CA Pig Hunting
Ever since I arrived in California in 1996, I've been excited about the opportunity to hunt wild boar. With a year-round season and a population growing explosively, I was primed and ready.
Well, life has a way of changing directions on you, and with one thing and another I was not able to get serious about pig hunting until nearly five years later. I began seriously studying pig habits and habitat, devouring any magazines or books I could find that would help me along. One of the best books I found was Bob Robb's Hunting Wild Boar in California. California Hog Hunter magazine has also been useful, although a bit pricey ($20 per year) for what is essentially a quarterly newsletter. You can contact Jim Matthews, California Hog Hunter editor by email at email@example.com.
Anyway, after all my studying and scoping for places to hunt wild boar, two things became very apparent. First of all, to find public land that held a decent number of pigs was no mean feat. The majority of successful pig hunting takes place on private ranches. More on this in a few moments. Second of all, once you find that public land, taking a pig off of it will require some serious labor. Unlike the lazy, domestic version, wild hogs live in some extremely rough country and move into the really harsh stuff at the first sign of hunting pressure. Getting to them meant hiking way off the beaten path.
Finding the public land was my first taste of success. A little research on the web turned up the Bureau of Land Management website, complete with maps and descriptions of habitat available at all of their locations. The website also provides you with information about the likelihood of taking hogs or other game from the site. The California Department of Fish and Game also prints a free booklet about hunting hogs, which includes places where you can hunt them on public land.
During a quail hunt in January, I stumbled across a small BLM holding that showed some signs of hogs rooting. Hog rooting, for those who've never seen it, looks like someone has been working the ground with a roto-tiller. I poked around the area some more, then planned to come back later in the winter, after all the other hunting seasons had closed.
When I returned to the mountain in February, the small plots of sign I had seen earlier had grown incredibly. My heart raced as I set up over an acre or more of fresh sign on the first evening. I was certain the pigs would be crawling all over the small stand of oaks, and wallowing in the sweet spring that bubbled up from a rocky hollow.
By the end of the second day, without seeing so much as a hog whisker, I began to appreciate just how smart these creatures are. They have a superior sense of smell, and hogs will either become completely nocturnal or simply pack it in and disappear when they smell human tresspassers. In the canyon where I'd set up, the wind swirled constantly, making stand selection nearly impossible.
It did not take a lot of this kind of frustration before I began to listen to the "regulars" when they said the only way to get a hog is to hire a guide and go on private land. I resisted the idea, both because of the expense ($300 and up) and because I couldn't see paying a guide to help me shoot a "pest" animal. But a hunter from one of the message boards I frequent helped me get perspective. For the money (gas, food, occasional lodging) and time I spent trying to find a hog on public land, I could hunt with a guide who would almost guarantee a pig.
This was on my mind when I attended the San Mateo Sportsmen's Exposition, and I spoke with several guides. My "special" hunting partner, Kat was with me. She had never had much interest in pig hunting because of the rough terrain and low odds. Hunting with a guide who would provide transportation for our game AND for us if necessary sounded good to her. The good odds would also help her confidence as a hunter, since her only other experiences had been deer hunting with no success. After talking to most of the guides, I decided we would hunt with an outfitter whose guide uses dogs. His hunts had been 100% for the last several years, and I figured it'd be a great opportunity to make sure Kat and I both came home with pork. Besides, I had hunted whitetails in front of hounds in the past, and thought Kat would enjoy the thrill of a good chase.
The deposit done, the date set, all we had to do was wait.
I decided to use my .50 caliber muzzleloader for the hunt, since the outfitter told us we'd be shooting at close range. I carried my little 9mm Browning as a sidearm, mainly for a coup de grace, should one be necessary. Kat only had her scoped 270, which is a bit much for shooting over hounds. I offered the use of my 30-30 Winchester, but she was eager to take some kind of big game with her own gun.
We showed up for the hunt in fairly high confidence. The weather had been wet, but was looking nice for the morning. Pig sign would be easy to find, and my past experience with hounds told me that scent would be close to the ground. I should have left my past experience behind.
After signing the papers and watching the sun ease up over the ridges, we headed out into the yard. The guide told us that the roads were too sloppy from the rain to take the truck, so we'd hunt out on foot, supported by a four-wheeler. So much for Kat's ideas of luxury.
