Mike Hruza was raised in the woods and on the water and even as a youngster he knew that his perfect profession would involve those environments.
"When I was in high school I wrote in my senior yearbook that I wanted to be a game warden," Hruza said.
And for 24 years and four days that's what Hruza was.
"Many of the new COs (conservation officers) consider it a job but for me it was a lifestyle," Hruza, who retired a few weeks ago, said. "For all these years I was Mike the game warden. But now I'm not. I'm going to miss it but it is time to turn the page."
Most sportsmen who have been afield or afloat in Beltrami County met Hruza at least a time or two. After beginning his enforcement career in 1981 as a police officer in Deer River, Hruza joined the Itasca County sheriff's department in 1985. His stint there lasted until 1986 when he joined the DNR's Boat and Water Program based in Bemidji.
His first CO assignment was in Waskish and, after tenures in Blackduck, Pine City and another spell in Waskish, Hruza replaced Jeff Granger as the Bemidji area CO in the late 1990s.
And he's been here ever since.
"I've enjoyed being a CO. I like the outdoor life. I think to be a CO you need to be an avid outdoorsman because you need to understand the people you are dealing with.
"Most law enforcement officers are responding to emergency calls but 90 percent of the people a CO meets are doing nothing more than recreating. And when enforcing those types of laws there is a great deal of gray area," Hruza added.
Hruza would issue a ticket when it was warranted but his top priority was educating the people he met along the way.
"A CO has to use common sense and be fair," Hruza said. "A judge told me when I started that every time you see a violation you don't have to give a ticket. A lesson learned does not always warrant a ticket.
"Not every violation I came across was intentional and I always wanted to use some discretion," Hruza added.
Hruza has seen the benefits the outdoors can provide but he also has seen how a poor decision can lead to tragedy.
"I like to see people enjoying themselves," Hruza said. "There were many great people who would come to the area at the same time each year and we would meet when I was making my rounds. I'm going to miss that interaction.
"I'm also going to miss being at events like Take a Kid Fishing and seeing the kids having fun with their guides and all of those huge smiles. Those smiles remind me of me and of all of us who enjoyed fishing and hunting as kids.
"But the sad part of my job was dealing with tragedies involving the public," Hruza said. "The No. 1 priority for law enforcement is protecting the public and when you respond to a tragedy you always learn from it and wonder if there was something more you could have done that could have prevented it."
Even though his job no longer requires it, Hruza plans to spend much of his time outdoors enjoying what the area has to offer and doing what he can to protect it.
"All of the wildlife and the fish belong to all of us and we need to be stewards of the land," he said. "Unfortunately, I've seen a trend in which the politicians are managing the resources instead of the people who are trained to do it. What we have now came to be because of the hunting and fishing public and not because of politicians. So be careful who you elect.
"I've enjoyed my job and working with the public," Hruza continued. "But the time has come to move on."