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Officer Bissell at your service

The call of the outdoors becomes a meaningful career for Lowcountry sportswoman

By Ben Schools

Like many of us who grew up in the Lowcountry, Rhett Bissell identifies with the unique regional land and seascape of Charleston. So much of life here is centered around the outdoors and time spent within it. In the warmer months, we flock to the waterways where wildlife and sporting activities abound ... anything from sailing to kayaking, offshore fishing to inshore fly fishing and shrimp baiting. As the seasons transition to fall and winter, we gravitate towards the unmatched beauty of our coastal lands whose abundant deer and waterfowl habitats draw together hunters of all ages through a mutual enjoyment of the natural world. Connecting with people often becomes a boat trip to fish off Bull Island, a walk in the woods down at Botany Bay, or an invitation to the dinner table, where grilled local shrimp and steaming Edisto corn sit side by side. It is no surprise that a she found her passion outside and knew she wanted to protect our defining natural resources, even in her youth.

The outdoors are both an escape and a home for Rhett and were, from the start, family oriented. She gained early experience operating boats on offshore fishing trips with her father and sharing with her mother a love of horseback riding that still continues today, as Rhett currently lives on a farm with her horses.

She began hunting as a little girl, sitting in the stand next to her dad during dog drives at the Middleton Hunting Club near the Ashley River. These hunts became treasured moments together — not only in active anticipation of the clear shot, but also in the extended periods of time spent talking and learning in a place both father and daughter enjoyed. On one of these drives, when Rhett was 12 years old, she successfully killed her first deer and ended the day with a blood-painted face and a proud papa.

Rhett knew she wanted to work in a field relating to the outdoors. She majored in environmental science on the conservation and policy track while attending the University of South Carolina. After graduating in 2015, she devoted a couple years to acquiring experience within the legal realm by working in a law firm. Soon, however, life started calling from beyond the desk and prior ideas of becoming a game warden solidified in Rhett’s mind. She knew that route was quite competitive and without many spots.

“It was something that I always wanted to do,” she says. “You know, growing up hunting and fishing, you’re interacting with game wardens all the time and I thought it was just the coolest job ever.”

An administrative job opened up at the DNR Law Enforcement Division and Rhett recognized this as her opportunity for a glimpse into the work of an officer and all that it entails. She took the job and, of course, discovered much more behind the scenes than she first thought. As an assistant, she performed a lot of paperwork and frequently interacted with the public. It was while answering phone calls from people interested in learning about wildlife laws that she began to realize the educational aspect of her department and in being able to share her knowledge she felt pulled even more strongly towards an officer position.

A game warden spot did open up in Charleston and after submitting her application, Rhett heard back: She got the job.

But that was the easy part. Next came many subsequent months of law enforcement training, including elements specific to the DNR. During intro training, the new class familiarizes themselves with trucks, winches, boat trailers, etc. Then they go to the police academy for 12 weeks before two months of “Wildlife Basics.” In this latter training, the first month focuses on handling hunting cases like night hunting, baiting and shooting at the wrong hours. The second month covers everything about boating and includes a separate marine law enforcement certification.

From there, new game wardens go into the field and work with a field training officer for an entire year. This offers a close personal resource for learning the specifics of different areas, like which spots are good to work and when, which depends on the tides and where people congregate. Rhett says the value of this training was immense.

Our state DNR is divided into four regions. Region Four encompasses the whole coast: Horry, Georgetown, Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton, Beaufort, Hampton and Jasper counties. There are multiple smaller units within each region and Charleston is divided at the harbor into two units, North and South.

Rhett proudly became part of the South Charleston Unit in January 2019 and she now covers the lower half of Charleston harbor down to the Colleton county line as well as the land inland up to the Dorchester and Berkeley county lines.

A day in the field

I met Rhett at Remley’s Point in Mount Pleasant, where she cruised up in a DNR Law Enforcement boat ready for me and another game warden to hop on. It was a gorgeous day on the water in early September and we shot underneath the Arthur Ravenel Bridge on our way through the harbor. Rhett previously told me that a “typical day” on the job did not exist, that the unexpected of each new day proved both exciting and challenging. I pondered the possibilities as we curved around Patriots Point and headed toward a cluster of boats outside of Shem Creek. I had questions, but primarily I wanted to observe.