Then he let the dogs out. Instead of the pack of beagles, walkers, and blue ticks that I expected, he had a bunch of dogs that looked more like guard dogs. I think he said they were black mouthed curs or something, but it's a breed I never heard of. These are sight hounds, and will catch the pigs themselves if permitted. The guide said if the dogs caught one we didn't want, he'd let us take it as an extra. I wasn't sure what to make of this offer... until later.
We set off across the pastures, heading toward a creek bottom. The sunrise over the ranch was spectacular. This is some of the most uniquely beautiful country I've ever hunted, and the morning we were having was making the most of it with a light fog accenting the blossoming sunlight. I spotted deer on several hilltops, and the calls of quail echoed across the canyons. As it turns out, this was probably the best part of the hunt.
Cut to the chase. We had covered some ground and picked up some sign. The dogs found pigs, but were too far away for us to catch up with them. One of the guides went ahead, but arrived as the pigs were evacuating the countryside. Over hill and down canyon we hiked in pursuit.
Finally, the dogs struck again. This time Ed, the guide took Kat on the four-wheeler and boogied out to catch them. I followed on foot with his two assistants. We were talking about past hunting experiences when we noticed three pigs running in our direction, about 300 yards out. We set up, anticipating their crossing a small patch of open ground between some oaks. The pigs showed, but were a little deeper in the woods than I'd expected. I raised the muzzleloader, but couldn't get a good enough shot. I was certain I'd have a better opportunity later, so I held my fire as the pigs disappeared into the thicket. This is one of those choices you spend the next days regretting and second-guessing.
A few moments later, I heard Kat's shot. No more shots followed, and I cheered inwardly, certain she had taken her hog. Ed called for the assistants on the radio, and we went to pick up the kill.
As we followed the guide and his help back down the hill, she gave me the story. When they got off the ATV, they heard the pigs across a draw and up on the ridge. Ed told Kat to follow, then hustled off to keep the dogs from ripping the pig to shreds (or being ripped to shreds themselves, if it turned out to be a big boar). Kat was already worn out from traipsing across the rugged terrain all morning, and was nearly breathless when she topped the ridge looking for Ed. She found him literally sitting on the pig. He told her to put the rifle behind its ear and shoot. She did, and she had pork.
I could tell she was disappointed at the way the kill played out, and I couldn't blame her. After all the hours she's put in at the range, and all the anticipation of what her first big game kill would be like, this was very anti-climactic. But at least she had her pig. It was now time to take mine.
We released the dogs again not too far from where I had seen the three pigs earlier. In only a moment or so, we heard them strike. The chase was on. I'm a pretty healthy hiker, and I have covered lots of up and down territory. But keeping up with Ed and his assistant was taking its toll. When we heard the dogs bay, the two guys kicked in afterburners and nearly left me behind.
When I caught up, I saw the assistant had one shoulder holding a pig to the ground, and was shoving the dogs away with the other arm. I moved in and decided right away not to use the muzzleloader at that range. I set it down and started to draw the pistol. "No, you don't need to shoot her," the guide said. "Just stab her."
My skinning knife isn't made for stabbing, so the assistant lent me his K-Bar fighting knife. I found the hollow under the shoulder and plunged the blade in, twisting it to feel for heart muscle. The arterial blood started to gush, and I knew I'd killed the sow, but she was still squealing pitiably. I couldn't stand it, so I put the 9mm in her ear and finished her.
As the rush of the chase wore off, I felt a disappointment creeping up. I had just killed a wild animal that someone was holding down for me. The let-down sank in more as Ed and his helpers loaded my sow on the ATV and began hauling the two pigs to the skinning shed. Kat and I walked behind, letting them get further and further away while we talked about the experience.
We both decided that this would be our last hunt using dogs. While we had a great time, and were treated very well by our guides, the climax just didn't work for either of us. If someone knew what they were getting into with this kind of hunt, I would certainly recommend our guide to them. He knows his business, and he got us our pigs. But neither of us feels that we really "hunted" anything. We just killed a couple of pigs... slaughtered them, really.
The next weekend found me back in my canyon, following pig tracks and hoping for a major dose of luck. This is the way I want to hunt, the hard way. Of course, maybe that's easy to say with a freezer full of pork to come home to.
|A postscript to this tale: Let no one convince you that there is any such thing as immunity to poison oak or poison ivy. After a lifetime of crashing through acres of these plants without so much as an itch or a bump, this pig hunt left my left arm swollen like a sausage and blistered from elbow to fingertip. The blisters spread across other parts of my body as well. It was purely miserable. As I read on the Poison Oak website, there are two kinds of people when it comes to poison oak. . . . those who are susceptible, and those who will be.|
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