Like so many other deer stands across the Deep South, this stand in southern Georgia overlooked a massive power line right-of-way, 200 yards across, God knows how many miles long, heavy pine forest on both sides. Mature pine forest provides awesome security and bedding cover, but the forest floor is pretty sterile, so animals come out to feed naturally…and, with strategic food plots and feeders, they tend to come out a bit more…but not exactly on command.
It had been a quiet evening for deer movement with just a few does up the way and one spike, but suddenly a big sounder of hogs filed out of the woods about 200 yards away. I’d seen this group the night before from another stand a half-mile up the power line. A couple of big boars had joined them, one from either treeline, so I’d asked for this stand just in case they came back the next evening. It was a big group, lots of sows and piglets…but no boars. No matter, I instantly switched from deer hunting to pig control duties. I waited as long as I could, hoping to see one of the boars, but as dark approached I grabbed the rifle. I dropped the biggest hog, a big spotted sow, and then got lucky and rolled another as they reached the treeline. I had done my duty!
I was hunting on my buddy Zack Aultman’s pine plantation, a great place for whitetails that I’m fortunate to hunt every now and then. A decade ago, there were pigs, but I never saw one and, although the rule on hogs has always been “shoot on sight,” in those days I don’t think the pig harvest much exceeded the deer harvest. In the last two years, the annual pig harvest has exceeded 1,200 pigs, much more than ten times the deer harvest.
This is a microcosm of what appears to be happening around much of the country. Feral hogs are extremely prolific, with a sow averaging three litters in two years. Like so many estimates of wildlife populations this may be low—pigs aren’t easy to count—but a current estimate suggests nine million feral hogs in the United States. A more accurate figure, based on harder data such as insurance claims, is that feral hogs are now doing two billion dollars annually in agricultural and related problems. By comparison, there may be 35 million whitetail deer, a couple million mule deer, and something over a million each elk, black bears, and possibly moose and caribou. This makes the non-native feral hog our second-most populous big game animal…by a huge margin.
The longest-established populations are in California, Texas and the Deep South. Origins are always unclear, but some pigs in California and Florida probably date back to Spanish seafarers who released pigs and sometimes sheep and goats so passing ships might find a ready meat source. Overall, a great many stem from early homesteaders and farmers who allowed swine to roam free, with many turning feral and continuing to breed. Most of these populations have been known for years. In western North Carolina and adjacent Tennessee, for instance, it’s known that the pigs got started when a hunting preserve on Hooper’s Bald dropped its fences in about 1916. At about the same time, William Randolph Hearst introduced pigs onto his Central Coast property in California. Both of those releases were pure European wild stock, which is a strong gene pool that, when mixed with feral domestic stock, quickly changes the hogs’ appearance.
The rapid and sudden spread and population increase of feral hogs in recent years is harder to explain. Obviously, they are prolific. They’re also nocturnal and crafty, and in much of the country, subjected to limited predation. But, geez, although breeding populations are certainly not established everywhere, feral hogs have been positively sighted in all 48 Continental states. They are widespread in Hawaii, and are also found across much of southern Canada.
Sometimes their presence is a closely kept local secret, but I’ve heard about pigs turning up in odd places. For instance, there is now a population in Alberta’s Peace River country, which is very far north and removed from other known populations. I don’t yet have them on my place in southeastern Kansas, but pigs have been spotted (and shot) within ten miles…so it seems inevitable that they’ll be along soon.
This leads to interesting discussion. Although not in the plague proportions they are now, feral hogs have been well distributed in Texas for a generation…but when I was a kid I never heard about feral hogs in Oklahoma. Today they are found in every county and are working their way up into Kansas. Here in Kansas, where they aren’t welcome, the theory is that enterprising folks “jump-started” their spread by turning them loose here and there, just possibly so that a huntable population could be generated. If true, it worked; there are now a number of guides and outfitters offering Oklahoma hog hunts! Not wanting folks to have an incentive to propagate pigs, Kansas took an opposite approach: Landowners (and their agents) can shoot on sight…but no one else can. This may change in time, because they’re already here…and they’re going to spread.
