So, it's about an hour after sunrise. I'm crawling, literally, under a dense canopy of chemise...spelunking in a system of tunnels carved not of earth, but from underbrush. It's only about 45 degrees out, but sweat is already soaking through my shirt. I see a clearing ahead. As soon as I can stand upright again I'll have to remove a couple of layers. And then it occurs to me. What the hell am I, nearly 40 years old, doing crawling on hands and knees up a mountain?
As I clear the brush and stand up, the tiny, dried leaves and limbs drop down my collar to stick to sweaty flesh along my spine. Breath comes in ragged, short gasps. My back aches from the labor, and my right knee throbs...an ancient injury stirred to anger. I feel a tickling itch on my neck and brush at it. My gloved finger comes away with not one, but two ticks. As if by magic, I suddenly feel tickling itches all over my body.
And in my soul, I couldn't feel better! I look around at the ridges and mountaintops surrounding me in every direction but one, where the lush green of a deep valley drops away into the misty horizon. In the west, fog wisps as it breaks like waves against the line of mountains, drifting up in spumes of soft, greyish white. To the east, the sun is pouring light into the canyons below me and creating dancing shadows on the redrock cliffs across the way. I drink in the vista, filling my chest and my mind with it, and quickly forgetting the pain and aggravation of a few moments before.
I've come here to hunt wild pigs, but for the moment the rifle slung across my shoulder and the unfilled pig tags in my pack aren't very important. Hard to believe that, on a map, I'm about halfway between the bustle of San Francisco and the grime of LA. Hard to believe it's even the same state... or the same century.
I pull out the GPS (my newest tech toy) and take a quick read. In about a quarter mile of hiking and crawling, I've managed to gain about 1000 feet in elevation. That's a fairly steep hill. But terrain like this is what keeps other hunters away. It's a small price to pay to find pigs on public land. And while I haven't seen so much as a bristle so far, the ridges are covered with freshly turned earth. The pigs are here, somewhere. If I play my cards right, one of them will be joining me for dinner tomorrow night.
I sense, rather than see, the movement on an opposite ridge. Turning slowly and lowering myself to a crouch, I peer across to see a fat blacktail deer standing at attention, ears cocked toward me. I relax a bit, knowing this is not the game I'm looking for, but continue to scan the hillside. Just below the standing deer, I can see two ears pricked up above a line of grass. By now, the bucks will have shed their antlers, so I can't tell the sex of either deer, but I can't help looking anyway. Finally the two have had enough of me, and they break cover and top out the ridge to disappear down the other side.
Pig tracks cover the trail I have been following. Many of them are sharp edged and clean, obviously fresh. It wouldn't surprise me if I pushed these pigs up the hill with my own progress. It's impossible to sneak in this stuff, and the swirling winds in these canyons will betray the most careful stalker. I'm doubly impressed, first with the incredible olfactory powers of these swine, and secondly with their ability to move and disappear so silently. They can be so noisy when they think they're unobserved.
There are several more trails in the system, but one seems to have the majority of tracks, so I follow higher along the ridge. The ridge peaks at a little saddle. In the low point, I can see where the hogs apparently made a wallow in the last rain. That would have been almost a week prior. It's been dry since then, so I doubt they'll be returning to this particular spot. But looking down from this point, I can see into three separate canyons, each with several finger ridges jutting out. Most of the finger ridges have small meadows, and the red scars of digging are evident on all of them. I decide to take a stand here. If anything moves along this system, I should be able to see it from this peak.
Quail are calling all over the place, and as I make myself comfortable I wonder where they were a couple of weeks ago on the season closer, when I was here with shotgun and dog. Amazing how they can disappear and reappear like that. But not nearly as amazing as these wild pigs. One brief encounter with humans, and they suddenly become like ghosts. If the pressure isn't too great, they will become nocturnal, moving and feeding only well after dark. But it only takes a gunshot or too many tromping feet, and they will move to another area immediately.
Wild pigs aren't anything like the barnyard variety swine. Even though they are mostly direct descendants, they hardly fit the slothful stereotype. Even at a walk, wild pigs cover a lot of ground in a hurry. If you find yourself following a herd, you'd be hard pressed to keep up...much less catch up. If they break and run, they are startlingly fast. It's difficult to conceive of those little legs giving much speed, but that deception has probably saved more than one little piggy from the gun. The wild pigs also don't grow nearly as large as their farm raised counterparts. A real bruiser will generally top out under 300 pounds, while a nice "meat pig" will run about 150 pounds. Their smaller size probably accounts, at least in part, for their agility and speed.
