Tejon Ranch Hog Hunt- Pig O Rama!
After my first Tejon Ranch Pig O Rama in 2002, I was completely hooked. How could I not be? The Tejon Ranch, the largest contiguous landowner in California, opens a huge chunk of property to the participants. The property is incredibly beautiful and diverse. There are tons of pigs. And this time, I would be joined by about 30 of my virtual friends from Jesse's Hunting and Outdoors web forum (JHO).
Last year I was joined on the hunt by my brother, Scott, from North Carolina. We were both successful after an awesome weekend of hunting. Scott couldn't join me this year, so I was happy to know I'd have some friends at the event.
The weather this year was a different story as well. My 2002 hunt took place at the end of May, and the weather was dry and warm. This year's hunt occurred in March, and as we found, the California Spring weather can get messy, quick. I prepared as best I could, and for the most part I was ready when the rains came in. However, the roads at Tejon can get very treacherous once they get good and wet. 4 wheel drive is mandatory, and aggressive tires, chains, and a winch are handy to have as well. My truck was not completely geared up for the conditions, and a big part of the adventure hinged around that fact. It's kind of another story, though. More on that in a moment.
Here's my Tejon sow. 178lbs dressed weight, makes her my biggest pig yet.
Friday - 03/14/03 - An Auspicious Beginning
I rolled out of the San Francisco Bay Area for the 5 1/2 hour drive around 0630 on Friday morning. The skies were clear when I stopped for breakfast two hours later. Weather reports had been calling for a storm system to move into the Bay Area on Friday. The storm should be impacting the Tejon Ranch, about 300 miles south, by late in the day on Saturday. The beautiful morning belied the weather ahead, though, and my spirits were pretty high.
Hunting at the Pig O Rama officially begins at noon on Friday, so I figured I would have time to get in, make camp, and get out for the evening hunt without much problem. In a rare occurrence, my plan actually came to fruition, and I was checked in and waiting at the gate at 1200 sharp.
As I drove into the South Side camping area, I spotted a familiar face waving to me across the clearing. My friend Scott (grtwythunter from Jesse's Forum), had already made camp, so I pulled in beside him. Scott was along last year, and helped my brother and I retrieve our hogs. I was looking forward to meeting up with him again. He's a great guy to hunt with, and his laid back attitude matches my own. We had chatted some before the hunt and decided to hunt close together on this trip. I tossed my camp together, and Scott followed me up the road to the area where we'd all scored our hogs last year.
Instead of starting on the same ridge where we'd hunted before, we decided to head to the eastern side of the canyon. A finger ridge runs down the middle of the canyon, jutting right into a thick bedding area. Scott chose to hike out onto that ridge, while I worked along the top of the eastern ridge of the canyon. As I moved down the ridge, I noticed movement on the mountainside to my east. I raised the binoculars, and made out a large sow with several piglets meandering up the hillside. Just below them I spotted two more medium sized pigs. They weren't running, but they were heading uphill steadily, and I knew I'd never be able to close the distance and make a shot on them. I decided to see what else the evening had to show. After all, it's only the first day.
As daylight faded, I spotted a lone boar feeding on the opposite hillside about 500-600 yards away. I was carrying my grandfather's old BAR in .308, and decided there was no way I could close to the 200 yard range I'd set as my max with this rifle. I watched as he browsed for a while, and finally disappeared under the chaparral. A few moments later, three or four medium sized pigs trotted across another clearing in the same area. I hoped Scott saw them, and would have a shot, but the anticipated rifleshot never happened.
Darkness was accelerated by thickening clouds, and by the time I got back to the truck it was already full dark and Scott was already back at his truck. He hadn't seen anything, but he was glad to hear that I had. We planned to return to this area in the morning.
We rolled back to camp without incident. The "mares' tails" clouds I had been watching before dark were thickening, and a breeze was popping the tarps around the campsites when we arrived. Weather was on the way.
After a heavy dinner of pork chili, I cruised down to the end of the camping area to meet up with some of the other JHOers. It was great to put faces with the names (and handles) from the web forum, and we gathered around the campfire, sipped our favorite beverages, and generally got to know each other.