Rhett eased the throttle and approached the nearest boat with a friendly smile. Immediately, my game warden friends asked “How’s it going, guys? How’s the catch?”

The two men on board looked up from their nets and assured us the shrimp were out there. Shrimp baiting season had just begun and they hoped for more luck. We conversed a bit and moved on in similar fashion to a couple other vessels with poles in the mud.

Rhett says each situation is different and an important part of her job is to check in with people. Whether or not someone is violating the law and forces her to write a ticket, she takes every opportunity to educate those who need help.

After navigating the shrimpers, we left land behind and entered rougher seas on our way to the jetties. Numerous boats bobbed in the waves ahead. A bystander myself, I could easily have forgotten the tether of duty felt by my company. With the sun high above and purifying sea breeze against my face, there was no better place to spend an afternoon. However, game wardens crucially possess a different perspective while on the job; they remain alert and ready for action, even if they let no enjoyment slip away.

We proceeded down the inner line of the jetties facing shore and checked fishing licenses, life jackets and fire extinguishers. Both game wardens kept cell phones close by and Rhett answered several calls during the ride, aware of where she was needed at all times. With everything in order, we returned inside the harbor.

Although no two days are the same, field experience in a variety of settings informs Rhett’s decisions about where-and-when to visit a particular spot and especially what to expect. Tides and weather conditions dictate times and locations for sporting activities. For example, with the recently opened marsh hen hunting season, a high tide accompanied by an onshore wind pushing water into popular flats will likely attract hunters. Rhett might even venture out on a stormier, less pleasant day to patrol for unusual activity.

Many of her investigations, too, will come from DNR Law Enforcement’s tip hotline. If they receive a call regarding one or two shots in the woods at 11 o’clock at night, it might be a case involving night hunting. Through frequent patrolling, game wardens will become increasingly aware of the nuances associated with hunting and fishing. They become familiar with the regulars at each spot and notice who isn’t typically there.

To demonstrate the eclectic experiences of the job, Rhett tells a story about a deer in a most surprising location. She received a call from another officer in her unit asking for help removing a deer from inside a residence. She met him at a James Island neighborhood home surrounded by Charleston Police and she walked up to a police officer with a riot shield exiting the door. Immediately she thought, “What is going on here?”

Her fellow DNR officer waited inside with a catch pole while this deer banged around. And contrary to Rhett’s initial assumption, this was no small doe. Somehow, an eight-point buck had mistakenly wandered into this house and began tearing it apart in an effort to get back out. Eventually it calmed and Rhett’s partner had just enough time to secure the pole on an antler before the deer started kicking again. Without many options, Rhett jumped on the animal and her partner did the same and they held it down together until someone brought ropes to tie it up.

Once secured, they carried this large deer through the crowd outside, placed it in a truck bed and released it down the road. In what other job would such an issue arise!

For Rhett, the ability to work outside, protect these natural resources and share her knowledge with others really make her job an extension of her lifestyle.

“The outdoors has always been near and dear to my heart. It’s my church. It’s something that I want to be around as much as possible,” she says. “There’s a lot of knowledge and history that go with the outdoors, especially in Charleston. It’s really the core of life here.”

As Charleston grows and many newcomers arrive in town, Rhett recognizes the need to preserve our natural heritage. She wants to teach those who are unfamiliar with marshlands, show them how to identify fish and explain wildlife laws. The most important part of being a game warden and enforcing these laws is educating the public about enjoying the outdoors responsibly and imparting a greater appreciation for the world in which we live.

I saw these sentiments clearly displayed on Rhett’s face and in the threads of her stories and elaborations. We are incredibly proud to have Rhett and others like her protecting our woods and waterways and the character of her mission mirrors the attitude of those born into this Lowcountry paradise: Let’s make it last.

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