Hunters taking to the woods and swamps in search of wild hogs in the Sunshine State naturally look for signs that the tuskers are in the area. But are they getting the right message from what they find?
Many Florida hunters have done it at one time or another. The urge is irresistible. You’re driving down a wooded road when out of the corner of your eye you see the most promising of all hog sign – rooting. The rest is almost inevitable. You grab your tree stand and put it on a tree in the midst of all that disturbed ground. On that first hunt, your anticipation is higher than Bill Gates’ income taxes. Hour after hour you sit and wait, just knowing that with this much sign a porker will stick out his nose at any second. The hours extend to days before you give up on the spot. Finally headed home, you find that your cooler is empty and your spirits are now lower than the dirt those phantom pigs rooted through.
What went wrong? How could such a great setup have failed? Interpreting wild hog sign is more difficult than most people think, and it’s more complicated than parking a tree stand over a patch of rooting. While most hunters think they’re wallowing in hog sign when they come across a big area of rooting, the truth is that this sign often points to nothing more than where the pigs were yesterday. However, armed with a little information and the willingness to follow some basic steps, you can avoid hunts like this and bring home the bacon on a consistent basis.
HOG SIGN 101
In order to interpret hog sign, first you need to take a look at a few of the most important and often misunderstood examples. Many hunting enthusiasts have walked right by clues that could have made their hunt far more successful. Since many sportsmen in this state only have a limited number of days to bag their hog, it’s important to use that time wisely. Pre-season scouting is just as important as the two or three weekends spent on a stand. With that in mind, let’s start with the granddaddy of all hog sign.
Wild hog rooting is really nothing more than an area of earth dug up and tossed around by hungry porkers nosing and digging for food. Rooting can range from a small area not unlike what an armadillo would dig up to acres and acres of plowed-up earth, greatly resembling a tilled field. Occasionally a big rooter can make holes a couple of feet deep and incredibly wide.
Wild hogs are omnivores, their diet consisting of just about anything they can get in their mouths. The term rooting is very literal. It refers to the hogs digging down to eat the roots of various plants. Many of these plants have roots that are packed with nutrients and moisture. Earthworms, bugs, grubs and buried acorns are just a couple of examples of table fare a hog might run across while digging for roots. Any rooting is proof-positive sign that wild hogs have been there, but when they were there and if and when they’ll be back are questions left unanswered, at least for the moment.
Hog rooting is both good and bad. The good thing about hog rooting is that it shows wild hogs have been in the area, and they’re hungry. Other than that, rooting doesn’t always provide a Florida hunter with all the information needed to bag a hog.
Will Carter is an experienced central Florida hunting guide, and the man who taught me how to find tuskers under just about any conditions. Besides guiding for Horse Creek Hunting Club, he also happens to be my father.
“Wild hogs will at times travel a mile or more to root up an area in one feeding period,” he pointed out.
Therefore, just finding an area of rooting does not mean the hogs are bedded down or even living nearby. Since wild hogs most often feed under the cover of darkness, it’s possible that you could sit on a stand from dawn until dusk and not see a thing, only to return the following morning to discover the pigs had rooted right underneath your tree stand. Sooner or later, the moon phase changes or the hogs might simply linger in the area after daylight, but who has the time for that gamble? The odds are against it, especially in areas with a lot of hunting pressure. Even fresh hog rooting can often lead to a fruitless hunt.
Although many a hog has been taken right over rooting, it’s far better to use rooting areas as starting points for scouting than to set up shop over them. The only exception would be if you could actually watch the hogs feeding a day or two before the season opens, and pattern when and where they are likely to feed on opening day.
Interpreting hog rooting is the vital key and there are a few tips that can help with this chore. First of all, spend more than one day inspecting these areas. Check out the rooting and then make plans to return to the same area the next day. This accomplishes two things. First of all, you are able to tell if the rooters were back that evening to feed again. If more rooting doesn’t appear, the porkers may have moved onto greener pastures.
Second, if you do find more rooting, pay close attention to its location relative to the first sign you found. Hog rooting is not always random. This is important because wild hogs usually root on the edge of thick cover at first. Then they venture farther and farther away from that secure zone as food becomes scarcer and the hogs become more confident in the environment. This can provide a hint as to the direction from which the critters are approaching. If the pattern appears to provide such an indication, check the nearby swamps for bedding areas and trails leading from the cover.
Next, try to determine exactly what the porkers were searching for when they rooted up the ground. Do a bit of digging of your own around the rooting and see what is there. If there appears to be an abundance of food left, make a mental note to recheck that spot a couple of days later. If food is scarce in the area, the hogs may come back to finish the job near the site of the old rooting. Think of any hog rooting as one of many stops the pigs make in one feeding cycle.
The next of the basic hog signs are trails the tuskers use. Techniques used to locate, read and hunt over wild hog trails are very similar to that of deer hunting. Like white-tailed deer, wild hogs are creatures of habit and use the same paths several times per day unless something or someone spooks them into doing something different. Hunters trying to locate piney-rooter highways are best served to first locate feeding and bedding areas and then look for paths that offer cover and a quick escape route into thick woods or a swamp. Wild hogs often create and use paths only a few yards inside of a thicket, cypress head or swamp. Pre-season scouting should always include an investigation of these areas. In some cases walking these paths leads to the discovery of other, related hog signs.
