If a wild boar is on your wish list for 2004, these experts will help guide you to the best opportunities from this winter through next fall.
Quick now: What’s the most popular big game in California? Deer, you say?
Okay, so that wasn’t quite so tough. But what’s the second most popular big game in the state?
Even if you have the right answer – wild hogs – you may not know just how close pigs are to overtaking deer as our No. 1 big-game animal.
Wild hogs, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, are now found in 56 of the state’s 58 counties. It is estimated that upwards of 40,000 hunters pursue wild pigs annually, and during the 1990s the average annual take was about 30,000 pigs, a figure extraordinarily close to the average number of deer bagged in the Golden State each season.
As for the pigs we hunt, most are feral domestic hogs that actually started showing up in the state with the first settlers and explorers in the 1700s. At that time pigs were allowed to roam freely in search of food; many strayed and became feral in the process. More domestic hogs went wild over the years, and in the 1920s wild boars from Europe were released in Monterey County. Everything afterward is a biological blur, with the bloodlines of feral and European pigs mixing several times. Today a number of strains of feral pigs still resemble domestic-strain lineage while others display European characteristics.
All wild pigs, and especially bigger boars, can be fierce at times. Just about to a hunter, everyone seemingly has a story to tell about being scared by a wild hog, and some hunters have been badly injured by wounded, cornered or just plain ornery hogs.
Of course, the dangers of hunting hogs are minimal at best if the pigs are shown proper respect, but it is an element as to why they are so exciting to hunt. Another reason for their pursuit is the quality of the meat they provide which, with few exceptions, is wonderful.
What clinches the deal for many avid hunters is the fact that you can pursue wild hogs in any month of the year in California. There is no closed season and no bag limit. Whether you hunt pigs in January or July, all you need is a hunting license, an inexpensive book of pig tags from the DFG, the desire, the time and a place to go.
As for where to hunt, about 95 percent of the wild hogs harvested here each year are taken on private land. That’s not surprising because pigs that experience heavy hunting pressure on public ground are easily pushed toward more user-friendly surroundings. As one northern California guide noted: “Where wild pigs can exist for any length of time on public land the terrain is usually so rugged and brushy that most hunters simply won’t go there. Those that do normally have a devil of a time finding the pigs.”
In central California another guide added, “In my opinion most public land doesn’t support many pigs year ’round because the food base is poor, at least part of the time. It’s not like foothill ranch and farm country where making a living is generally easier and hunting pressure is relatively light.”
Certainly there are exceptions and some public land hunters are quite satisfied with their situation. However, given the odds for success, the idea that public land hunts are much less expensive than guided hunts on private holdings is usually overly optimistic. As one hunter said recently, “I spent the money and took the time to go on a dozen public land pig hunts before I ever saw a wild hog. Luckily I got that one but I didn’t get another pig until I started hunting on private ranches.”
It doesn’t take many public land hunts for a hunter to figure out that the cost of a guided hunt on private land – a few hundred dollars – is a relative bargain. Odds of success on private land are generally better than 90 percent.
Understandably, some hunters would rather do everything for themselves, and that being the case, they’ll look high and low for a piece of public ground that actually holds a few hogs. One way to start the search is to obtain a copy of a DFG booklet, Guide To Hunting Wild Pigs In California, which lists several potential pig spots along with contact information.
No matter where you hunt, though, it’s one thing to tramp around in the woods and quite another to actually locate pigs. Recently, California Game & Fish consulted with several professional hog guides to get their ideas on pig behavior under a variety of weather conditions throughout the year. Also discussed was the importance of different types of pig sign, your clue that pigs are in the area, and what it takes, once sign is found, to hunt the animals effectively.
Finding pig sign is like finding deer sign but with a couple of twists. Like deer, pigs leave plenty of tracks behind and they are most evident on well-used trails and around water sources. Regularly used pig trails commonly follow the contours of canyons, enter thick brush, lead to underpasses at fence lines and go straight up and over hills rather than angling like cattle and deer. Pig tracks are more rounded and blunt than deer tracks so they are fairly easy to recognize.
