"Hold on," he said, revving the outboard motor on their patrol boat. "I couldn't see a life jacket on that child."
While the first boaters of the day had no violations-the child was wearing a safety vest that matched her swimsuit-not all of the boaters, fishermen and jet-skiers on White Lake are so careful.
On the Friday before Independence Day, as boaters, skiers and jet-skis poured into White Lake for a long weekend, Grady and Ennis were performing safety inspections, checking fishing licenses and warning boaters about unsafe activity.
Such patrols are a regular part of what Ennis called "the best job in the world."
"I'd always heard about game wardens when I was growing up," he said, "but I never saw one. My daddy said you won't see one-until you do something wrong."
Ennis got his first taste of wildlife enforcement while stationed at Ft. Drum, N.Y.
"This is just what I've always wanted to do," the Linden native said.
After leaving the Army, Ennis attended college, then applied to the Wildlife Commission.
The Commission is one of the smaller law enforcement agencies in the state, and slots rarely come open. Officers must undergo rigorous training in addition to basic law enforcement instruction.
While at the Wildlife Enforcement academy, Ennis and Grady became fast friends.
"It helps to be friends with the partner you work with," Grady said. "You know you can count on him then."
Both officers cover Bladen as part of their regular patrols. Grady, a native of Duplin County, lives in Sampson. Ennis lives in Bladen.
Changing roles for agency
The job of Wildlife Enforcement officer has changed dramatically since the days of county "Game Protectors."
Modern Wildlife officers enforce fishing and hunting laws like their earlier counterparts, but they also are responsible for hunter safety education, boating awareness classes, and boating enforcement.
White Lake is patrolled by both Wildlife officers, who have authority over boating and fishing rules, and State Park Rangers. The lake itself falls under the jurisdiction of the state parks through a 1930's law claiming public ownership of all lakes of a certain size, even if all property around the lake is privately owned.
"We get mistaken for Park Rangers sometimes," Grady said, "and I'm pretty sure people mistake them for us, too."
While on patrol, officers look for obvious safety violations, such as missing life jackets (especially on children) and unsafe operation of jet skis.
"Personal watercraft probably take up most of our time out here," Ennis said, watching a handful of jet skiers trying to run down a beach ball. "A lot of people don't pay attention to the rules regarding jet skis. They can be extremely dangerous, both to themselves and others."
Jet ski operators, for example, are required to carry identification, registration for the PCW, and a fire extinguisher. They are also required to wear a life jacket, and stay 50 feet from the sides of other jet skis, and 100 feet from the front or back.
Safety distance violations are common, the officers said, because operators often try to spray or splash other jet skiers with their wakes.
The young men on the jet skis repeatedly drove too close to one another while chasing the beach ball. Neither had identification, and one was lacking the registration card for the watercraft.
Grady and Ennis told the men to return to their campground, gather the required documents, and wait there for the officers. Both would receive citations for unsafe boating.
Most boaters are cooperative when they see the blue light on a Wildlife patrol boat, Grady said, even when they are told to dock and wait.
Occasionally, though, boaters will try to outrun the officers stopping them. On Friday, the Wildlife officer's boat was one of the largest and fastest on White Lake, but even the knowledge that the game wardens are driving superior boats doesn't deter some scofflaws.
"I had one to run on me once," Grady said, "while I was working at another lake. Where was he going to go on a lake?"
While motoring toward the campground, Grady and Ennis stopped to inspect two more watercraft. The young woman driving one of the jet skis admitted she was unfamiliar with the PWC, and jumped off the side while trying find the registration and fire extinguisher.
"People don't familiarize themselves with jet skis like they should," Ennis said. "They wouldn't drive on the road-I hope-without learning to operate a car, but some people will drive a jet ski without having even seen one."
Another young woman was going slightly too fast as she entered a no wake zone. Because she was polite and barely speeding, the officers let her off with a warning ticket.
Most speeders in no-wake zones don't get off so lucky, Ennis said.
"There might be thousands of dollars of boats tied up in a no-wake zone," he said. "A boater goes flying through there, kicking up waves, and those boats start banging against each other. It's not right to damage another man's property, much less to be careless like that."
While on their way to the campground dock, Ennis and Grady stopped and checked several more watercraft. In each case, the boaters or skiers had the proper documents, equipment and safety gear. One even began lifting life jackets and a fire extinguisher out of the boat, showing them to the officers before they stopped.
