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Local wildlife officer earns recognition for heroic, bridge-building acts both on and off the clock

SALISBURY — After seeing the flailing kayaker disappear below the surface of the water, John Howell sprang into action.

With his dad piloting their fishing boat toward the man, Howell moved to the bow. When their watercraft was close enough to the kayaker, Howell used the long reach provided by his 6-foot-8 frame to bend down and haul him out.

The whole rescue happened in just a matter of minutes about a year ago, not far from the dam separating High Rock Lake from the Tuckertown Reservoir. The dam, Howell said, might have been why the kayaker went under in the first place.

“He was not in the greatest spot and they turned some generators on in the dam, which caused his kayak to flip over and he went underwater,” Howell said. “He was not wearing a life jacket, which we strongly encourage. Luckily he came back up and I saw him and we were able to get him out of the water.”

Howell’s act of heroism might’ve saved the man’s life, but to him it was just the right thing to do.

“Honestly, with this job you see so much stuff like that it’s just another day,” Howell said. “That sounds bad I guess, but it’s not like it was super exciting or anything like that. It’s just another thing that we do.”

Doing the right thing is something Howell has done a lot as a master officer for the Law Enforcement Division of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission — even when he’s off duty fishing with his father. Howell is one of four officers under a supervisor who are responsible for patrolling Rowan and Davidson counties.

Howell, 30, was recently recognized as the recipient of the 2021 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year for the state of North Carolina. Howell received the award on Sept. 11 at the 57th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Cary.

Being a wildlife enforcement officer runs in Howell’s family. His father, John Howell I, spent about 24 years as an officer, retiring as a lieutenant just three months before Howell joined the force.

Infatuated with the outdoors and interested in law enforcement, Howell’s intention was always to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“This has been the plan forever,” Howell said.

As a child growing up in Burke and Stanly counties, Howell might have spent more time outdoors than he did inside.

“Outdoors was my life growing up,” Howell said. “If I couldn’t have gone outside I would’ve gone crazy.”

Howell was fascinated by his father’s career and would wait with anticipation each night to hear his dad relay what he’d done at work that day.

“He would come home and tell stories that were really interesting and just seemed like exciting, fun work to do,” Howell said.

Howell was also entranced by the tools his father used.

“As wildlife officers, we have a lot of equipment,” Howell said. “I’ve got a pickup truck, two boats, and an ATV and a deer decoy. All that stuff was around our house all the time and again, I was just fascinated with that kind of equipment. It was pretty cool.”

Howell earned a degree in criminal justice from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, finishing his courses online so that he could start training to be a wildlife officer. The 24 week program took Howell to Salemburg, a tiny town to the east of Fayetteville.

After finishing his training, Howell shadowed another officer in Bryson City for a half year before being assigned to Plymouth in eastern North Carolina, not far from the Albermarle Sound. Howell loved fishing the coastal waters, especially enjoying his tussles with the stubborn redfish, but accepted a position in Rowan County about five years ago to be closer to his family.

While Rowan County is more urban than where he’d previously patrolled, Howell said there’s no shortage of wildlife activities to monitor.

“There’s a lot going on,” Howell said. “It keeps me very busy, which I like to be. In the summer time, the lake working the boating and the drunk operation enforcement that’s what we focus on a lot. There’s plenty of that going on. Also, this is one place in the state where you can find somebody fishing every day of the year.”

With so much action and only a few officers to keep track of it all, Howell often finds himself working when he’s off the clock.

“If you’re dedicated to this job and devoted to protecting the resources, which is what I am, you have to be on call like that,” Howell said. “There’s a lot of times that something will happen and that’s the only time that it happens. If you don’t answer your phone right then, you’re never going to catch that person.”

Howell was off the clock when he saved the kayaker from drowning. He was also off the clock when he invited a Hispanic angler fishing from a kayak onto his boat for a day of casting lines on High Rock Lake. Howell and the man, who he’d seen fishing a couple of times before, started talking about fishing regulations and the cultural hurdles between the Hispanic community and law enforcement officers. 

“There’s a barrier between us and them,” Howell said. “I can’t communicate with them effectively because I’m not fluent in Spanish. Sometimes I feel like they are afraid of us or don’t want to communicate with us.”

The conversation led to the two men shooting an impromptu video in which Howell explained fishing regulations and the man translated them into Spanish.

“We just kind of did a Q&A while I was there fishing of some questions he had that he didn’t understand,” Howell said. “I took that opportunity to address some of the more major violations that we see that sometimes might just be a comprehension issue because of the language barrier.”

The man posted the video to his fishing Youtube channel, which is followed by other Hispanic anglers in the area. The video worked.

“Because of that video, I have gotten a lot of reports from the Hispanic community and also we noticed some decreases in violations,” Howell said.

Bridging the gap between wildlife law enforcement and the Hispanic fishing and hunting community, Howell said, is one of his top priorities. That mission fits in with his overall goal of preserving North Carolina’s fish and game.

“When I was young, I didn’t understand the conservation aspect of it,” Howell said. “It was just outside, trucks and boats and guns, that kind of stuff all was very fascinating to me. As I grew up, I really started to understand conservation and that’s really important to me. And that’s the big driving factor as why I work as hard as I do now and why I got into it.”

Howell enjoys a good relationship with local fishers and hunters, but he’s not afraid to enforce the law. Last year, Howell charged people with 61 hunting violations, two traffic violations, 76 fishing violations, 48 boating violations and 32 littering violations.

Howell, who has a young daughter and son, hopes to do his part to make sure the state’s resources are around for generations to come.

“I really want my children and my grandchildren, and my grandchildren’s grandchildren to be able to enjoy hunting and fishing and boating and doing all that stuff the way that I do,” Howell said. “Without the principle of conservation and the laws that I enforce, that would not be possible. It’s personal and passionate for me to enforce the game and fish laws so there will be game and fish around forever.”

Howell will travel to Virginia to another banquet later this month to see if he’s selected as the top wildlife enforcement officer for the entire southeast region.

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