Unlike deer, hogs also give themselves away by rooting up the soil like hairy front-tine rototillers while searching for bulbs, acorns, mushrooms, earthworms and such.
John Drew of Shasta Outfitters, who guides pig hunters in Tehama County, noted the importance of sign even on the private land where he hunts. “I like to spot hogs from a distance and stalk them,” Drew said. “It’s a very effective way to hunt, but sometimes they just aren’t where you expect them to be. That’s when I start looking for fresh tracks and rootings. Once I know where the pigs are, I can usually figure out how to get a hunter on them.”
Pigs also leave behind wallows, tree rubs, beds and droppings. Their droppings vary in size and shape according to their diet but they are elongated and clumpy rather than in pellet form like deer scat. Their wallows are generally found in wet areas near springs or on the edges of ponds, and since a muddy pig is a cool pig, they are most evident during warm weather. It’s often possible to find mud rubs on nearby trees where the pigs scratch themselves. Of course, the height of a rub gives you an idea as to the size of the animal that made it.
Pigs often have several favored bedding spots in a particular area and they will use them repeatedly until they vacate the location naturally or are scared out by hunting pressure. In any event, knowing where the pigs regularly hide out can make the bacon on an otherwise fruitless day. I’ve seen pigs bedded in the open but most often their beds are in protective cover such as, but not restricted to, thick brush, blackberry vines or a dense cluster of oaks.
CHECK THE WEATHER
Weather, of course, affects the behavior of all big game including pigs, and hunters have to adjust to each situation. For example, pigs have poor eyesight but good hearing and a terrific sense of smell. The direction of the breeze, however slight, is always a critical factor in the outcome of a hunt. I’ve seen pigs vacate a canyon a quarter mile ahead of a hunter (me!) when a fickle breeze swirled a bit and alerted their noses.
“If there’s any breeze at all you’ve got to hunt against it and pray it doesn’t change directions while you’re in the middle of a stalk,” said Gordy Long of the Dye Creek Preserve in Tehama County. “On our place we go into our east/west canyons from the bottom on the south slope if there’s a north wind and the top on the north side in a south wind. If we didn’t we’d hardly ever see a pig in those canyons.”
Wind is one thing; cold winter rain is another. Occasionally the pigs will simply hole up for the duration but there are times when they’ll be out as well. It’s all so confusing, but here’s the opinion of some guides.
“If it’s misting, keep on hunting,” says John Drew. “But if it’s a hard rain, go home and put your feet up. One of my favorite times to hunt is just when a three-day storm is clearing up. The pigs will be out everywhere looking for grub!”
“Over here we hunt during the rain unless it’s really bad,” said Jim Schaafsma of Arrow Five Outfitters in southern Trinity County. “When it’s nasty, and we’re pressed for time, we go right to the pig hotels and kick them out. The key is in knowing where they hide, of course, and not everyone has that luxury especially on unfamiliar public land.
“As for spot-and-stalk, I’ve found that around here the pigs won’t be out on a cold, wet morning until the temperature rises a bit. Then they’ll come out to feed where we can see them.”
I remember one damp, chilly morning in Tehama County when guide Mike Ballew and I spotted steam rising from the entrance of a low-slung cave – meaning there was a pile of pigs inside keeping warm. Rifle in hand, I stood on an outcropping above the cave while Mike went around to the front, chucked a rock inside, and jumped back as fast as he could. Amid grunts and squeals the pigs boiled out, knocking Mike off his feet, and the whole bunch was gone in a flash.
“Why didn’t you shoot?” Mike scolded, when the last hog disappeared around a brushy bend.
“It all happened too fast, you were in the way, and I was laughing too hard,” I replied.
