Warden John Bentley Hanging Up The Holster
After 30 years of patrolling the woods and waters of Georgia, Hancock County conservation ranger calls an end to an outdoor career.
In the pitch black darkness you could barely see your hand in front of your face as the two conservation rangers eased their boat up to tie off. Rangers John Bentley and Ernest Hooks were on the coastal island to investigate a report of night hunters poaching deer from the island.
The two rangers were careful not to make any noise or use any lights that would give them away as they walked all over the island, searching for any sight or sound that would lead them to the poachers. They stopped frequently to listen as they traveled the old logging roads. Spanish moss hung thick from the huge live oaks that covered the island making it difficult to see too far into the distance.
The rangers knew the poachers were somewhere on the island. They had found their boat hidden in the bushes not too far from where their own boat was tied off. Bentley and Hooks decided to stake-out a big park-like area near the poachers’ boat and wait for them to return.
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Bentley thought he heard something.
“Did you hear that?” he asked Hooks.
“Nope. I ain’t heard a thing,” Hooks answered.
Bentley was sure that he had heard something, so he got up to see. He walked a few feet away to where a huge clump of Spanish moss hung like a curtain from the tree overhead. As he pushed the moss to one side to look down the logging road, he came face-to-face with two men carrying a deer on a pole.
Bentley quickly turned on his flashlight, startling the two poachers. They were surprised and too close to Bentley to run, so they just dropped to the ground panting after having the dickens scared out of them. They’d been had.
That was in 1960, and it was the very first arrest Ranger Bentley, now Sgt. Bentley, ever made for poaching deer at night.
“I didn’t let them know it at the time, but I was just as scared as those two poachers were,” said Sgt. Bentley.
Sgt. Bentley has been making life difficult for game law violators for the past 30 years. During his career as a conservation ranger with the Georgia Game and Fish Division, he has spent countless hours, day and night, patrolling the woods and waters of this state.
“I started out in Brunswick, then transferred to Effingham County and came to Hancock County on Oct. 1, 1965, and this has been home ever since,” Sgt. Bentley said. “Actually, my wife and I both were raised not too far from here near the town of Crawfordville, so this area really is home to us.”
Someone who spends as much time in the same job as Sgt. Bentley surely must love it.
“When I was a kid in school, I used to sit and daydream about the fish in the creek or some bird in a nest that I knew about,” said Sgt. Bentley. “I got in trouble a lot for not paying attention, but I wanted to be outdoors. When I was brought up, Daddy taught me to respect nature and to take care of it.”
Sgt. Bentley spent a few years overseas driving a tank for the Army. When his tour was over and he got back to the states, he had already decided that he wanted to work in law enforcement and had an opportunity to join the Georgia State Patrol.
“Daddy always told me to get something and stick with it,” said Sgt. Bentley. “I got to thinking about that job with the highway patrol, and I just couldn’t see how I could enjoy riding up and down a piece of blacktop all day. That’s too boring.”
However, Sgt. Bentley warns those who are envious of his job that it’s not always easy.
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and there are a lot of phone calls in the middle of the night,” said Sgt. Bentley. “I’ve had to spend a lot of time away from my family. I didn’t have Christmas Day off for 27 years, and I’ve never had Thanksgiving or July 4th off during my 30 years with the department.”
Sgt. Bentley says that he has spent cold Georgia nights sitting on the hood of his patrol car looking and listening for night hunters.
The job can be dangerous, too. Several years ago, Sgt. Bentley and a “young ranger” were patrolling together looking for night hunters. A car came down the highway shining a spotlight. Sgt. Bentley pulled in behind the car and followed it with his headlights off while he radioed to other rangers in the area that he was about to make a stop.
However, things got a little crazy when Sgt. Bentley turned on his headlights and blue lights to stop the car. The car sped off down the highway and turned onto a dirt road with Sgt. Bentley right on its rear bumper. Both cars were traveling at a high rate of speed when the passenger in the car pointed a shotgun out the window and began shooting at the ranger’s car. Buckshot hit the radiator and busted one of the headlights on Bentley’s car, but he stayed with the fleeing car as they headed toward Greensboro and continued to radio for assistance.
The ranger riding with Sgt. Bentley dropped down onto the floorboard of the car and said, “Sarge, they’re shooting at us!”
Bentley shouted, “Well get up out of the floor and shoot back!”
“It’s funny now,” Bentley said. “But it sure wasn’t back then. With the help of bloodhounds and about 50 other law enforcement officers, we finally caught the four people that were in the car. My patrol car had 14 bullet holes in it, and the engine was blown up. It’s a miracle nobody got hurt. The good Lord was looking out for some country boys that night.”
Despite the difficulties and dangers, he continues to stick with it and has seen many changes over the yeas. Sgt. Bentley says he grew up without seeing any wild deer or turkeys around his home. Today, Hancock County is one of the top deer-producing counties in the state and also has an excellent population of wild turkeys. He is proud to say that in the early 1960s, he helped transport wild turkeys over from Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, some of the first wild turkeys that were ever stocked in Georgia.
Sgt. Bentley says he has also seen a big change in the hunting public.
“In the old days, most of the hunters were strictly meat hunters. Today’s hunters are more educated than ever before and for the most part they abide by the game laws,” he said.
Sgt. Bentley says that he used to spend a lot of time around the many deer camps throughout the county, meeting the people and paying special attention to the kids. Today those kids are grown, and a lot of them have their own deer camps.
“Those kids that I took up time with when they were little are some of my biggest supporters today,” said Sgt. Bentley. “And they pay particular attention to hunter safety. It makes me feel proud to know that I had a part in developing that kind of attitude.”
At the end of July, Sgt. Bentley will turn in the keys to his state car and call an end to a career that has spanned three decades. He says that after 30 years in the job, it will be hard to “just turn it off like a switch.”
He says that it will be hard not to get up in the morning and strap on his gun belt and go to work. He plans to take some time to get adjusted to civilian life, and he plans to do that by “getting out the cane pole to do some fishing.” He also says that he is looking forward to finding out what is so great about hunting on the opening days of deer and turkey seasons.
“I want to see if I can get in the spirit of opening day,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s like to be able to hunt on opening day. I’ve always been out hunting violators.”
Looking back, Sgt. Bentley says he is glad he decided on a career with Game and Fish.
“A lot of people spend their whole life looking for something that they never find,” he said. “I’m lucky. I guess that I was able to find what I like to do, and I like where I got to do it. It’s been great being able to work in some of the most beautiful places on God’s green earth.”
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