During this time I met Chris (Dilxpro). Like Russ last year, Chris had come out in a two wheel drive pickup, and was limited in the areas he could access. I offered to let him ride with me, if he wanted to meet me early. He agreed, and I had met and made a new friend.
At about 2200, I felt a drop of water hit my face. Across the firepit, someone else wiped his forehead and glanced upward. Within about 10 minutes, a steady drizzle had begun. A couple of guys went to retrieve rain gear, while the rest of us sat tight. The night wasn't too cold, and the drizzle was light. By 2300, though, the drizzle had turned to a shower and it was getting uncomfortable. The wind was bringing a chill, and I decided it was time to turn in.
Saturday Morning - 03/15/03 - The Weather Turns Against Us
I had set my alarm for 0430, but at around 0330 I was awakened by the sharp snapping of the tarps in the camping area. I peered out into the gloom to verify that my own tarp was holding fast, but several camps had lost theirs, and the area was a chaos of flapping plastic and canvas. I tried to snuggle down for another hour's sleep, but it wasn't to be. I gave up at 0415, turned off the alarm, and stepped out into at least 40 knot winds and a driving, cold rain.
I set a pot of coffee to boil, and began checking the tie-downs on my tarp and poles. Everything seemed secure as it could be. Chris strolled in, and we made a plan to join up as soon as I had talked with Scott about what our plan would be for the day. With this wind, I had doubts we'd be seeing any hogs at first light, so the rush to get out into the field wasn't as pressing.
I dug out my polar fleece and snuggled into the warm, dryness. This stuff has served me well for over 10 years of hard hunting, and I was glad I'd brought it along. Scott dragged himself out, and we discussed the options. With the rain, the road up to the ridges we'd been hunting could be pretty ugly. However, the rain was still light, and the dirt around the campground wasn't especially saturated. We decided to go for it.
The coffee never boiled, so I popped open a can of Red Bull, and drove over to Chris's campsite to collect him. I never considered that most of my food (granola bars, pop tarts, jerky, etc.) was in a tent in camp instead of in the truck. I hadn't eaten anything, but the excitement of the wind and the hunt made me forget about food.
The road wasn't too bad at all, and we cruised up easily and parked at the foot of the ridge. Scott chose to go back into the finger ridge where he'd been. Due to the foul weather, I had put away the inherited Browning, and switched to my Savage 110 in 30-06. As usual, I was also carrying my Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 mag in a hip holster on my fanny pack.
I walked with Chris along the road parallel to my ridge until the road began to fork away. Chris went on along the road, while I climbed the ridge and found a position up top. I told Chris we'd probably try to meet back at the vehicles in about 3 hours.
At the peak of the ridge I was fully exposed to the incoming storm. Winds exceeded 50 knots, and streamers of fog mingled with rain showers whipping across the ridge tops. I found a windbreak under a big oak and began to glass the hillsides to my west. With every break in the rain, I would move further along the ridge, then duck under another oak tree when the squalls came blowing through. I was fairly comfortable, but the hogs weren't showing at all.
At about 0830, I'd had enough. The wind was simply too strong, and I knew that no prey animal was going to be out and about in that kind of gale. I was also starting to worry about the road out. Some serious showers had come through, and the ground was now saturated. As I topped the ridge, I saw fresh hog scat. I followed the trail, finding more and more fresh scat as I went. These hogs must have passed through here while I was down the hill glassing. I'd been looking the wrong way!
The trail led over the ridge to the east side. This side was protected from the wind and rain, and the ground was ripped up with fresh rooting. I stood looking at all the sign, kicking myself for being in the wrong place in the morning, when I noticed movement about 20 yards away. A big, black pig was looking at me from a trail under the branches of an oak. I eased the .44 out of its holster, but then saw that the pig was a sow with a bunch of piglets. She grunted at me once, then trotted off the way she had come... babies in tow.
As they disappeared, I caught another movement to my left. Two hogs were standing in the thicket, looking right at me. I wheeled, mentally checking for piglets, and tried to get a good sight picture. For a brief second, I thought I had a window through the brush and pulled the trigger. At the blast, all hell broke loose and pigs ran through the cover and down the hill. Among those running away was the one I'd been aiming at.