HUNT EARLY, HUNT LATE
Heat is definitely a factor in late spring and summer hog hunting. The rule on a spot-and-stalk hunt is to get out early and be in position before the sun peeks over the eastern ridges. Then, in the afternoon hunt until the last shooting light in the evening. There are exceptions, certainly, but pigs that are hunted a lot or just uncomfortable in the heat will often head for daytime hiding places long before the first rays of sunlight reach the canyon sides.
“In summer you’ve got to work with the days you get,” said long-time pig guide Eldon Bergman, who plies his trade in San Luis Obispo County. “If it’s going to be a hundred degrees I’ll hunt early and late and take a siesta during the middle of the day. Even if you try to push them the pigs won’t cooperate if it’s too hot – they don’t want to leave the canyons and get in the sun. But if it’s cool I’ll keep at it all day long.”
Last summer I went on a hot-weather hunt with John Drew when the pigs didn’t cooperate for most of the day. We found sign, but the live bodies were definitely in short supply. Toward the end of the day Drew announced that he had just one last place to try. Because of the heat we’d searched for animals around water with no luck, but there was one isolated stock pond tucked away in the back of a draw that we hadn’t gotten to before.
“I’ve found wallows there before,” Drew said, “but I haven’t seen hogs there this year, but they’ve got to be somewhere. Let’s hike up the hill above the pond and wait until dark.”
The shadows were long but the sun wasn’t down when a group of about 20 hogs filed out of the brush and headed for the stock pond. There was a mixture of small hogs, adult sows and a couple of young 100-pound boars. A single shot from my old Winchester .270 broke up the party; I was very thankful for the fine meat animal that I took home later that evening.
In agricultural areas with grain fields, guides usually start their warm weather hunts by stationing hunters along well-used trails near the grain before sunrise. If they guess where to be correctly, a flurry of activity will greet them as the hogs move out of the fields and head for bedding areas or water. In the evening the action is again fast as the pigs head back to feeding grounds.
Doug Roth, of Camp 5 Outfitters in southern Monterey County, told of a hunt from the summer of 2003 in which 12 hunters filled their tags in two days on the farmed property he hunts.
“Personally, I like hot-weather hunting,” Roth told California Game & Fish. “The pigs will be concentrated on specific food sources and permanent water, and not spread out all over the place like they do in the spring when there’s feed and water everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with winter or anything, but if a hunter has to face two days of stormy weather in January as opposed to a little heat, it’s my experience he’ll take the heat every time.”
Roth has a point but all of the other guides interviewed thought that cool weather hunts are most pleasant and very productive. “In 43 years the best hunting I’ve ever had was in late October, November, January and February,” Bergman said. “Personally, I’d rather hunt during cool weather. The pigs are out longer so you can see them more easily, and meat care, other than field dressing, can be put off for a few hours. The exception to that rule might be March when the pigs are scattered and food is everywhere. Then they’re not out as long and you can’t depend on finding them in a predictable location.”
PICK A REGION
So, as the pig population goes, how do things look in the various areas where the guides work? In southern Trinity County, Schaafsma says there are more pigs around now than he can ever remember. “We got some real nice boars and sows last year, and we hardly put a dent in ‘em; 2004 looks good from here.”
Bergman says there are pigs scattered everywhere on the properties he hunts; he too expects another good year.
Roth, who hunts several ranches in southern Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, noted that there was an ample supply of adult hogs in late summer and scads of 50-pound up-and-comers.
“Tell you what,” Roth said, “Pig numbers were down last year, so hunting was actually a little tougher than usual for us, but this year should be terrific. Last spring was easy on them and there are lots of young hogs everywhere you look.”
Interestingly, for the first time in 38 years, no guided pig hunts will be held on the Dye Creek Preserve in eastern Tehama County due to low numbers. However, in western Tehama County, Drew reports good numbers of hogs to support his hunts.
Farther south, in the mountains near Bakersfield, Don Geivet of the massive Tejon Ranch, reports that the pig population is going gang busters. “We have all kinds of hunts going,” Geivet said, “and we still can’t take enough hogs to lower the overall numbers any. I expect we’ll have to take over 1,000 pigs this season just to keep up with their breeding potential.”