November 11, 2021
It was spring gobbler season in Georgia, a beautiful sunny afternoon, but I wasn’t hunting turkeys. Just before sunset I saw movement on the edge of the woods as three hogs stepped carefully into the food plot. That’s what I was there for, so I put my binocular aside and slowly reached for the rifle.
All three were red, nice size but no giants. Crosshair on the shoulder of the largest hog, I pressed the trigger as soon as it stopped. I expected the animal to drop, but you never know with pigs. It ran down the field as if nothing had happened. I was just about to fire again when it rolled into the ripening grain.
Another spring day several thousand miles west, Chad Wiebe and I jumped a big boar in tall, sloping barley. The hog went through the stalks like a torpedo, but we didn’t get another glimpse until he was across a steep bottom and working his way up the next ridge through thick wild mustard.
I was on sticks, waiting him out, a shot looking unlikely. Then, just below the crest, he slowed and the mustard thinned. I held forward at the top of the shoulder, and at the shot he vanished into the yellow flowers. He was probably my best California boar … and a shot I’d just as soon not repeat!
The American Wild Boar
Free-range hogs aren’t new in North America. Seafarers released swine to provide a meat source for passing ships. Populations in Florida and California’s Channel Islands are believed to hail from Spanish explorers in the 16th century.
Homesteaders often let domestic swine roam free, establishing feral populations; there are horrific Civil War accounts of wild hogs scavenging battlefields! All North American wild hogs are some mix of domestic swine, but there were historic introductions of pure European wild boar. George Gordon Moore released some at Hooper Bald, N.C.; William Randolph Hearst did the same on California’s Central Coast. More recently, various game ranches have introduced European stock to improve the "look" of local hogs.
The pure Eurasian wild boar is an imposing animal, tall at the shoulders, body sloping down to the hips, with grizzled hair and sharpened tusks. However, domestic hogs and the real Eurasian deal are the same species, Sus scrofa. All North American wild hogs are non-native feral animals. Depending on the original stock, hogs can be belted, spotted, and any color from white to red and brown to black. A hog’s color certainly doesn’t influence the quality of meat, and it doesn’t relate to tusk or body size.
We hunters tend to place a premium on dark hogs that are visually "closer" to the Eurasian strain, especially big boars with long teeth. The Central Coast, where I’ve hung my hat for 30 years, is the epicenter of California’s feral hog range. Hearst’s introduction a century ago still exerts influence. My experience is that the pure European strain is dominant; some percentage of our hogs still look Eurasian, but we also have spotted and belted hogs and all colors.
After a couple generations in the wild, domestic swine change. Males always grow tusks and develop a cartilage shield to protect their neck and chest. With both sexes, tails and ears straighten, shoulders become more powerful and hams become less prominent. I find this fascinating, but it has nothing to do with America’s pig problem.
Pest or Resource?
Wild hogs are among the most prolific of all animals. Sows breed young and produce large litters. Under ideal conditions, two litters per year are possible. Population growth is thus exponential. America’s feral hog population is now estimated at 9 million and annually causes $2 billion in agricultural damage.
After whitetail deer, the feral hog is America’s second-most numerous large animal. The primary hog population is found from Oklahoma and Texas eastward to the Atlantic, plus California, where feral hogs occur in all counties. Once a breeding population gets going, it’s difficult to get rid of hogs. States that don’t have breeding populations are working hard, in conjunction with the feds, to keep them out. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), not U.S. Fish and Wildlife, has responsibility for invasive species, and the feral hog surely qualifies.
I have a little farm in southeast Kansas, 15 miles from Oklahoma, where an estimated 900,000 hogs reside. I expect hog damage, but so far, we’ve never seen one hog on the farm. For several years, a team of USDA hunters has done a heroic job of holding the line. Where hogs are established, it’s almost too late to get that genie back in the bottle. Kansas doesn’t want a hog problem!
On the other hand, hogs have changed America’s hunting culture—perhaps for the better. They can be hunted year-round, yield good pork and provide lots of excitement. Success is high, in part because any hog is legal. Sows are tastier and therefore often targeted. If pig hunting were “boars only” the game would change, but that would be silly because taking sows is essential to population control. Mature boars are a small percentage of any population. Pig-hunting regs are often relaxed because the intent is to control the population. Baiting and night hunting (including using thermal and night-vision devices) are often legal. Texas, with the worst pig plague, even legalized helicopter gunning.
Still, by most accounts, the pigs are winning! They have added a new dimension to American hunting. In California, feral hogs long ago surpassed deer as the most popular big game.
Nonetheless, in most places wild hogs are viewed as a nuisance, which is why traditional hunting rules such as methods of take, shooting hours and bag limits are often relaxed. Most states require a basic hunting license, but Texas even did away with that (for hogs only, and hunting permission is still required).
Kansas (and some other states that don’t want hogs) took a different approach. Hoping to avoid a repeat of Oklahoma’s rapid hog proliferation, Kansas made it illegal to possess, own, hunt or transport feral hogs. (Realize that in some states, feral hogs exploded because short-sighted people dropped off truckloads of pigs so they could hunt them or sell hog hunts.) I can shoot hogs 24/7 on my farm, although I’ve yet to have that chance. However, if one of my deer hunters sees a hog, he or she cannot shoot—unless we go to the nearest Parks and Wildlife office and I make the hunter an "agent" for pig control.
As a hunter, I wouldn’t mind encountering the occasional hog on my farm. Problem is, there’s no such thing as "occasional." Once they are here, we’ll have too many of them, along with all the damage they bring and the negative impacts on our deer and turkeys.
