Nobody wants to pay a fine for keeping an undersized fish, too many fish, or for shooting an animal out of season. They also don’t want to get stuck with the stigma of being labeled a poacher. You don’t worry about it because you don’t break the law. 

Then one night, you’re flounder gigging, and you’ve been sticking some quality fish. You get another one in sight, and your trident finds pay dirt. But once you get this fish in the boat, you realize you may have made a mistake. Your fishing ruler confirms it – this fish is too short.

Now what?

If you were just fishing, you’d release the fish. But you’ve stabbed this one in the brain. It’s not going to swim off. So what do you do?

How about if you’re turkey hunting, you shoot a big gobbler, and kill a hen that you didn’t see standing on the other side of the longbeard?

I spoke to several outdoorsmen about this dilemma, and got a variety of answers. To ensure they’d give me honest answers, I agreed not to print their names. 

One angler from Wilimington, N.C. said the very scenario happened to him while flounder gigging. He’s a 55-year-old outdoorsman that’s never intentionally broken the law, and slipped up and stabbed a fish that was undersized. 

“I kept the fish, and it’s not because I didn’t want to comply with the law. I kept it because I knew I’d broken the law, and I wasn’t going to just toss the fish back and not be held responsible. I knew there was a chance I’d get checked by the game warden, and I was prepared to pay for my mistake. I also didn’t want the fish to go to waste because of my mistake, so I kept the fish,” he said.

As it turned out, he did not get checked by the game warden that night, and he said he’s been more careful when flounder gigging since then.

Another outdoorsman shared his story of killing a hen while shooting a gobbler during a turkey hunt. Unlike the flounder angler, he didn’t keep the hen, but he did make things right with the state, at least in his own mind.

“I honestly did not mean to kill the hen, and I knew the amount of trouble I could get into was far beyond what I thought I deserved for making an honest mistake. The game warden is not interested in hearing your sob story, and they’ve heard enough of them to not believe them anyway. And they can go a lot further than just fining you. They can confiscate everything you’ve got with you while hunting. I don’t know that all that would happen to me, but if it did, I would have deserved it and would have had no argument. I buried the hen in the field,” said the 38-year-old hunter from Summerville, S.C.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

“I wasn’t proud of it. Not at all, and I did some research to find out what kind of fine I would have been charged if I had been caught. I made a donation in that amount to the NWTF, and another donation to the SCDNR. I realize that’s not the same as turning myself in, but it’s the best I could do at that point,” he said.

Another hunter I interviewed from Sumter, S.C. had never had such an experience, but said if he did, he wouldn’t keep the illegal turkey or fish, and that he would just keep his mouth shut about it.

“I wouldn’t bury the hen though. I would at least let the buzzards eat it. Same for the fish. And no, I don’t see me sending in a donation to make up for it. If it was just an honest mistake, I would just be more careful next time around, and count my blessings that I wasn’t caught,” he said.

How about you? What would you do if you stuck an undersized fish or shot a hen by mistake?