Open for Oinkers – Hunting Hogs South of the Border
By Gary Lewis
We were climbing a steep gravel ranch road in Charlie's Toyota when we saw it, as big as a full-grown bear and on a dead run. Charlie hit the brakes and switched off the engine. There was no time to load the rifle. The shaggy, gray boar had disappeared into the chemise brush, 200 yards away.
"Listen," Charlie whispered. I heard it, that snorting, wheezing, guttural grunting a sounder of hogs makes on the feed. Trouble was we wouldn't see that bunch again until evening. They'd moved into the tall brush for the day.
The Spanish brought the first domestic pigs to California in the 16th century. Hogs were easily managed and bred fast enough to provide a ready source of meat for their masters. Every large group of Europeans arriving from the Old Country brought more. Herds were allowed to graze in the oak uplands. Escapees soon reverted to the wild.
In the early 1900s, several landowners brought in small herds of wild-strain European hogs. These razorbacks lost little time mixing with the resident swine. Today, their descendants can be hunted from the vicinity of Palm Springs in southern California to the Siskiyous on the Oregon border.
I'd wanted to hunt wild boar in California for several years. In 1998 I joined Wilderness Unlimited, a club that allows access to ranches in both Oregon and California. But until last fall, I hadn't taken advantage of the hog hunts.
As the first morning wore on, I walked a closed road and circled a large hog-backed hill. A lone boar crested a knife-edge ridge 500 yards away. Too far for a shot. A few minutes later, I spotted a 2x3 blacktail buck feeding toward me. Behind him was a magnificent buck. There were no more pigs to be found, though there was sign everywhere I looked.
When I rejoined my partner, he said he'd spotted a herd of a dozen sows and piglets not too far from camp. Wrong place at the wrong time. But tomorrow was a new day. And I knew right where I wanted to be, watching that canyon, with my Winchester Model 70 7mm WSM across my lap.
Instead of driving the road in the morning, I walked up as dawn's first rays lit the sky. Every few steps, I stopped, raised the binoculars and peered through the oaks, listening. From my vantage point one-third of the way up the hill, I heard a pig in the canyon below, but couldn't spot it.
Then my radio crackled. It was Charlie. "Turn around and look up the hill behind you," he said. "They've just crossed the road and are running through the trees, a whole herd of sows. Probably twenty of them."
As I turned, I heard the thunder of hooves on the hillside and saw black shadows in the trees. I scrambled up the slope and focused on a spot ahead of where I'd seen them last. If I figured right, they'd appear in a window in the oaks. I steadied my rifle against a tree.
The first hog into the open was a big sow. The rest were a blur of black bodies, flashing single-file through the trunks of the oaks that grew thicker than cloves on a Christmas ham.
With my crosshairs bracketed one-third of the way up the body on the biggest animals, I waited for a good shot. A dozen pigs passed, then two small oinkers flashed into and out of sight. The next was bigger, its nose now in view. My brain told my trigger finger, 'Now!' The rifle bucked and a 160-grain Nosler AccuBond found its mark 85 yards up the hill. Five more pigs rumbled by, then all was quiet.
I found the pig ten yards farther on, a 110-pound sow, probably six months old, packing plenty of lean, organic pork loin and chops.
These aren't your average agricultural oinkers. Adult wild hogs tip the scales between 100 and 200 pounds. Boars can reach 375. Most European/feral crosses have a coat of long, coarse, dark hair. Boars grow wicked tusks and are not the kind of critters you'd like to run into on a narrow trail.
They feed mainly at night. At dawn, they head for the deepest, darkest cover they can find.
They eat everything from acorns to alfalfa, to rattlesnakes and bird eggs. And they multiply. Starting at six months old, a sow can produce piglets at the rate of two litters per year.
California deals with them as best they can. There is no limit. You need a hunting license ($115.75 for non-residents) and a tag ($53.30 for non-residents). And you need all your hunting skill.
Spot and Stalk
I call it sneaking and peeking. If you've got a good vantage point, a spotting scope can help you locate hogs, but often, binoculars are all you'll need. You can watch from one vantage point or move from hill to hill. Your best bet will be in the first hour and the last hour of the day. Generally, the herd will bed down for the day, but may get up to move around a little at noon.
Unlike deer, feeding swine don't stay in one place very long. If you spot animals a long way out, watch them long enough to get an idea where they're headed. Then meet them there.
If you're hunting as a party, it's often better to split up to cover more ground. But hunting should be conducted in a low-impact manner. Stay on roads and established trails, and out of bedding areas. Spook the herd and they're likely to leave the area or go nocturnal.
Hogs aren't hard to spot. Binoculars should be worn on a shoulder strap or around the neck for easy access. When you crest a hill, go easy. Take a few steps, then glass the habitat that has just opened up to view.
Hogs aren't known for superior visual acuity, but too often hunters don't give a hog's eyes much credit. As much as possible, use the terrain and the cover of the trees to get in close enough for a shot.
Wind direction is the biggest consideration. Let them smell you and those hogs will be heading for cover in a hurry. Better to constantly check the way the breeze is blowing and plan your hunt and your stalks to keep the wind in your face.
Hogs are creatures of habit. The same trails are used day after day, season after season, dependent on the food sources. In ranchland, you'll see dozens of broad trails leading from bedding areas to feeding areas. You'll find coarse black hair on the barbs of a fence and deep split-toed tracks at watering areas. Choose a stand where you can keep track of two or more trails at once.
In periods between rains, you can scout for fresh wallows. Such places will be visited by hogs at least once a day. A word of warning: bag your boar before he's all covered with fresh mud.
Guns and Loads
Each year, rifle hunters bag their hogs with everything from the 223 up to the 45-70. Handgunners have bagged boars with the 38 Special and 357 Magnum on up to the 454 Casull and beyond. But many of the lighter calibers are marginal performers at best.
The wild boar is not easy to kill. It has a tough shoulder hide called a shield that protects it from thorns. Your bullet must penetrate this armor and retain enough energy to destroy the heart or lungs.
Most shots taken will be between 30 and 100 yards, but in open country, you may have the opportunity to kill a pig at 200 yards or more. For this reason, as a minimum I'd pick something along the lines of a 260 Remington or a 270 Winchester, a flat shooting round with a well-constructed bullet that will pass all the way through.
Many shots have to be taken on the run. A well-balanced rifle can help you get on target fast. Keep your scope dialed down to 3x for quick acquisition of the target.
Often the hog won't drop at the first shot. You want a blood trail and the bigger the hole, the better. That's why many hunters choose a 30 caliber like the 308 or the 30-06 while handgun hunters prefer the 44 Magnum.
Bringing Home the Bacon
Like other wild game, hogs carry ticks and fleas. These creepy crawlers will be looking for a new home once the pig assumes room temperature. Don't let it be you.
It's a good idea to wear rubber gloves. Many hogs carry brucellosis or other diseases. Most aren't fatal to humans, but why take a chance? If you have a nick or a cut on your hand and the hog's blood mixes with yours, you could catch undulant fever or something worse.
It's best to gut and skin a hog on the spot. Bring a rope and a block and tackle to lift the animal up off the ground.
However you prepare it, wild pork is outstanding table fare. Lean and natural, it is healthier than domestic pork. Bacon, pork chops, loin and ham are just some of the cuts you can get from it. A wild hog in the cooler can also be turned into hot dogs, summer sausage, pepperoni or breakfast links.
Now that most other big game seasons have closed, set your sights on Oregon's oinkers or hunt California's open-season hogs south of the border.