"I want to do things right," he said. "I don't want a ticket, and I wouldn't want to see someone get hurt."
Most safety violations result in a fine and court costs, generally around $125. Common violations include old or worn safety vests, not having enough floatation devices for everyone on board, driving too close to other watercraft or running too fast through no wake zones, and not having a functioning fire extinguisher on board.
Just like police officers, deputies and State Troopers, Wildlife officers have a certain amount of leeway.
"If someone makes an honest mistake," Grady said, "we can write them a warning ticket under some circumstances. But if someone doesn't want to work with us, or they don't care they violated the law, that tells me they don't care."
Another boater put his hand to his forehead when the officers ordered him to stop.
"I left my registration in my pickup," he said. "My girlfriend's taking it to the campground. I knew I forgot something."
The officers ran a radio check on the boater, which confirmed the boat was his.
"I won't leave it again,"
the man said, waving as he motored away.
"I wish they'd all be honest like that," Grady said.
Many boaters are unprepared for the numbers of other boats on the lake, or how rough the water can get.
"All these boats and jet skis going around and around," Ennis said. "They'll create some chop."
"You can see three-foot waves in the middle of the lake," Grady agreed. "If there's a strong wind, they can be even larger."
Fishing without a license-but with a bad attitude
Among the most common violations seen on the lake is one that has always faced Wildlife officers-fishing without a license.
In North Carolina, residents can fish with natural bait in their home counties, but they must have identification to prove where they live. Non-residents and fishermen using anything not nutritionally beneficial to fish must have a license.
As the patrol boat nosed up to the campground dock, a man kept casting a beetle spin lure off the end of the pier.
When he was asked for his fishing license, he said he'd left them home in another county.
Grady performed a radio records check on the man-exactly the same way police officers and state troopers check driving records on traffic violators-and was told no record of a license could be found in the state computer system.
The lack of a $15 fishing license would cost the angler $125.
"Sir," he said, "I am going to have to cite you."
"Whatever," the man said, smiling. "I'm the only one of my friends who ain't got a ticket from ya'll yet."
"You say that like its something to be proud of," Ennis said. "Sir, don't you know you are breaking the law?"
"What do I care?" the man said. "I'll just pay the ticket."
Later, Ennis said the man's attitude was all too common.
"We get a lot of stuff off of people sometimes," he said. "They want to have an attitude, like they don't take the wildlife laws seriously. I don't care if someone doesn't like the law-it's the law, and we are supposed to enforce it."
While the officers were writing citations for the fisherman and one of the jet-ski ballplayers, a powerboat nosed into the dock.
The operator asked the officers if they would mind telling him "what I need to get right."
He had recently purchased the boat, but was unsure about safety equipment, and he had a
question about his registration.
"That's what we like to see," Ennis said. "People that come to us and ask what they should do. That man's probably a responsible boater."
Around 65 percent of boaters who get stopped by Wildlife officers have no violations, Grady said.
"You hate to give someone a ticket," he said, "when they really didn't know better, but the rules aren't hard to understand, and you can get them from most boat dealers or online."
Job with many hats
The officers both said they see their job as not just protecting natural resources and enforcing the law, but representing the state and their agency.
The officers regularly pass out boater safety information, and honorary badge stickers for young children. They gather information from marina owners and other businessmen about numbers of boaters and problem jet skis.
"It takes some diplomacy sometimes," Ennis said. "When someone's drunk or wants to mouth off, you can't just react like an everyday person might. You're a professional, and you have to act like it."
Drunken boaters are a major concern at the lake, both officers said. North Carolina has no open container law in boats, although the .08 legal blood alcohol limit used for automobile drivers also stands for boaters.
Boat operators who are legally drunk, though, can pay their fine and court costs and legally return to the water after they sober up, unlike drunk drivers.
A lot of drunken boaters are found at night, Grady said.
"When the suns sets," he said, "you have to change your tactics some. People see a blue light and they react like they do when a trooper stops them. Any contraband is going to disappear."
The officers waited until the last of the rental jet skis had returned to the dock, beating the sunset curfew, before heading back to the marina. After a brief break for dinner, they would patrol the lake for the rest of the night, getting off duty around 3 a.m.
Ennis said he loves working for the Wildlife Commission.
"You get to be outside, around hunters and fishermen, and most of them are the best people in the world," he said. "You get to run a boat on the river and on the lake. What more can you ask for that that?"