Photo by Michael Skinner.
Late evening is the time for wild pigs to get serious about finding something to eat. Granted, wild hogs seldom turn down any opportunity for a meal, but late evening is the time for them to push their luck. If you play the wind right and know where to watch, you can see them come to openings in creek bottoms or the edge lines of big fields to forage. If you have a good stand setup, it can be the best time to take a big trophy boar.
That’s why I love it when a plan comes together. A late-evening hunt with Josh Airey, Bruce Ayers and Heath Rayfield in a hog-infested area of Chester County, and Ayer’s hog harvesting plan was coming together perfectly.
Airey and I were hidden in a big tower stand overlooking the edge of a big field, not far from the creek bottom. Ayers and Rayfield were perched in lock-on stands in a heavily used creek bottom where the hogs had been feeding voraciously.
Ayers and Airey are hog hunting fanatics and love to hunt the wild pigs year ’round. Rayfield is the Wildlife Resources Manager for the Buchanan Shoals Sportsman’s Preserve, and was the host for our hog hunt. Buchanan Shoals is a 5,000-acre tract of prime hunting land on the Great Pee Dee River. It is certainly a mecca for deer, turkey and quail hunters.
However, this evening, we were a few miles away on a tract of private land that literally was infested with wild pigs. We were hunting in Chesterfield County, just a little north of Chesterfield. Everyone figured the pigs would come in very late, as is their nature. However, on this day, movement started earlier than anticipated and a big black boar in the 250-pound class marched right across the field and started feeding 20 minutes before dark. He soon had another half-dozen big hogs feeding with him, along with a few smaller pigs, about 100 yards from our stand.
It’s the type of setup a hog hunter dreams about. There were several big pigs so engrossed in feeding they had no clue we were in their field. Airey and I were armed with a .270 with a Burris 4-16 power scope with a lighted reticle. The only thing that could go wrong would be not to shoot.
Airey and I are still not quite sure how that actually happened.
The plan was for Ayers and Rayfield to open fire first since they were in the woods where darkness creeps in earlier. However, they were at much closer range than us. We were to be ready to shoot as soon as they fired. I hate to admit it in one way, but with text messaging and silent cell phones, it’s really not a problem for hunters to communicate silently and coordinate a plan of attack. The problem was, because of the close quarters, the hogs Ayers and Rayfield had feeding on their bait busted them — the noses of hogs do more than find food; the sense of smell is the hog’s first and best means of avoiding danger. And hogs always believe their noses: If they smell danger, they do not wait to identify the source of the danger with their eyes and they don’t stand around with their heads cocked trying to listen for a confirmation of the danger — no, the hog will just run, and that’s what these pigs did. We waited for Ayers and Rayfield to shoot until it was too late for us to shoot.
“The Burris Lighted Reticle scope is the best low-light scope I’ve ever used, but regardless of what you have, there’s a point when it simply gets too late to safely to pull the trigger,” Airey said.
After regrouping and sharing our stories, we had to laugh at our complicated plan that did us in that evening. Heath Rayfield, however, devised a simple but more effective plan for the next evening.
“Tomorrow, the plan is Pig! BOOM!” Rayfield said.
No one argued with that plan. Knowing there were a bunch of hogs in that area, it sounded like the perfect plan.
Hog hunting in South Carolina seems to be on the increase and sportsmen like Ayers, Airey and Rayfield enjoy hunting hogs for several reasons.
“First and foremost for me, hog hunting has become one of my outdoor passions,” Bruce Ayers said. “There’s a lot of reasons and one is that wild pigs have a very keen sense of smell and pretty good hearing. They can be a challenge to successfully hunt in their own right.”
Ayers added that it’s also his way of preparing for deer hunting and other hunting seasons.
“Woodsmanship is the key to just about any hunting sport and hog hunting will hone and sharpen almost anyone’s skills,” he said. “Plus, while hunting hogs I am always on the lookout for deer sign. During January hog hunts, I can learn a lot about the late-season deer movements that I can apply to late-season deer hunting the following December.”
Rayfield said he uses hogs to hone bowhunting skills as well.
“I love bowhunting for deer and turkey, so hogs are just a natural complement to that,” Rayfield said. “You’ve got to get close and shoot well to take a hog. It’s great practice and I think that’s another reason some hunters enjoy hunting hogs, especially with a bow.”
Airey added that from an equipment standpoint, it enables him to ensure all of his “tools” for hunting are working properly.
“I like to hog hunt post- and pre-deer season for a variety of reasons,” Airey said. “First, I can ensure my scope is sighted-in right and get some good shooting practice under a live fire situation. It’s one thing to drive a nail with your rifle, so to speak, from a good bench rest. It’s another to make a well-placed shot on a pig from an awkward angle while contorted in a tree stand. In that way, it’s very similar to deer hunting.
“Plus, the other equipment I have gets used, too,” Airey said. “I get to play with the hearing enhancers, spotting scopes, binoculars, rangefinders and other tools of the hunting trade.”
The data compiled by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) backs up the concept that hog hunting is on the increase. As part of the overall survey for the annual Deer Harvest Report, they also have data on wild hog harvest.
Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Coordinator for the SCDNR, noted there was a significant increase in the hog harvest from 2005 to 2006.
“During 2006, an estimated 26,843 wild hogs were harv
ested by deer hunters in South Carolina,” Ruth said. “That’s a 15.8 percent increase from 2005 when 23,166 hogs were harvested. Evidence of the presence of hogs in 42 of 46 counties was made by hunter harvest activities versus 38 of 46 counties in 2005.
