Public-land hog hunts in California are far and few between. But here are your best bets for hunting high on the hog without breaking your piggy bank. (November 2009)
You can tell by his smile that California hog hunter Mike Renteria is happy about being part of a successful hunt that produced this 180-pound boar near Cholame.
Photo courtesy of Jim Niemiec.
The wild hog population in California continues to push to record levels. Big-game hunters are taking advantage of numerous hunting opportunities on public land, military bases and private ranches that have opened up prime pig hunts.
Wild pigs are huntable across much of the state as they expand their range despite California's drought. In the past three years, the breeding hasn't slowed down.
"Our clients are seeing more hogs every year as the pig population continues to grow in the central valley," said Clayton Grant, master guide for Bitterwater Outfitters.
Many farmers converted fallow CRP land to wheat crops when the price of grain skyrocketed a couple of years ago, he said. The intense farming put tens of thousands of acres of raw land back into grain production. That harvesting left a lot of food on the ground for the hogs.
"The pigs got fat and the population responded with sows having a couple of litters of piglets a year, and the trend seems to be that hogs are moving into new areas," said Grant.
There is excellent wild hog habitat in many parts of the state, but according to information gathered from hunter report cards by the Department of Fish and Game, the bulk of the wild hogs harvested are shot in either Kern or Monterey counties.
Areas in Northern California also have concentrations of hogs. Some of it is even public land. But the bulk of the more productive pig-hunting country lies within large ranches stretching all the way from the coastal range to the foothills of the western slopes of the High Sierra.
According to hog-hunting expert Terry Knight, about the only public areas around Lake County that offer fair-to-decent hog hunting is the BLM land that's called the Payne Ranch, also known as Cache Creek Wilderness Area.
It's an area of more than 60,000 acres and is located on Highway 20 in eastern Lake County. It's all hike-in. The more successful hunters hoof it at least three miles, Knight said.
"The Cow Mountain Recreation Area (BLM) also has a few wild pigs," he said. "It's located just east of the town of Ukiah. There are also some wild hogs in the Mendocino National Forest just outside of Covelo."
While public land, national forests and BLM ground offer the unattached hunter a chance at shooting a wild hog, realistically, the success rate is significantly lower than hunting with a guide on a private ranch.
"Yes, there are huntable numbers of wild pigs on public land here in Northern California," said Matt Mitchell, who heads up the hunting operation on Dye Creek Preserve. "But unfortunately, hunter success is very low."
Hogs are nocturnal and key in on food plots and grain fields in the valley floor. They also feed heavily on the annual acorn crop that falls to the ground under the blue oaks in the higher savannahs, said Mitchell.
"We hunt hogs within the transition zones, making it a lot easier for our guides to pattern the pigs and ensure a successful hunt for the client," he said.
Fortunately, hog hunters have two great choices when it comes to hunting wild pigs on a budget. The hunting programs at Fort Hunter Liggett and Camp Roberts are ideally suited for the hog hunter who wants to hunt on a budget but at the same time have a realistic chance at shooting a quality tusker.
These huge military bases are located halfway between two of the largest population areas in the state.
Both bases offer hog hunting by advance permit. If you're willing to work within the game management and military restrictions enforced on these coastal properties, you can enjoy a successful hunt.
"I really love hunting hogs on Fort Hunter Liggett," said seasoned hog hunter George Pondella of Glendale. "I can enjoy a great hunt and come away knowing that I did it all by myself. Sure, there are some restrictions on choice of guns, ammo and prime areas that are closed to all access, but the opportunity to hunt on a huge parcel of great hog habitat makes this a great choice for those who prefer not to hunt with a guide or spend a lot of money for a wild pig hunt."
Fort Hunter Liggett is an active military training facility encompassing 165,000 acres of grassland, woodlands and chaparral in southern Monterey County.
There could be up to 130,000 acres open to hunting on weekends and federal holidays. The number of hunters is limited on any given weekend, and registration is first-come, first-served.
These two bases are surrounded by private ranches that hold huge numbers of wild pigs that move through the region as they seek out new sources of food, water or expand their territory.
It has been said that wild hogs were originally brought onto these military bases to help control rattlesnakes, but that didn't work out so well. With all the cover and safe havens to breed, the hog population just exploded and pigs spread out all over the central coast and into the central valley.
As you move farther into Southern California, public hunting opportunities are limited although there is a pretty good population of wild pigs in the Los Padres National Forest.
The Zaca wildfire of 2007 and the Indian fire consumed nearly 450,000 acres of prime hog habitat and timber in this huge forest. The effects of the fire are still being felt on the hog populations that thrived so well in a mixed habitat of sage, mesquite, berries, oaks and tall timber.
Fierce firestorms pushed hogs across forest boundaries into ranches adjoining the Los Padres National Forest.