Almost everywhere hogs occur, local outfitters deal with them as an extra profit center, and why shouldn’t they? California, however, recognizes them as a resource. Declared a "big-game animal" back in the ’80s, all rules apply: There are shooting hours and regs that outline methods of take, including the prohibition of baiting. A basic hunting license is required, plus a pig tag. This seems onerous, but I love pig hunting and I always have a tag. The season is year-around, and I can buy as many tags as I like. Central Coast pig hunting is just plain fun, spot-and-stalk in rolling oak ridges.
To folks in Texas and the Southeast, where every pig shot is to the good, this licensed and regulated approach likely sounds insane. The difference is California hogs aren’t a major problem (unless it’s your barley field that gets ruined). Because of periodic drought, the region’s hogs are sort of self-limiting. They come back strong with good rains, but numbers drop off quickly in dry years. This is altogether different from Texas or my buddy Zack Aultman’s place in Georgia, where pigs must be shot constantly.
Pockets of Pigs
There have been feral hog sightings in all 48 contiguous states. Boars in search of sows can wander long distances, and groups of pigs come and go. Concentrations are well known, but there are scattered smaller populations, sometimes closely guarded by local hunters. Despite extreme efforts, Kansas has isolated breeding herds.
There were feral hogs in southeast Colorado, but this appears to be the rare successful eradication. Nebraska has hogs in a couple of counties, with efforts ongoing to contain them.
There are isolated populations in Arizona and New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, the Upper Midwest, Canada and along Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Pigs are long-established in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, but to my knowledge there are none in Alaska.
I have no interest in seeking out hidden hotspots, but I like pigs enough that I’ve hunted them from Florida to California and many places in between. In some areas, like buddy Zack’s Georgia pines, and often in Texas, it’s a matter of helping control numbers. In California, I don’t mind buying the tag, but I usually wait till we’re low on jalapeno-cheddar sausage, or I have a gun or load I want to use.
Either way, I’m usually not looking for a long-tusked boar. A big, mature boar is an awesome beast, uncommon, tough and potentially dangerous. Seeing one gets my blood going, but in many circumstances, I’m just as happy to leave him for someone who will appreciate him properly.
However, being an unabashed pig hunter, sometimes I can’t control myself. Tucson gunmaker John Lazzeroni and I had been planning a hunt that got scotched by the pandemic. John claimed he knew where to find pigs in New Mexico. Sounded unlikely, but we were desperate so I headed to Arizona.
With a full-size freezer in John’s big truck, we masked up and drove east, braving a potential lockdown. We hit the jackpot, finding hogs in arid ranch country where I’d least expect them. To my eye these were pure feral hogs: spotted, belted, rainbow, oddly co-existing with cattle on big irrigation pivots, fat and well-fed. At least at that moment, there was an unusual concentration of massive boars. In just a couple of days we used several of Lazzeroni’s fast short magnums, filled his freezer to the top, masked up again and headed back to Arizona.
I’ve had ready access to good California hog hunting for 40 years, and I’ve also hunted them a lot in Georgia and Texas. Collectively, they’ve been a prime cartridge and bullet-testing laboratory, so I’ve hunted them with just about everything from handguns and .22 centerfires on up to elephant-capable big bores, along with archery equipment. Whenever I write about guns and loads for hogs, I’m sure to get emails from hunters who respond, "I head-shoot all my hogs with a .357 revolver (or .223 AR) and never have any problems." Sure you do; I don’t doubt it can be done. Recently I shot a good-sized Texas hog with a .22 Hornet. The bullet impacted near the base of the ear at about 60 yards—end of story. But absent a dead-certain brain shot at close range, that’s not enough gun.
There’s a big difference in body size (and toughness) between a meat hog and a big boar. However, to some extent, ideal guns and loads depend on methodology. Houndsmen often use large-caliber handguns: The range is short, and pistols are handy. It’s a different story if you shoot your hogs over bait. Where you set up controls the distance, and you can also ensure a steady rest. Spot-and-stalk hunting is the common technique with California hogs, and it’s a different deal. Out there, we take the shots we get. Long shots are rarely needed. Often, we can get within archery, handgun and iron-sight range … but sometimes we can’t. For sure, we can’t always close to dead-certain head-shot range.
Intent also matters. I don’t have hogs on my property so, even where they’re legally a nuisance, I think of hogs as big-game animals. I hunt them, and arm myself, accordingly. I do a lot of hog hunting with lever-action rifles because I love them. The great old .30-30 is a wonderful hog gun, plenty powerful, and with enough range for most shots. I love the .45-70 and have a lifelong thing for the .348 Winchester, both real hog-thumpers.
However, you don’t need something over .30 caliber to hunt pigs. You also don’t need a fast magnum or a lever action; there are good hog cartridges in all action types. You do need to put a good bullet in the right place, and although I like to hunt hogs a lot with iron sights, a low-power scope or red-dot sight on any platform greatly extends its versatility.
Regardless of range, I’m not comfortable with body shots on big boars with anything below about .25 caliber. Above that, any decent, scoped deer rifle makes a pretty good pig gun. However, sometimes we don’t give hogs proper respect. I’ve never been touched, but I’ve had more genuine close calls with hogs than any of Africa’s big nasties, almost always from a mere moment’s disrespect. Not long ago, we shot a big, toothy boar on friend Tony Lombardo’s place. The hog went down and looked dead, so Tony went to check, absent rifle. Seconds later he came scrambling back, the angry and very agile boar right on his heels. Tony got clear and the .348 solved the problem … too close.
We don’t have pigs everywhere from coast to coast, nor throughout the land from Canada to Mexico, but we’ve got them in a lot of places. They aren’t going away. We don’t yet know their long-term effects on native flora and fauna, so I’m not in favor of hog proliferation. I am in favor of hog hunting, however, an exciting, interesting and relatively recent development in the U.S. hunting tradition.