When Nancy Foley pulls up to the Shelter Island pier, it's a typical Monday morning. Public piers and jetties in California are the only places people are allowed to fish without a license, which now costs a hefty $19, so the pier is lined with happy fishermen enjoying the state’s generosity. Foley parks her state patrol vehicle behind the restroom, slips on a jacket to hide her uniform, flak jacket, and the revolver hanging on her hip, and strolls out to the pier to pay the good sportsmen of California a visit. But somehow the fishermen know the game warden has arrived, and almost immediately fish tossed off the pier begin to slap the water.
The dumping is over in a second. Foley tries to see who threw what — were they undersized fish? Protected fish? But even if Foley had seen who had dumped what, she would have had to recover the fish from the water to issue a citation. So another day in the life of a game warden begins with frustration.
Sitting on the bench behind the restroom is a group of retired gentlemen sunning themselves beside the warm, cinder-block wall. They wave and call out,
"Good morning, Nancy!"
Foley waves back. The old gentlemen are her friends, and in a state that has only 250 game wardens to cover 156,000 square miles, she needs all the friends she can get. 'They’re here every day,” she says, "they see everything, and they give me a lot of information."
One by one, Foley visits each group of fishermen on the pier. There's a young Hispanic father taking his son fishing for the first time, there are several groups of Southeast Asians, a couple of biker-looking fellows with knives as long as swords hanging on their belts, a group of housewives. Foley inspects their tackle boxes, their bait buckets, their lunch sacks. Only one person has a fish — a legal-sized calico bass. Everybody else is clean, at least for now. But in the past Foley has caught people hiding undersized or illegal fish in their coat pockets or in their pants. One man was hoop netting lobsters, which is legal, but hiding the undersized lobsters in his sleeping wife’s purse. "It's a game,” Foley sighs, "like hide and seek. They’re trying to get away with these violations, and we’re trying to catch them."
As she leaves the pier, an angry, middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap tells her, "Hey, the Vietnamese are taking under-sized fish again. They do it every day. Those people have no comprehension of fishing regulations. They're killing this place.”
“If I catch them doing it, I'll write them a citation,” she tells him.
“Write ’em a citation? They come from a place where people are shot for breaking the law! They don't care about your citation."
When the man’s eyeballs start rolling around and racist slurs start foaming from his mouth, Foley smiles and walks away. Of all the qualities a game warden must have, patience is probably the most important.
Being a five-foot three-inch, soft-spoken female, with no facial hair, and no tobacco juice drooling from her mouth, Foley definitely breaks the stereotype of the outdoorsy, good ol* boy game warden who has been a hunter and fisherman all his life. Foley was hired precisely because she does break that stereotype. For too long, some people say, game warden positions in this state were the exclusive domain of white males. Nancy Foley is one of 36 new game wardens, mostly females and minorities, hired about a year ago. Inside the department, which is still mostly good ol’ boys (there’s only one female lieutenant warden in the state), the grumbling hasn't stopped yet.
But Foley doesn’t let that bother her too much. Many of the younger wardens recognize that she is as qualified as any warden. She worked several years for the National Park Service as a naturalist and ranger, so her knowledge of California's wildlife is excellent, and she’s completed the DFG’s academy, so her law-enforcement skills are good too.
Game wardens generally work alone, often in remote areas, and at night. In San Diego, one of a warden's many duties is to board and inspect commercial fishing vessels at sea, vessels often captained by salty dogs who think of women as those creatures they’re happy to see when they get back to port. Though some people may see Foley’s small stature as a disadvantage for a law-enforcement officer, she says both her gender and stature are an advantage. "Sometimes a big man has to take on another man, like they’re trying to butt heads or something. But when I contact most people, I’m no real threat to their masculinity. I think I’m fortunate to be a female officer, because I can handle the situation differently than a male. I’m not a big, strong female, but I can use my head, and I can use my mouth, and if I get into trouble, I can think of a way to get out of it. I can handle most things myself, and if I can’t, I can back out. But I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ve had no problem. But I can tell you that if I do have to fight, I’m gonna win. I have to.”
There has been only one instance so far, Foley says, when being a female was a disadvantage, and that was in dealing with an immigrant from the Middle East. She was on Harbor Island checking fishing licenses, when she noticed a man who had been fishing with his family quickly get up and begin walking away. “Stay here a minute," she said. “I want to talk to you."
At first the man refused even to recognize her. He wouldn’t give his name, show her his driver’s license, or allow his wife to speak to her. Foley suspected the man didn’t have a fishing license, and she tried to explain to the man, "This is not a crime that will put you in jail for the rest of your life, but I do need the information on your driver’s license to fill out the citation.”