Whether he’s patrolling the Main Channel of the Mississippi, strolling through the lily pad-strewn swamps of Lake Onalaska, or scaling the sheer, densely forested bluffs that line a coulee, Dale Hochhausen always has one very important thing in mind – his ability to communicate, educate, and explain what he is doing and why.
For a DNR conservationist in Wisconsin, it’s an invaluable gift that Hochhausen is known for. His easy-going nature fits well with a job that can – and does – have its tense, even confrontational moments. After all, Hochhausen, despite being the Personal Warden, still has to enforce the law, he still has to make arrests, he still has to keep others safe by eliminating the danger factor of some hunters, boaters and recreational athletes – unknowingly or knowingly – create.
Hochhausen, 52, who is based out of Onalaska Station and has primary responsibility for the northern half of La Crosse County, is retiring this fall after a highly regarded 25-year DNR career — 22 as a warden. An avid waterfowl and upland game hunter who also enjoys fishing, he will soon have more time to enjoy all of this with his wife Lori and yellow Lab Ollie.
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“That keeps me sane a bit; this is my salvation to go hunting and fishing. If I’m hungry for fish, I like to go fishing for bluegill, perch and zander. These are my favorite fish,” said Hochhausen. “My personal passion is duck hunting. I love doing that. This is why I really like the Onalaska Station because it is such a great destination for waterfowl hunting, especially Lake Onalaska. I’m more likely to hunt things with feathers than hair.”
Hochhausen grew up in the small town of Cassville, Wisconsin, in what he said was a very “outdoor family,” where hunting, fishing, camping and all things outdoors were introduced — and wholeheartedly embraced — by himself, his brother Steve, and his sister. became , Jill. His parents, William “Bill” and Carrie, made sure their children had as much fun outside as inside. Even if video games existed, it wouldn’t have mattered. Outdoors wins, hands down.
“I would probably say it’s my dad’s upbringing,” said Hochhausen when asked why he became the spokesman. “My father was a big outdoor fan. My father grew up in Cassville and worked down there at the power plant, but he was a very passionate outdoorsman. He’s trapped on the river; he operated commercial networks. In fact, he was a fishing guide before I was born. As for hunting and fishing, whatever, I probably hunted or fished it here in Wisconsin because of my dad.
“If there’s game that can be legally hunted or caught, we’ve done it. My father also had a raccoon; We had a beagle for rabbits. We used to do everything outside. Even as children, my parents took us to a sandbank in the summer and we just camped for a whole week.”
He might not have realized it at the time, but the level of outdoor education had a tremendous impact on Hochhausen when it came to where to go to college and what to study. He began his career at UW-La Crosse but then transferred to UW-Stevens Point where he majored in Biology and Wildlife Management and minored in Law Enforcement. When he graduated in 1993, it required you to take a civil service exam — which thousands of people did — to be considered for a job as a game warden.
Also, he said, the DNR stopped hiring game wardens for three years at the time, forcing it to change direction a bit. Hochhausen worked a temp job at the US Fish & Wildlife Service and then got his first full-time job at the Iowa DNR, where he worked on habitat management and prairie restoration. Still, the goal of becoming a conservation warden pushed him further, so he applied – and was hired – as a park warden at Peninsula State Park in Door County.
During his time on the peninsula, he enrolled and graduated from the Law Enforcement Academy at Wausau Technical College. It wasn’t part of the curriculum when he was at UW-Stevens Point. He attracted attention at Wausau – but not because of his ability to communicate.
“I was there with a couple of normal police officers. They called me that, what did they call me? The ‘Woodchuck Cop’ or something,” Hochhausen said, and burst out laughing. “I had a nickname because I was the only DNR guy in the class at the time.”
After three years at Peninsula, Hochhausen kept applying for a position as interviewer and landed a job in 2001, spending his first more than seven years as a warden. He then transferred to Vernon County (dubbed Stoddard Station) in 2009 before transferring to Onalaska Station on February 10, 2013. Hochhausen is along with Matt Groppi the two wardens for La Crosse County and also serves on the Mississippi crew.
“When I was first hired (at the DNR) if you had asked me what the ideal station would be for you, I wouldn’t have said to return to my hometown. I would have said Onalaska Station was my ideal station,” Hochhausen said. “I thought I was more of a country warden, but I’ll be honest, I like it (Onalaska) because it has a little bit of both — it has the bustle of an urban area but also the rural aspect.