Wild hogs are destructive (two billion dollars annually). They are also not native, so the long-term effects of burgeoning pig populations on native species, both plant and animal, are not entirely known. And let’s not overlook the sociological aspect: Wild hogs are not cute and cuddly, and the damage they do to crops, fences, and forests (by rooting) are documented. With 35 million deer creating America’s greatest road hazard even the most rabid anti-hunters have a hard time making a case against deer hunting. They have an easier time building a case against hunting cute and cuddly bears, cougars and wolves…especially since the meat is often not consumed. It is almost impossible to argue against hog hunting: They are already overpopulated and proliferating, they do not belong here, and they are destructive. While the short-term damage is easily documented, the long-term effects of too many pigs can only be guessed.
But I love them, because they create hunting opportunity. Make no mistake, they are having an impact on American hunting culture, and it’s growing. Ask my friend “Pigman” Brian Quaca how important pig hunting is to him! Or talk to Leupold about their Hog scope with Pig Plex reticle, or Winchester about their Razorback XT ammo. Hornady has just responded with their “Pigman Approved” Full Boar line of ammo. It reminds me of the 1970s, when the whitetail cult developed as whitetail populations exploded, and an entire industry emerged providing products for whitetail hunters. There are pig calls and pig scents…but to my knowledge no one is trying pig decoys quite yet!
Years ago, when I was a junior editor in Los Angeles, my colleagues and I would make trips up to the Central Coast in the middle of the night to hunt hogs on public land. We’d drive most of the night, hunt all day and then make the long drive back to the city. More often than not, we were successful, which means that somebody got a pig. Since we would be packing it out of horrible country, it was a group hunt: No matter who shot, the hunt ended when we had all the pork we could carry!
For a time I worked for a famous hunter, and I will never forget asking him to join one of our totally insane forays into pig country. “No thanks,” he said, visibly sneering, “I’m not much of a pig hunter,” clearly implying that this was an extremely low form of life. Totally abashed, I made my way back to my cubicle…but I went pig hunting that weekend feeling no shame.
My sense is the stigma of being a “pig hunter” was always limited, and is diminishing. Hunters must hunt. Wild hogs are exciting to hunt, and the low cost and lack of seasonality transcends the majesty of the animal hunted. I moved to California’s Central Coast more than 20 years ago. Then it was the heart of California’s pig hunting, and it’s still good. Friends from Safari Club chapters in southern California and the Bay Area come here throughout the year for weekend hunts. Sure, these guys are sheep hunters and African hunters and seekers of unicorns…but they’re perfectly happy to be pig hunters now and again!
Both of my daughters are hunters, and both came to that realization at about 16. I started them both on feral hogs. Wisdom is pure afterthought. After years of wanting nothing to do with it, in the weirdness of teenage they suddenly asked if they could go hunting. Seasonality, accessibility and affordability were such that hogs provided the obvious answer. Now I recognize the pure brilliance of that decision, which I pass on to you. Hogs are not cute and cuddly. They are beneath the radar of the Bambi syndrome. The heartbreak of seeking and not finding a legal buck…or any buck is avoided. They are all tasty, and a meat sow is tastier than a nasty old boar. As a Dad or mentor, start your kids as pig hunters, and they’ll be hooked forever.
After 15 years as an editor in Los Angeles, part of the reason I moved to the Central Coast was because of the hog hunting. They provided me with a year-’round laboratory for testing guns, optics and ammo under real field conditions, and I am grateful to them. But understand, that was always serious hunting. As declared game animals, our pigs were always wary, and it was and is a real hunt. Now we need tags, but there is still no bag limit. Even so, I can only recall a couple of times when I took more than one pig in a day. Overpopulation was never a serious issue; numbers are controlled more by periodic drought than hunting. This is a good thing, because since pigs are game animals California hunters are held to higher standards: Shooting hours, methods of take, caliber minimums, no baiting and the list goes on. Today, after an infamous long-term drought, we still have good pig hunting…but nothing like it was 20 years ago when, on a spring morning, we could stand on a ridge and watch hundreds of pigs moving out of the barley fields in the valleys below.
Elsewhere in the country, where feral hogs are not awarded the special status of game animals and are a genuine and spreading nuisance, things are different. In many areas, night hunting for hogs is legal…and is often done with emerging night-vision technology. There has been little outcry from even the most outspoken anti-hunters. It isn’t just that they’re pigs and elicit less sympathy than some species; on an increasing basis they are being recognized as a true menace, not just to farmers but to native fauna and flora. Yes, they are, but they’re here to stay…and despite all the problems they cause, in many areas they are offering increased hunting opportunity. For that, I love them!–Craig Boddington