"Properties to the north of the Zaca fire really attracted lots of big game that escaped the fire," said Grant of Bitterwater Outfitters based out of Cholame.
"Hogs found good feed, plenty of water, wallows and ample protective cover in the shaded canyons on private ranches and settled in pretty well," said Grant.
The guide said he is seeing a lot more hogs now, and he attributes it to the fire and a couple of good breeding years since.
"I am sure that some of the hogs have already moved back onto forest property, but with all the food available on ranches and an ever-increasing population of wild pigs, the outlook for private-land hunts and increased hunting opportunities on some additional public property is looking very promising," he said.
Most of the hog hunting that takes place closer to Los Angeles occurs on private property. However, there have been reports of hogs moving into thick bamboo of the Santa Ana River bottomland and some of the BLM land in San Diego County that was not burnt during the last couple of wild fires.
Whether there will ever be a huntable population of wild pigs in Riverside or San Diego counties is iffy. Even though hogs have been reported on un-posted property, access to these spots is only through private land and much of it is fenced and posted.
Russian boar and feral hogs were released on the Cumming's Ranch in the Tehachapi Mountains over a quarter of a century ago. At the direction of the DFG, this hunting ranch was fenced and electrified to keep the hogs from escaping the property and invading adjoining ranches.
It didn't take long for the pigs to figure out how to dig under the fences and avoid the electric shocking wires. They moved onto the adjacent Tejon Ranch, said Don Geivet, ranch game manager.
"Originally, the hogs started coming onto the Tejon in just little groups and settled pretty much in Tejon Canyon," he said. "They liked the habitat and the population began to grow."
Initially, ranchers at Tejon were not happy about wild hogs being introduced to their cattle ranch and successful deer-hunting program. But once the hogs reached huntable numbers, the game managers opened up hunting on part of the ranch. Today, the Tejon Ranch offers excellent hunting for wild pigs.
A lot of the prime wild hog hunting in California takes place within the condor lead-ban region, which means that only copper or lead-free bullets can be used when pursuing pigs.
When copper bullets were first required for hog hunting within the condor range, hunters and guides were not too impressed with either the performance of a copper bullet nor the high price they had to pay for a box of ammo. Many guides talked about a perfect shot on a boar where a copper bullet went right through the animal without expanding. The wounded animal was lost in the thick chaparral.
Over the years, ammo companies have really improved on the performance. Even though a box of ammo is still pricey compared with lead loads, there are more calibers available and many bullets form perfect mushrooms upon impact with a hog.
I have been on many successful wild hog hunts over the past few decades. I've shot trophy boars with a handgun, muzzleloader and shotgun slug. But when it comes to my first choice of rifle caliber, it's hard to beat a Weatherby Mark V chambered for a 7mm Magnum matched to Barnes TTSX 120-grain copper bullet.
Shot placement is important when hunting wild pigs. A big trophy boar has the armored protection of thick grizzle over its shoulders hiding the vitals of the animal. It's important to penetrate this dense tissue with a bullet that will mushroom or hit a bone and shatter it in order to drop the hog in its tracks. Following a wounded boar into the chaparral, shoulder-high sage or thick live oak is not something that any hunter looks forward to, especially with the nasty disposition of a wounded boar with razor sharp 3-inch ivories.
There are some hog hunters who head out after a trophy boar that is showing tusks, while an equal number are just as satisfied with a meat pig or barren sow.
With more and more public pig hunting opportunities opening up, as well as a year-round season and no bag limit, it's no wonder that hunting wild hogs is growing in popularity. The state, in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, opened up the East Park Reservoir to limited-entry wild-pig hunting this year, and as the hog population continues to grow, hunters can look forward to more managed properties to begin offering public hog hunts on a permit or draw program.
The cost of a resident wild pig tag that would be valid through June 30, 2010, is $19.70. You can purchase as many as you want. It's legal to hunt wild pigs with rifle, pistol, archery, shotgun, muzzleloader or crossbow. Dogs are allowed.
For hunters on a limited budget and thinking about a future hog hunt, there are a number of options worth mentioning:
- Tejon Ranch offers Pig Management Hunts, which allows a hunter to go off on his own without a guide and have access to hunt on a private ranch.
- Cedar Canyon Ranch in the Tehachapi Mountains offers a three-day wild pig hunt at a reasonable price on one of the hottest hog-hunting ranches in the state. Book through Bitterwater Outfitters, which has a great boar hunt that puts a shooter right in the middle of pigs that are coming out of nearby pistachio and grape vineyards. It's also called the "pistachio run."
Whether it's hunting along the central coast, in the inland valley, ranch land, foothills of the western slopes of the High Sierra, Northern California or the pig country around Red Bluff, it's all good. California hunters are very fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to hunt such a great animal year 'round, without having to travel a long distance and also traditionally at a very affordable price.