I went down to the spot where they'd been rooting and found where my bullet had hit the ground.. apparently passing under the hog's belly. There was no sign of blood or hair, but I followed the tracks down into the thickest stuff I've ever crawled through. There were plenty of tracks and scat, but no sign of blood or downed animal. Convinced I'd missed clean, I crawled and dragged myself back to the ridge top and headed back to the trucks.
Scott and Chris were waiting for me there. They'd heard me shoot, but weren't sure where I was. I told them about the miss, and we discussed what to do next. I was hesitant to head down, because I was seriously concerned about the likelihood of getting back up here. But all my food was down there, and I was starving. Chris and Scott felt the same way, so we decided to chance it and go get lunch.
Truck Trouble -
We hit the road, and at the very first big curve I got my first taste of trouble. As we made the turn onto the Tunis Ridge road we had to go past a water trough. The ground was trampled by cattle, and the mud was like grease. I lost traction and straightened the curve. Fortunately, the ground was flat and I kept it on the road reasonably well.
We topped the ridge, slipped and slid down the hill, and finally spotted the paved road less than 200 yards below. One stretch, about 100 yards of banked curve stood between me and comfort. With the truck in granny gear, I eased ahead. A deep rut lined the downhill side of the road, and I felt that if I could keep my downhill tires in that rut, I'd be OK.
The road canted hard to the downhill side, and as soon as I hit this section I felt the back end of the truck start to go. I turned against the slide, and tried to drive the front wheels toward the hillside, but no go. I let off the gas, and fought the impulse to stomp the brake. The truck skidded a few more feet and stopped.
After a moment to get my breath, I looked out the window to assess the situation. On the drivers' side, the hill dropped immediately at the edge of the road, starting with about a 60 degree angle, then steepening further. The dirt was clay and black muck, and I knew that if the truck got into that it would be all over. My tires were about three or four inches from the edge. If they went over, the truck would slide sideways and most likely roll over. Unless it fetched against a tree, it would probably roll over and over all the way to the pavement. Not a pleasant thought.
I looked at Chris, and wondered if he was having second thoughts about accepting my offer of a ride last night. The look on his face said enough. If not for the tension of the moment, his look would probably have been pretty funny. Fact is, I probably had a pretty goofy look on my face right about then as well.
I got out, and hooked my winch to an oak tree on the uphill side. With this anchor, I was able to pull the truck back onto the road. I got the wheels back into the rut, and considered my next move. Scott was behind me, and he wouldn't have enough traction to pull me back up the hill. The only way was down.
I eased the truck back into low range and tapped the gas. One foot, then two, then a yard... suddenly I felt the back end let go again. I let off the gas as the truck drifted to the edge. I held my breath, waiting for it to go over, but it held up just as it seemed it was all over.
I dug the seat covers out of my butt, and looked out the window. Looking down, the hillside dropped away directly under my door. I was afraid to open the door, for fear of tipping the truck over the edge, but it seemed reasonably secure. I got out and took stock. By extending my winch cable almost all the way out, I was able to reach a tree about 100 feet downhill, but on the uphill side of the road.
I made the connection and started to pull. Scott and Chris's shouts warned me just in time. As the truck moved forward, the rear end slid even closer to the edge of the road. Another inch and it would have gone over, slamming into a tree like a four ton pendulum.
When my heart stopped thudding, we decided to try to use a hi-lift jack and a snatch strap to pull the back end back onto the road. Scott dug out all his equipment and we hooked it all up. Unfortunately, it was another no-go. I was stuck, but good. Take a look on this page to see the situation.
Finally, Scott was able to get us some help on his cell phone, and a couple of friends were able to get up with their Jeep and another winch to get me out of my spot. At this point I had not eaten anything but a granola bar all day, but it was almost 1500.
Meanwhile, while we were waiting for the Jeep to find its way to us, I spotted hogs on a ridge about a half mile away. After watching them mill about and bed down, I suggested to Chris that he see if he could get close enough for a shot. He weighed the options and decided, why not?
I watched his progress as he crossed a canyon, climbed a ridge, and finally worked to within a few hundred yards. As he reached the ridge top, something startled the hogs and they broke out of cover at a trot. Chris tried two offhand shots, but missed both times. Scott and I watched through binoculars, hoping to see one of the hogs falter and fall, but they showed no sign of being hit and ran out of sight over a distant ridge.
