Where The Wild Pigs Are

Drought has hit the hog population in California. How does that affect your chances at bagging a boar? Biologists and guides are optimistic about 2008. (January 2008).

Photo by John Higley.

It was just about sundown on a spring day that was imitating summer in a big way. The brushy foothills were desert-dry. The previously lush grass of spring was already bleached like straw.

"Well," I told myself. "You wanted to try warm-weather wild pig hunting again . . . and your wish certainly came true!"

Conditions for hog hunting were not ideal. But I can't say that I was surprised.

Long-time friend Ben Myhre, of Wildlife West, warned me in advance that the drought-like conditions would make things tough. Right or wrong, however, my motto has always been to go hunting when the opportunity presents itself, even if conditions aren't perfect.

My son Mark and son-in-law Robert Feamster were hunting with Myhre on a 3,500-acre ranch east of King City in southeast Monterey County. Normally, the habitat -- with stock ponds, cover and plenty of food -- would be ideal for hogs. But now, due to those parched conditions, the feed was dwindling fast.

On his winter hunts, Myhre's hunters scored nearly 100 percent success rates, but since then the situation had plainly changed. Fresh sign indicated that on the land we had access to, only a skeleton crew of pigs remained.

To make the best use of our limited time, Myhre decided we should watch three different areas where he figured the pigs would show on their way to water or food.

In late afternoon, Mark was directed to a spot where he could see several finger ridges and draws. I was stationed on a hillside overlooking a series of trails leading to a small pond. Meanwhile, Myhre took Feamster to another location about a mile away, where they could look down on a valley and a series of brushy draws leading to a large stock pond.

While Mark and I were preoccupied with watching, we heard a distant shot. It turns out that Feamster and Myhre had spotted a small herd of mature hogs coming to water about 600 yards from their post. The sun was setting, and it would be their only chance. They made the most of it by closing the gap in a hurry.

Huffing and puffing over the last hill, the hunters caught up with the herd just before shooting light was gone. Myhre pointed out a hefty black pig separated from the group.

Feamster made a good 140-yard offhand shot with his .270 Winchester Model 70. It was his very first wild pig -- a large, surprisingly fat sow that weighed around 200 pounds on the hoof. That's an exceptional wild hog in any man's woods.

While it's hard for me to believe, I've been hunting wild hogs in California for 47 years. There are hunters with more pig-hunting experience than I have, but I've shot a fair number, and guided hunters to kills as well. Somehow, I've never grown tired of talking about the pigs, hunting them, or just watching them do what they do.

I suppose there are several reasons. First, of course, hunting wild pigs is fun, and the meat they provide is delicious. Hog hunting can also be exciting because there's an element of danger when dealing with these gnarly critters. While I've never been in dire trouble myself, I've learned to respect pigs. Toothy boars, especially, can get nasty when cornered or wounded. I've known more than one hunter who let his guard down at the wrong time and paid the price in some nasty gashes.

Another bonus is that wild pigs can be hunted all year 'round. Also, there's no bag limit -- which is certainly part of their growing appeal. In an era when deer tags are often limited by low quotas, you can always get a pig tag . . . or several.

This year, resident tags cost $17.85 while non-residents pay $59.50, in addition to hunting license fees.

The total number of tags sold annually is usually more than 40,000, including several hundred non-resident permits.

The latest available tally of the tags returned by successful hunters to the California Department of Fish and Game showed that the total reported take from July 2005 through June 2006 was 5,453. That's considerably higher than the same period for 2004-05, when the reported take was 4,106.

As usual, more than 90 percent of all the pigs killed by hunters came from private land. The state's Central Coast region produced more than 60 percent of the harvest, which is 7 percent better than the 2004-05 period.

The San Joaquin Valley and Southern Sierra region accounted for around 21 percent of the total, up 2 percent from the previous year.

Though wild pigs are now found in 56 of the state's 58 counties, there are a few counties where zero hogs are taken and others where fewer than a dozen are killed. However, there are at least nine counties where more than 200 wild pigs are tagged every year. The best of the best is Monterey County where 1,327 hogs were harvested in 2005-06.

Other counties of note are Tehama with 302 hogs, Lake with 296, Mendocino with 285, San Benito with 402; Santa Clara with 217, Sonoma with 369; San Luis Obispo with 314 and Kern with 759.

It's obvious that the best pig hunting occurs on private land, which explains the popularity of guided hunts. There are some state and federal lands where pig hunting is feasible, should you want to try it on your own. However, the effort involved is considerable and the percentage of success is quite small.

That said, many public areas are listed in the DFG's free Guide To Hunting Wild Pigs in California. You can check it out for yourself at dfg.ca.gov/publications/pigguide.pdfOr to get a printed copy, call (916) 653-2225.

STATE OF THE HUNT
To get a handle on things around the state, California Game & Fish interviewed several guides, outfitters and outdoor writers. Here's what the experts have to say about hunting opportunities this year.

DFG Senior Biologist Doug Updike keeps track of wild pig statistics for the state.

