LITTLE ROCK –-(Ammoland.com)- Mike Knoedl’s ability to rub shoulders with the movers-and-shakers in the same way he could with the everyday Arkansan has served him well in a nearly three-decade career with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. It led him from serving as a wildlife officer in Perry County in 1985 to the pinnacle of AGFC wildlife enforcement and, before he could retire the first time, even further: to a four-year stint as AGFC director that will end June 30 with his retirement.
“It’s been awesome. I was blessed to get to work here when I was 21 years old, and grow up in the agency,” Knoedl said, reflecting on his career while enjoying lunch at one of his favorite Little Rock restaurants, Bobby’s Country Cooking. “It was almost like, I don’t know how it happened. I was talking to somebody the other day, I felt like Frank White said when he was elected [Arkansas] governor, ‘I woke up one morning, and what do I do now?’
“I know it was a huge benefit for me to be able to communicate and relate to the common outdoorsman. And, as a wildlife officer, I learned to talk to a guy from the Rose Law Firm as well as I could talk to someone who drove a log-skidder in Fordyce. If you can communicate with both of those, you’ll do all right in this job.”
Knoedl rose to chief of enforcement in 2008, then was promoted to deputy director in 2011. During one of the agency’s most trying times, Knoedl was tapped by the seven-man Commission to take over as director in late 2012.
“It’s been a great, awesome run, but if I didn’t tell you there were times when you got your head down and you said, ‘Man, can I make it tomorrow? … We were at a critical juncture and I knew what I had to do, it was going to be very taxing because we had problems at the legislature, we had employee problems, we had money problems,” he said.
Knoedl says he went into his interview in front of the Commission for the director’s position joking with his wife, “I may be the first person who was fired during a job interview.” Not afraid to speak his mind when he knows the time is right, Knoedl was ready to tell the commissioners what was really going on inside AGFC headquarters. They listened and handed him the job. Knoedl told them he wouldn’t serve long, just enough to turn things around.
And, in one year of Knoedl’s leadership, a new employee survey showed a complete turnaround in employee morale.
In the state legislature, right off the bat, Knoedl and the AGFC ran into some resistance to a plan to eliminate “private” duck blinds on public land in northeast Arkansas; Knoedl says he was even warned by people he leaned on for advice not to fight the issue. He fought it anyway and the AGFC prevailed.
“It was going to be very taxing when I took over,” Knoedl recalled, “and it took a lot of time away from my family and my friends. But I told the commissioners, I made no bones about it, you can ask any one of them that interviewed me, I said, Hey, I’m not a long-term guy, I have a lot of stuff to do. I’m going to get rid of some people. I’m going to reorganize some things, and it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be fun, and a lot of it’s not going to be popular. So, with that said, I’m going to get us on the right track and I’m not leaving until I do that.”
Like the Boy Scout rule of leaving a place better than you found it, Knoedl feels confident in saying the AGFC is in a better position than it was four years ago, as he turns the reins over to former chief of staff and deputy director Jeff Crow.
Knoedl’s advice to his successors in keeping the agency on the right track is: “Trust your employees. Surround yourself with the brightest and the best. Leave the employees alone and let them do their jobs. … It’s simple, there’s no rocket science to it.”
A year ago with the turnaround in place at the agency, Knoedl knew it was time to retire to Cooterneck in Dallas County, where he spent much of his enforcement career before moving to Little Rock. Cooterneck is almost as end-of-the-world as it sounds, where Knoedl says he can walk past his driveway and see thousands of acres of woods, where deer and turkey walk in his backyard, and where the roadway doesn’t reach and the mail isn’t delivered.
Emon Mahony, whose seven-year term on the Commission expires June 30, said, “A lot has been made of Knoedl’s lack of formal education. I’ve worked with a lot of people, including people who weren’t formally educated in college, and I have three people on my list who I believe were special. The other two were Witt Stephens and Sen. John McClellan. I can assure you, seeing firsthand most of my life, when someone is dedicated to learning and educating themselves, they’re capable of doing anything. Mike is just the third one I’ve added to that list.”
You’ll next find Knoedl in a boat on an Arkansas lake, or in the woods on a deer bowhunting stand, or thinking about enjoying another turkey season next spring, and you’ll swear he’s just like an everyday Arkansan, not even realizing how far on the AGFC road he traveled. “Nobody in this state loves to hunt and fish more than I do,” he said.