Hammond said the Rangeley District job “was a little bit overwhelming the first time, because of all the roads you have to learn and all of this back country.” Charlie Atkins, the district warden at the time, helped him learn the district.

In the Biddeford/Saco District, wardens dealt with many car-deer and car-moose collisions and nuisance animal complaints. Hammond essentially responded to phone calls. But in the Rangeley District, “the phone doesn’t ring, so you have to be out in the field and dig up these things for yourself. These rural districts, you have to be a lot more proactive than reactive.”

In rural districts, wardens also become part of the community. Hammond embraced that, helping people on his days off and coaching baseball and softball.

But over the years, the job changed and, so too, have lawbreakers.

“There is a lot more awareness and education now,” Hammond said. “I think people are beginning to realize how important the resource is now. It’s not like it was 25 years ago.

“I always make the analogy that 25 years ago, people would shoot a deer at night or catch too many fish and go to the coffee shop and brag about it and laugh and think it was funny,” he said.

“You do that now and someone in that coffee shop is going to be calling and you’re going to get in a mess over it and the penalty is pretty severe. Big stuff like night-hunting deer or getting too many deer, that’s a mandatory three days in jail and a $1,000 fine.”

Hammond said he only had a few cold cases, because he spent last year chasing down lawbreakers “that I really wanted to get.”

“A lot of crimes I investigated, you get bits and pieces of information that you kind of make notes on,” he said. “It might take you a year or two, but people are creatures of habit. And a lot of times, they come to the same place, the same week, the same year or even the same day.”

He said he once caught a guy with 56 trout and salmon over his limit.

“I’d say one of the the strangest and oddest ones, we caught a guy night hunting and exactly one year to the date, we caught him again in the same field with the same deer on the same day — one year later — and he got the same ride to jail,” Hammond said.

Unlike southern Maine, a huge part of the Rangeley District is search and rescues, especially along the Appalachian Trail, where Hammond spent a lot of time.

“Some of my most fondest and interesting moments have been searches,” he said. “I’ve been on Saddleback Mountain when it looks like you could reach out and touch a star, and then I’ve been on Saddleback Mountain and held my hand up in front of my face and I could not see my fingers. So you get yourself into some crazy places and crazy situations.”

But of all of the searches he’s participated in, he wishes he could have found Geraldine Largay, the 66-year-old AT through-hiker from Tennessee who vanished from the trail in 2013 in Hammond’s district and has yet to be found despite an extensive search effort.

Largay was last seen early in the morning of July 22, 2013, at Poplar Ridge lean-to. It is a trail shelter between Saddleback Junior mountain and Poplar Ridge. She was reported missing on July 24 by her husband when she failed to meet him at a prearranged point on Route 27 in Wyman Township.

“That Largay search, that’s got a lot of game wardens scratching their heads on that,” Hammond said. “That section from Route 4 to just over in Redington, I doubt there’s a person alive that’s hiked that as much as I have….I can’t even fathom a guess as to where she is.”

Hammond, who was named Maine’s top warden for 2007, said he decided to retire “because everything in law enforcement is changing.”

“It’s just a different ballgame than it was 25 years ago,” he said. “The stuff we encounter in the fields now and the attitude from different people, our department is changing, the administration is changing, everything is just changing and I don’t adhere well to change. … If you want to be effective, it really is a young person’s job.

“I like to think I was very passionate about this job. It’s been a spectacular career and I’d never change it for anything in the world,” Hammond said.

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