“I love this area of Onalaska-La Crosse. It simply has a lot to offer, not only in professional life with the leisure activities that can take place, but also in private life. It’s just a nice community.”
An area that offers diversity in terms of enforcement as the season is very busy for waterfowl – particularly in the Lake Onalaska area – as well as big game hunting in terms of whitetails. While these were staples of enforcement accountability early in his career as a supervisor, things have changed – dramatically.
“This job involves a lot of outdoor activities and I enjoy the hunting and fishing aspect of it. Granted, this job has changed a bit over the years. It used to be more about hunting and fishing, but now we have a lot of environmental, recreational and all that other stuff,” Hochhausen said, explaining that he recently dealt with an unlicensed well operator as part of his duties. “Obviously the job has changed over the years.
“We’re kind of no experts on anything other than jack of all trades. We deal with, last month I dealt with unlicensed well drillers; Our department handles that. A lot of times we have rules about burns, air pollution, asbestos, people tearing down old houses and stuff like that. We also deal with aspects of commercial fishing, even taxidermy. Sometimes we even regulate bait dealers.”
Regardless of the call or complaint, Hochhausen takes the same patient, educative approach to making sure the party understands the law, how and why it’s being enforced, and what the ramifications may be. This approach has earned him a respected reputation internally among his peers and supervisors, and externally among the people he meets.
“What stands out by far about Dale is his commitment to customer service. It’s second to none. Public servants are there to (provide) education and to protect the resources, for all of us we’re committed to that and for the most part our wardens are doing a great job,” said Tyler Strelow, DNR law enforcement officer who oversees eight wardens, including Hochhausen.
“Dale is taking it to the next level. He goes the extra mile with every single call he gets. He is so passionate about customer service, always there to teach, explain and do the best job he can every time. DNR supervisors get a bit of a bad rap as people aren’t always happy to see us. Dale is one of those guys, even if he writes a quote at the end, he ends the conversation on a positive note and shakes the guy’s hand and the person who thanks him.”
Arguing with sometimes unreasonable people to defuse a potentially explosive situation, especially when it comes to an alcohol-related incident like driving a boat under the influence of alcohol, takes its toll on supervisors — even Hochhausen. That and dealing with the unknown – especially in today’s society – can be tiring.
“I love it, but law enforcement dynamics have changed here too, especially in the last five years or so. So, the thing, you can never do anything these days, can you? As for safety, stuff like that and sometimes the feeling – don’t get me wrong, I hear it all the time, I’m glad you’re working out here – but it only takes one instance, right, to have a really bad day ‘ Hochhausen said.
“You never know who you’ll run into out there on this job. I’ve had a number of cases like this here lately, you never want to get into a situation of use of force and stuff like that, but it’s still a law enforcement job. We assert ourselves during people’s free time and free time, and sometimes people don’t like that so much. While you can be as personable as possible, sometimes you can’t get over that hump as there can be that law enforcement connotation.
Being awarded the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association’s Officer of the Year award in 2020 or the DNR’s Warden of the Year award – also known as the Haskell-Noyes Efficiency Award – in 2019 doesn’t mean much to a person, who gets upset about a warning. or a citation for violating a conservation law or any law in general.
Hochhausen has been doing this with respect, reason and the necessary sovereignty for 25 years. That’s how he thinks the job should be done, period.
“Also, one of the things is that in this job I have always tried to provide good customer service. If someone called me, no matter how trivial or inconsequential the question might be to some people, it was important enough for that person to call and leave a message,” Hochhausen said. “So I always try to get in touch with these people as soon as possible. This job is public service, and giving back to the public is an important aspect of it. I never took that lightly.”
The focus is on people, part of Hochhausen’s well-respected reputation. Actually, it’s a part of him, with or without a uniform.
“For Dale, it (being a warden) was a lifestyle. He lived the job. He does a good job of balancing work and personal life, but for Dale, it was a lifestyle. It’s the way he wanted to live and what he wanted to do. He was very proud of that,” said Strelow. “He will be missed, no question.”
Jeff Brown, former longtime sports editor at the Tribune, is a freelance outdoor writer. Send him story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org