Dave Hall rarely strapped on a sidearm. He had one but usually left it in his car.

He did carry a badge, however, designating him as an agent of the federal government, specifically the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But that was it. Otherwise, in a Louisiana bayou, he looked like just another guy — no sign of his undercover work years earlier in Alaska to bust up the illegal harvest and trade of walrus tusks. And nothing of his infiltration of New York gangsters who trafficked in Louisiana alligator skins, fueling the decimation of those animals.

I thought about this the other morning when I received a phone call notifying me Dave had died. He was 76 and had suffered the past 11 years from Alzheimer’s disease.

His body was cremated, and his ashes will be spread Saturday in a Louisiana bayou, home to the ducks and other wildlife he lived to protect.

•••

I first met Dave in 1988, when he picked me up at the New Orleans airport. I had come to Louisiana to find out whether decades-long rumors about duck poaching along the Gulf Coast were true.

Someone had given me Dave’s name as a person I should talk to.

“Come on down,” he said. “I’ll show you around, introduce you to some people.”

My visit was part of a yearlong reporting effort to determine why North American ducks had declined by 60 percent since the 1940s. Habitat loss was mostly to blame. But did illegal hunting play a role, if not along the Gulf Coast, then in Mexico?

Seeing me at the airport baggage carousel, along with a Labrador retriever I had brought with me, Dave said, “I didn’t expect you to show up. Writers contact me from time to time about duck poaching down here. But, in the end, they don’t come.”

His reference was to the mystery that can attend life in Louisiana’s vast coastal marshes when viewed from the outside.

More than 200 miles long and up to 60 miles wide (though generally less now, due to saltwater intrusion and marsh subsidence) these wetlands and the culture they’ve incubated for centuries can be a challenge to understand, as well as to navigate.

Dave’s knowledge of ducks, duck hunting, duck management and particularly duck politics benefited me in this regard, and he often fused these topics so they could be understood as a whole.

Additionally, with a bachelor’s degree in forestry from Mississippi State University and a master’s in zoology, he didn’t speak from a cop’s vantage point alone.

Not that he didn’t take great pride in busting big-time violators (he rarely “thin-pinched” everyday hunters) who thought they had covered their tracks well. He did.

But understanding human nature, behavior and motivation were his real strengths, and he used these to convert to conservation even those he helped send to federal prison.

“Ultimately, people in Louisiana are great people, and they love wildlife,” Dave said. “When you point out to them that poaching can hurt what they love, they come around; they understand.”

Still, the extent of illegal duck killing in Louisiana and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast at the time was startling. Baiting — the scattering of corn or rice around hunters’ blinds, causing ducks to lose their natural wariness — was a big problem.

So was the federal agents’ lack of equipment.

“We used to have a helicopter, so we could land on baited blinds and apprehend poachers,” Dave said. “But it crashed [in the early 1970s], and politicians here in Louisiana and in Washington made sure we didn’t get a replacement.”

A Fish and Wildlife Service pilot-agent, Bill Mellor, who worked with Dave, had a fixed-wing aircraft the government had confiscated from bad guys elsewhere.

But to make a bust, Dave, Bill and other agents had to paddle pirogues, or canoes, into the marsh, sometimes beginning their clandestine journeys as early as 1 a.m., joined then by mosquitoes, snakes, alligators and (at the time) countless nutria.

Many who are reading this column will recall that when I returned from that first trip to Louisiana I challenged Minnesota waterfowl hunters to raise enough money to buy the agents a helicopter to help stop poaching on the Gulf Coast. At the time, my writings appeared in the rival sheet across the river.

Eight months later, I withdrew $650,000 from a St. Paul bank and flew to Fort Worth, Texas, where I bought a new Bell Jet Ranger for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

A lot has transpired in the years since. But this much is certain: The world is a better place because David Louis Hall lived in it, a fact his incalculably loving wife, Sarah Ann, and their children, and their grandchildren, know well.

Perhaps at 2 p.m. Saturday, during Dave’s funeral, mallards, blue-winged teal, mottled ducks, widgeon and gadwall will wheel and pitch serendipitously over Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Slidell, La.

Beckoning their good friend a final time to the marsh.

Go then, Dave.

Fair winds.

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com