As mentioned earlier, rooters use the same paths over and over again if nothing happens to change their pattern. It’s often possible to tell what direction they are traveling in and how often the trails are used. Scouting these trails is important the trails can give you an idea of where the pigs are going to and coming from. The only drawback is that with the very real possibility that miles of hog trails exist in your area, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly which trail is being used and at what time the trail is traversed.
By themselves, hog trails are nothing more than a shot in the dark. You may luck out once in a while, but to be successful on a consistent basis, look at hog trails as nothing more than just a series of road maps leading to bedding areas and other pieces of the puzzle. Just be sure to investigate the trails thoroughly, as you may need to follow these trails for quite some distance to find the pigs’ true hideouts.
Another of the signs is without a doubt one of the most important. Bedding areas for wild hogs can be the single best place to locate, pattern and ambush your prey. Florida wild hogs are at their most vulnerable when they’re near their place of respite. All a hunter has to do is find those spots.
Bedding areas can be difficult to find. They are usually located in the thickest spot within the pigs’ home range. The muddier the spot, the more it appeals to the rooter’s sense of home. There needs to be enough water for the hogs to be able to create an ideal wallow. A few trees or a fence post for rubbing is another desired attribute. When looking for this sign, think of the one place in your area that you would prefer not to enter. Then check for trails leading into that site.
Look for scat, tracks and even a little rooting along the way. If a couple of these signs are present, put on your boots and start trying to pinpoint where the animals sleep. But be careful, because if you spook them here you may ruin the hunt before it begins.
Wild hogs rub on trees or fence posts to relieve the occasional itch associated with living in the woods. They usually select trees within a couple of yards of their travel routes or around bedding areas. These signs are easily identifiable, because there is usually be a dark area where mud and dirt has been transferred to the tree. If a large number of pigs are using the area, these rubs will be very dark and caked with mud and hair, and the tree may even be damaged.
Pay special attention to this sign – it usually means that the hogs are relatively comfortable in this area. And that’s important, because if hogs are comfortable, then they are also vulnerable.
The next sign has many names: scat, dung, manure and several others not suitable for print. Anytime a hunter comes across a fresh sample of this hog sign, he had better scan the surroundings, perk up his ears and prepare for action. Although this hog sign is not as easy to find as a path or patch of rooting, it is one of the easiest to read. If it’s fresh, you’re in business. If not, you are probably a day late and hunting in the wrong area.
Hog dung is a sign that runs hot and cold – literally! Fresh warm dung is an obvious indication that wild hogs are close, and chances are they have just eaten or are in the process of feeding.
Before we try to fit all of the pieces together, it’s worth mentioning that this formula is designed for the average hunter who doesn’t have weeks and weeks in the woods to pattern the pigs. The more time available to you, the more patterning can be done using the terrain, available food and cover. Remember, nothing beats spending time in the woods, and the more time you spend out there the more you learn about patterning the hogs in your area.
Any time you pattern hogs, you are keying on two things – the hog’s need for security and water when bedding down, and the need to travel from that area to feeding sites. Start your scouting by looking for areas that have water and thick cover. Wild hogs may travel through dry areas to feed, but they prefer to bed down in areas with water.
Carefully check the entire area for signs such as hog trails, even very small patches of rooting, rubs, tracks and scat. If you find two or more of these signs, slow down and look carefully for the other indications. If hogs are present, most of these signs exist there. Use hog rooting, trails and scat to work your way back to the bedding areas.
In areas with a lot of thick cover, you’ll need to work harder. Investigate the areas of cover, but don’t just charge right into their bedroom. If you’ve done your homework, the pigs may be lying only yards from where you are. Always assume they are there until you have proven otherwise.
Particularly, don’t stand around upwind from the area in which you think the pigs might be hiding. Get downwind and carefully work your way into the cover.
Once you’re convinced the odds are good, back out and begin looking for places to put up a stand. For evening hunts, place your stand just inside of the cover. Make sure you’re not so far in as to obstruct your view of the open areas. It’s better to move just outside the cover if your line of sight is obstructed.
Plan to get to your stand at least three hours before dark. At some point before nightfall, your quarry should begin to stir. You are likely to hear them moving from the thick cover to the trails before eyeing them.
For early morning hunts, it’s a good idea to place a stand a little further inside the cover. The pigs often return from feeding in the cover of darkness, and they usually are nearly home by the time it’s light enough to shoot. Once they make it to cover, they may relax and even feed a little more just outside of their bedding area. Tree stands placed in cover near bedding areas give you the best opportunity to catch them during this time.
This formula also works for still-hunting hogs on the ground. Will Carter frequently takes hunters right up into wild hog bedding areas to bag their porkers. A stealthy approach and constant awareness of wind direction are mandatory for this technique.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of reading signs, it’s time to get out there and start scouting. Remember as you scout that hog sign can be very tricky. Don’t key in on just one aspect. Use all of the available clues and interpret the signs properly, and by the end of the hunt you can be heading home with dinner rather than the disappointment of another fruitless day in the woods.
WILD HOGS AS LEGAL GAME
In most of Florida, wild hogs are considered domestic livestock and are the property of the landowner upon whose land they occur. With landowner permission, there is no closed season, bag limit or size limit for wild hogs where they are considered domestic livestock. Wild hogs are legal game and may be taken only during specific seasons in most wildlife management areas. For more information concerning wild hogs as legal game, contact the nearest Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regional office. — Florida 2003-04 Hunting Handbook
Northwest Region — (850) 265-3677
North Central Region — (386) 758-0525
Northeast Region — (352) 732-1225
Southwest Region — (863) 648-3203
South Region — (561) 625-5122