Chris began to hike back, unaware that several of the other JHO guys had parked below on the pavement to watch the show me and my truck were putting on. I suggested over the radio that he head down to the road, an easier hike, and catch a ride with one of the other guys. As he disappeared into a ravine, I heard a single shot. Chris's voice came back on the radio. "I got one. It's here in this creekbed, about 200 yards from the road."
I cheered for him. At least one of us would take some pork home out of this adventure. But now he was stuck. I couldn't get down to help him, and wasn't even sure what would be the easiest way to get back to the road. I told him to try to get out to the JHO guys and get them to help him out. I lost contact with him after that, as the Jeep arrived to get me pulled out.
Saturday Evening - 03/15/03 - The Kill!
Back at the top of the hill, I had a decision to make. I hadn't heard from Chris, and wasn't sure if he'd been able to get any of the guys to help him. But at the same time I knew it would take me a while to get down. I saw that Jesse's (the JHO founder) truck was still at the bottom of the hill, so I figured he must have gone to help Chris. Still, as Scott and I turned our trucks back up the ridge, I was a little worried.
But not too worried. As we glassed the hillsides from the ridgetop, Scott and I decided to go ahead and make the best of the last couple of hours of daylight. We headed back to the area we'd been hunting and humped back into our favorite spots to hunt until dark.
The rain came back in, mixed with some wet snowflakes and a heavy fog. I saw several hogs, again on the wrong side of the canyon. A couple of guys were road hunting over there, but from the roads you can't see the hillsides right under your feet. They had no idea that, less than 100 yards away, five or six hogs were rooting the hillside.
I was beginning to think seriously about heading out to see if Chris was waiting for me beside the road somewhere. Just then, a shot rang through the canyon. Scott! I waited to hear him whistle or call for help, but heard nothing. I glassed furiously, looking for movement or anything, but I couldn't spot him. Still, only one shot usually means a kill. He must have a pig down.
As I turned to go back up the ridge toward Scott's trail, my radio crackled. Chris's voice came through, telling me he had caught a ride and was heading back to camp. Well, that was one load off my mind. But I had a feeling Scott had a pig down in that nasty stuff, so I started working my way out to see if I could help. As I did, I decided to peek down into the area where I'd missed that pig in the morning.
The fog drifted ghostly, drifting and tangling through the oak branches on the dying wind. Rain dripped from the overhanging branches, to fall soundlessly on the saturated grass. The clammy night was closing in, and there was an eerie stillness on the lee side of the ridge. I looked at my watch... 1730. Still over an hour of shoot time left, but darkness wouldn't wait. I took another step, then spotted movement in a bowl below. I shook my head, unable to believe what I saw.
At a range of about 60 yards, a lone hog was rooting in the bottom of the bowl. A moment later two more hogs came out, but stayed mostly out of my line of sight in a thicket. I unshouldered my rifle, unwilling to chance it with the pistol again. I took my time and sat down, getting a good rest. Earlier, one of the list members had suggested using a neck shot on hogs for an instant kill without much meat loss. I centered the crosshairs between the hog's ear and forward shoulder, then squeezed off my shot. By the time I recovered from the recoil, the hog was on her back with her feet up in the air, kicking feebly. I laid the crosshairs on her throat and put another round in to stop the kicking.
I slipped and slid down the hill as two hogs ran up to the downed sow. They each sniffed at her, then bolted into the thicket. As I reached the bottom of the hill, a boar stepped out facing me about fifteen yards away. I drew the .44, unsure what to expect. This was a healthy boar, and I could see the tusks protruding from his jaws. I realized he was popping those jaws at me, then he stomped his foot.
I leveled the pistol and prepared to shoot. On these hunts, you're only supposed to take one pig, but I felt like this might be a good time for an exception. I wasn't about to let this sucker charge me... not after all I'd already been through this day. I thumbed the hammer back, and even as I made the decision to shoot, he turned and trotted stiffly into the thicket. I held the pistol on the dark tunnel of brush for a moment, until I realized that I had forgotten to breathe for a while.