"No one knows for sure how many wild hogs there are throughout the state," he said. "But at their highest population level, there may be anywhere from 400,000 to a million."

He said the drought conditions of 2007 were hard on wild hogs, and in some regions,

the vital precipitation-produced forage was down sharply.

"However, I haven't heard of any major declines yet," Updike said. "In some places, they've certainly been hurt to some degree. But it's a temporary setback. Wild hogs are so resilient, they can come back in no time."

He expects there to be plenty of hogs around, even though numbers might be down from previous years.

CENTRAL COAST

Brady Daniels of Cal Quest Outfitters painted a fairly bright picture for his hunting area, which includes property in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Like everyone else, he noted the lack of rainfall, but said that there are plenty of other water sources in his area for the pigs to utilize.

"I saw a few stressed hogs early on, Daniels said. "And I suspect there have been some losses, but that kind of stuff was spotty. A lot of our pigs have access to agricultural crops, so I think we're still in pretty good shape."

He also noted that his group takes only around 80 hogs a year, and they try not to put too much pressure on them in any one area.

"About 95 percent of our hunting is spot-and-stalk," Daniels said, "and that doesn't bother them much."

A little farther north Doug Roth, of Camp 5 Outfitters, agreed with Daniels' assessment.

"We've experienced a little decline," he said. "But we aren't having a lot of trouble filling hunters' tags as yet. Last summer, our crops were just dismal due to lack of rain. But there was some leftover grain in the fields for the pigs to forage on, and that helped a lot."

Wild hogs aren't having any trouble getting water in his neck of the woods, and the acorn crop was good.

Roth said, "We expect to take around 200 of the critters this season, which is about normal for us."

TEJON RANCH, KERN COUNTY

Surprisingly, Kern County in Southern California has the second-highest wild pig harvest.

And that's mainly due to a variety of hog hunting programs on the sprawling Tejon Ranch, which covers an astounding 270,000 acres. The Tejon produces between 700 and 1,000 hogs annually.

Don Geivet, wildlife manager for the Tejon, had these observations about pig hunting on the ranch, which generally starts in December and goes through June:

"Our take during the 2006-07 time period was down slightly from the year before, but we expect to take more this coming season.

"There were plenty of hogs around when we stopped hunting in June, and we expect carryover to be very good. Unlike some areas, we had timely rainfall last spring, and the acorn crop -- a little spotty perhaps -- was sufficient."

Outdoor writer Jim Matthews, publisher of the California Hog Hunter newsletter, has heard a variety of reports, some of which indicate significant population loss.

"Pigs don't really care how hot it is," he said. "As long as they've got water, enough feed and sufficient cover, they'll thrive and have huge litters."

In places where something is lacking, however, their numbers can fall as quickly as they can grow.

"It's my gut feeling that things are going to be tougher for a while," Matthews said, "especially in some places on the Central Coast that are away from the coastal influence and where there isn't much forage left."

TEHAMA COUNTY

Farther north, mixed reports came out of Tehama County.

Clint Arrowsmith of Arrowhead Outfitters, with whom I hunted a couple years ago, noted a definite decrease on one of the properties he has access to.

"There was practically no rainfall," he said. "A lot of the sows I saw with decent litters on one ranch last spring seem to have lost most of their babies. However, I've got another place where hog numbers have held up very well, so it all depends on what's available to them in a particular area."

The pigs that made it through will have plenty of acorns this year, he said. And healthy sows can have two litters a year, so the population can increase rapidly,

A year ago last August, I hunted hogs on the Red Bank Ranch in western Tehama County with guide Bobby Hassel. To me, it was an unusual hunt because we waited in a blind for the hogs to come to us, rather than chase them down some other way. The attraction was water -- specifically, a wallow where the hogs came for a mud bath nearly every evening.

Seeing 30 to 40 hogs at once is never a dull experience, and picking out the right one to shoot takes a cool head. Somehow, I stayed calm long enough to collect a fine meat animal.

Hassel does not expect conditions to hurt the population there.

"On this place, we've got nine never-go-dry ponds, and it's shaping up to be a pretty good year for acorns and manzanita berries. That's nothing but good news for the pigs."

Hassel said that when he was hunting last spring, he was astounded at the number of little pigs with the sows.

Red Bank Ranch hunts from January through April, and they expect to take 40 or so hogs again this season.

Another glimmer of hope came from Multiple Use Managers' Gordy Long who oversees hog hunting on the Dye Creek Preserve in eastern Tehama County. Once known as the premier wild pig destination in northern California, Dye Creek hog hunts were suspended for a time due to a decline in the population. According to Long, pig numbers are rebounding enough to allow limited hunting.

"We had the worst acorn crop ever last year. But this year, there are plenty," he said of the 2007 season. "So the sows should be in good shape, and their litters should be large. It could be that things are finally looking up."

To sum it all up, there may be fewer hogs in some areas, especially where there's marginal habitat on public land. But the condition is only temporary. Thanks to the available mast in 2007, and given a little more rainfall, pig numbers should increase in a hurry.

I don't know about you, but I've always liked cool-weather hog hunting. And one of the best times for that is right about now.

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