They'll cover a lot of ground just in search of food and water as well. No lollygagging in the mudhole for them... at least not usually. But a love of mudholes is one trait they share with their cousins on the farm. Pigs don't sweat, and when the days warm up they need to cool off. One strategy for hunting success in the warmer months is to set up an ambush over or near isolated water. And in this cyclical desert environment, any water hole is pretty well isolated.
But this is February, and the winter rains have not quite shut down for the year. The hills are green and moist. This makes the ground soft, and hogs love to root the soft ground, seeking buried goodies like acorns and tubers. Some of the little oak meadows below me look as if someone has been running amock with a roto-tiller. Later in the spring, when the hills are turning golden-brown again, the pigs will move toward the valley where the creek flows and the barley fields will still be green. Some will loiter around the springs and seeps in the hills though. As with most desert game, water is the key.
The day is winding on, and lunchtime is drawing near. I take a sandwich from my pack and wolf it down. I had an early start and a late night, so I decide to lay back and nap for a little while. I make a pillow of my jacket, and recline to watch a golden eagle work the thermals along the ridge lines. He dodges and cuts, and suddenly he is passing below my perch, wings spread and unmoving. I sit up to watch him pass. How often do you get to look down on an eagle? He disappears, and soon his scream breaks the stillness of mid-day. With the exception of an occasional aircraft, there has been no human sound except my own. The rush of city life is left behind, at home, and I'm glad to be shed of it. I'll have to go back tonight, but this brief escape will balm my soul for days. Then it will be time to come back up here and recharge again.
I wake with a start. In my dream, six pigs were walking along the opposite ridgetop, about 200 yards away. The cobwebs clear, though, and I see that there is nothing moving anywhere around me. The sun is peaking overhead, and the direct rays are getting pretty hot. But the breeze keeps it bearable, and I decide to sit tight until sunset.
I swig down some water, and look around. So far, I haven't seen any manmade sign since I left the road. But even as I'm thinking about it, I see a spent rifle cartridge a few feet away. I pick it up, curious. It is stamped Stevens 25-25, an obscure round. I spend the next several minutes fantasizing about how this shell came to be here. In my mind's eye I see an old cowboy taking a break from pushing cattle, out to get dinner for camp. A wide-beamed blacktail buck steps out from behind a small oak, and the rifle cracks. One shot, one kill. The cowboy ties the deer over the saddle and heads back down the ridge.
Odds are good the cowboy wouldn't have been shooting at a wild pig, since they were really only introduced near the end of the 19th century when a fellow from North Carolina transplanted some Russian strain boar onto his property near Monterey. Soon after, some more were moved up to private ranches in Marin. While some feral hogs were probably around, they did not gain much notoriety until much later in time. Today, however, they are the second most popular game animal in California, and growing rapidly in population. They are currently hunted from around the Los Angeles area north almost to the Oregon border. They have spread eastward into the Sierra foothills as well. The Central Coast, where I am hunting now, remains the hotspot for hog hunters, though.
Even with their growing numbers, hunting wild pigs on public land is a difficult proposition, mainly for reasons already mentioned. They are very sensitive to hunting pressure, they have a keen sense of smell, and they tend to take shelter in very rugged terrain when they are pressured. For better odds, I know I should be looking into a hunt on private land, where the hunting pressure is more controlled and food may be more available. There are a ton of guides available in this area, although with prices running upwards of $300, that's certainly not a cheap weekend hunt. But success rates are certainly higher, and while hiring a guide on private land isn't a guarantee, it's a good way to put some pork chops and sausage in the freezer.
I've been day dreaming, and the sun is lowering into the western sky. It will soon drop behind the ridges, and sunset will come early to the canyons I am watching. A lot of pig hunters would still be walking right now, covering ground and scanning with binoculars in hopes of discovering a hog out in the open. It's a good technique, but seldom do you find a spot like this one where you can cover so much ground without moving a step. But as the shadows lengthen, nothing moves in them and I begin to second-guess my strategy. If the grass really is greener on the other side, maybe the pigs are over there eating that greenery. But what is more likely is that I pushed them when I came in and they're in hiding.
At any rate, I sit until sunset without seeing anything at all. I decide to head down before it gets completely dark. The trail was tough enough in the daylight. I move down into the canyon, pushing rabbits and quail, but no pigs. Not my day, I suppose. But reflecting on the sunrise, the peace and quiet, the daydreams, the golden eagle passing just below me with the sun glinting off his feathers... what more could I really have asked for?
This day has been wild.
By Phillip Loughlin