Finally, I eased the hammer back down and went to tend to my pig. I poked at her with a stick and nearly jumped out of my skin as her back feet kicked. I know it was probably just her reflexes, however; after nearly being castrated by a "dead" deer several years ago, I take no chances with downed game. My nerves were totally on edge at this point anyway. I put a .44 round in her ear to make double-sure before I started the field dressing process.
As I worked two hogs ambled by, probably less than 25 yards away. The wind was in my face, and they both apparently hadn't the slightest idea I was around as they wandered up onto the ridgetop and out of sight. A few moments later, I was startled by the sudden squealing and grunting of several pigs in the thicket a few yards behind me. I kept the .44 close by as I finished the work.
The field dressing done, I tried to drag her back toward the ridgetop. This was by far my biggest pig, and dragging her was a nightmare. I made about 20 yards, and gave up. I'd need to go get help. That thought reminded me that I'd been going to help Scott drag his pig. It was going to be a long night!
I climbed out of the bowl and started trudging back toward the trucks. I was hoping to see a flashlight (or two) coming toward me, but the hope was subdued by the memory of that single shot from Scott's position. Oh well, at least we were both done. Once we got the hogs loaded and got back to camp, we wouldn't have to deal with the muddy roads or rain any more for the weekend. I looked forward to kicking back at the fireside with a strong drink or three, then sleeping in on Sunday morning.
As I neared the end of the ridge, I DID see a light coming toward me. It was Scott. I yelled to him, as he asked about my shots. "Yes, I got a pig," I shouted, "did you?"
Turns out that he missed! A selfish sigh of relief slipped out as I stowed my gear in the truck. At least we'd only be dragging one pig tonight.
An old road went up the ridge from where we were parked, so I thought maybe we could get Scott's truck up there, then use ropes and horsepower to drag my pig out. No such luck though. The clay and dirt were too slick, and even with aggressive tires, Scott's truck couldn't get up the hill. We'd have to do it the old-fashioned way.
To cut the monotony short, it took us until 2200 to get the pig off of the ridge and onto the truck... four and a half hours after shooting her.
At this point, the evening should have been essentially over. But we still had to get down off of the mountain. Scott and I had both received conflicting directions on how to get back to the paved road. We finally made a decision, and of course it was the wrong one. After about three hours of slipping, sliding, and heart-stopping tension, we pulled back into camp at around 0130. The weather, not content to nearly wreck my hunt AND my truck, had managed to completely thrash my campsite. My tarps were blown to bits, the tent I'd stored my extra gear in was flooded, and my camp tables and kitchen were blown all over the place. It looked like a family of rabid bears had stormed through.
I was too tired to get upset, though. I cleaned up a little, hung my pig from a tree behind the truck, had a beer and a sandwich, and fell exhausted into my sleeping bag.
Sunday - 03/16/03 - An Epilogue, sort of...
As I settled in to sleep around 0200, all I could think was how nice it was that I could sleep late. I imagined waking with the warm, morning sun streaming in my windows, well-rested and smiling. I would stretch, have a nice breakfast, and skin and butcher my pig before heading home at a reasonable hour.
Reality had other plans. At 0430 the first trucks fired up their engines. Doors slammed and voices called, as the hunters who had yet to score headed out for their last ditch hunts. Just as I was tuning this noise out, the cab light in my truck flared on. I popped up, startled. Who the hell was getting in my truck? Then I remembered that yesterday, Chris had left his pistol in the passenger seat. He must be retrieving it now.
I settled back in and tried to get back to sleep, but now I had to use the bathroom. I pushed it from my mind, and managed another hour or so of fitful sleep. I finally gave up and clambered out into the chill of 0630. I stumbled around for a little while, until I got it together enough to brew a pot of coffee and prepare some breakfast. That made me feel a lot better, and I loaded up my pig and took her down to weigh in.
She hit the scales, field dressed, at 178 pounds. That would put her live weight somewhere in the vicinity of 210-220 pounds. Not a bad pig.
A couple of beers and some sweat equity later, I had her disassembled and stowed in my cooler. I broke camp, loaded the truck, and was looking at the ride home. After a few minutes yapping with the JHOers who were still around, I hit the highway for home... tired, satisfied, and full of adventure.
Sometimes I'm amazed at the things we call "fun".
By Phillip Loughlin