“The top five counties for wild hog harvest per unit area were Sumter (4.51 hogs per square mile), Allendale (4.29 hogs per square mile), Calhoun (4.27 hogs per square mile), Richland (4.03 hogs per square mile) and Darlington (3.80 hogs per square mile),” Ruth said. “With respect to the river drainage system, top counties for wild hog harvest per unit area include Allendale, Hampton and Jasper in the lower Savannah River drainage and Calhoun, Richland and Sumter counties in the Congaree/ Wateree drainage.”
According to Ruth, this data comes from the 2006 Deer Hunter Survey, which also asked hunters to provide information on their wild hog harvesting activities.
“Documenting the harvest of this species has been difficult to accomplish in South Carolina,” Ruth said. “However, both wild hogs and coyotes are commonly taken incidental to deer hunting. On one hand, wild or feral hogs are often thought of as ‘game’ and there is a certain amount of sport associated with harvesting hogs. Wild hogs provide quality meat for the hunter and mature hogs can make a highly sought-after ‘trophy’.”
Ruth also noted that the down side to wild hogs is they directly compete with native species like deer and wild turkeys for habitat and food. Plus, he noted, hogs can do significant damage to the habitat and agriculture production through their rooting activities. He added that legislation passed during the 2005 session of the South Carolina General Assembly prohibits the release of hogs in the state.
While much of the prime hog hunting in South Carolina is on private lands, there are plenty of opportunities for hunting on public land as well. There are a significant number of wildlife management areas (WMAs) in the state that offer wild hog hunting. While too numerous to name them all here, plus different regulations and opportunities at different WMAs, you can look in the SCDNR rules and regulations for specific WMAs that offer hog hunting.
The top counties noted above by Ruth are loaded with hogs, some with greater than 10 animals per square mile around the major river drainages. However, there are few places in the state that don’t have some hogs in the neighborhood. Keying on where to specifically find and hunt wild hogs, especially in this cold weather time of year, is the specialty of hunters like Ayers and Airey.
“Some hunters will chuckle when I say this, but pigs are going to be wherever you find them,” Ayers said. “Let me expound on that a bit. In any given area, there are probably several different foraging patterns a wild pig may be using at any given time to find food. It depends on many natural conditions, such as weather, location of water, types of food sources and also the external impact of hunting pressure.”
On a large tract of land with a diversity of terrain, they may be using a specific area one week, but something very different the next, Ayers said.
“But there are some common denominators we key on for hog hunting success,” Ayers said. “One, pigs and water are going to be close together. An ideal spot is one where a river or creek has been high and the water is receding back into the channel. The areas that are still wet where the water has recently been standing are great attractants for wild hogs. These areas are full of worms and grubs they can root and easily get to.
“Another thing to look for is an area with a lot of blown-down timber that’s rotting,” Ayers said. “Decaying timber is full of forage opportunities for pigs. Also, leftover mast crops that have been covered by leaves are great natural places to look. These places are usually bypassed by deer and squirrels, but hogs will root them out. Fresh rooting is the sign you’re seeking here as well.”
Airey noted that natural food is at a premium during midwinter for most animals, and hogs are certainly no exception.
“They have food they can survive on, but this is probably the easiest time of the year to bait them in to corn, which is legal for hogs,” Airey said. “We like to find an area where they’re already using, then use the corn to funnel them to the exact place we want them to go.”
Airey said even though they are really tuned in to bait at this time of year, they still don’t get too careless. Proper planning is still the key to success.
“Just as with deer hunting, you’ve got to play the wind just right to be successful. The sense of smell is their number one ally and if they get wind of a human, they’ll just stay put and not feed. Or they won’t walk out until you’re long gone for the evening.”
Another highly interesting concept Airey and Ayers are working on is the use of scents for wild hogs.
“Tinks is coming out with hog scents in 2008 and we’re field testing them right now,” Airey said. “We’ve got ‘Sow in Heat’ hog urine and ‘Dominate Hog’ urine. We’ve not had the opportunity to test the products much before now, but it’s showing some real promise. While using the scent, we’ve had some hogs come out into the open earlier than we’d normally expect. Plus, we know it doesn’t disturb them from eating when it’s placed around bait.”
Ayers added it seems logical that hog scents will work, at least to some degree.
“With hogs having such an excellent sense of smell, it’s only logical it will have an effect,” Ayers said. “I know if we play the wind wrong and they smell us, the game is over. But if they get the scent of other hogs, it should have a positive impact for the hunter. This is something that’s got us pumped up to learn how they will react to the scents.”
Both Ayers and Airey also like to stalk hunt for the pigs during the winter months.
“The cold, wet time of the year is the ideal time to stalk hunt pigs,” Airey said. “Not a lot of hunters seem to try this, but it is a great sport and one that will certainly help you improve your woodsmanship skills.”
Ayers added that he begins a stalk in an area that’s full of fresh hog sign.
“It’s easy to see when you’re in a good area, there’s fresh rooting and tracks everywhere you look. I like to hunt areas that are in the major drainages of the larger river bottoms. It’s good to start out knowing there are a lot of hogs in the area. If I can determine the basic route through the river bottom the hogs are working, I’ll stalk with the wind in my favor. That way, when I do see a hog, or usually a group of hogs, I have the opportunity to slip in close for a good shot. Many times, you can simply use the natural cover and terrain in the area to hide your movements and you can get in close for a 40- to 60-yard shot.”