A growing population of wild hogs and a universally good acorn crop last year have left wild pig hunters in hog heaven for 2005.
Guide Darrell Francis poses with a hefty young boar hog killed on the sprawling Tejon Ranch, where sport hunters killed nearly 1,000 pigs in 2003. Photo by John Higley
By John Higley
It's safe to say that while most of California's big-game hunters pursue deer, wild hogs are a close second and are coming on strong. The only reason the ranks of hog hunters aren't bigger already is because most of the animals are found on private land. That makes perfect sense, of course, because that's where the best oak-woodland habitat, and the most food, happens to be.
The private land connection means that you somehow have to get permission to hunt wild pigs or make arrangements for a guided hunt. Happily, guided hunts aren't out-of-sight expensive, with most all-inclusive two-day deals running between $650 and $900, depending on the services rendered.
At that range, the price of a guided hunt may seem steep to some, but nothing, including the price of a gallon of gas, is the same as it was 20 years ago. What the fee buys you is a good chance for success on your first try, as reputable guides and outfitters lease or own some of the most productive pig hunting ground available.
Of course, no one can guarantee that your shot will be straight or that some natural event won't destroy your chances on a particular hunt. However, the odds are certainly in your favor on private land, as the success rate on most guided hunts is above 90 percent. According to the 2002-2003 Wild Pig Take Report, published by the California Department of Fish and Game, at least 95 percent of the hogs harvested last year came from private land.
There are exceptions, of course. Each year some state and federal lands, as well as military holdings, do produce a few wild hogs for hunters. It would be interesting to know, however, just how many times the lucky nimrods went out before scoring on a pig - and if they just won big in the lottery.
"Public land will never rival private holdings when it comes to success rates," said Bob Robb, author of the book Hunting Wild Boar In California. "That does not mean, of course, that if you're set on hunting public land, you'll never be successful. The best public land I ever hunted produced a hog or two about every third time out, so it's not impossible. It takes some doing, but once you find a spot, and learn it, you certainly can beat the odds eventually."
The exact annual statewide pig take is not known for sure, but it's estimated to be right up there with deer, despite the fact that fewer hunters pursue them. Until last year the DFG sold resident pig tags in books of five, and because the season is open all year, and there is no limit, there was nothing to keep pig-happy hunters from purchasing more than one book of tags.
Alas, the book deal was too good to last. This year, thanks in part to the state's government budget woes, the tags are being sold individually and they - no surprise here - cost more. Instead of $8.75 for a book, tags now cost $15 each for residents and $50 each for non-residents. That may seem pricy, but when you stop and think about it, wild hog tags have probably been undervalued for a long time.
Although I do not hunt wild pigs as often as I hunt deer, I have been hunting hogs off and on for nearly 40 years, and I even guided other hunters for awhile. It's no surprise, then, that pig hunting has given me some of the best memories and longest-lasting friendships of my hunting career. Thinking about it, I'd hate to have to choose between deer and wild pigs: Both have provided many rewarding hours in the field.
Although some of the same principles are in play, pig hunting is not exactly like deer hunting, which is one of the appealing aspects of the pastime. Pigs are wary and smart, and they have sharp senses of smell and hearing that make up for what they lack: deer-like eyesight. If you keep the wind right, and don't make too much noise, you can usually take some liberties with pigs that you'd never get away with while hunting deer. Along those lines, I remember a hunt with guide Dave Ramage on the Dye Creek Preserve in Tehama County that will serve as a perfect example.
It was one of those gray, cloud-covered days before an early winter storm, and Dave and I had been hunting since dawn with no luck. Afternoon was leaning toward evening when we finally spotted a group of a dozen hogs on a distant, rocky flat near the mouth of a rugged, brushy canyon, where they had evidently spent the day. The animals were rooting around a lone oak tree about 400 yards from anything that would provide cover for a stalk.
Since wild pork in the freezer was the reason I was hunting, I didn't want to try a long poke, and Ramage didn't suggest such a thing. Instead, he urged me on with a few well chosen words: "The wind's coming up from the valley so the pigs can't smell us, and they seem to like what they've found over there, so let's pretend we're a cow and put the sneak on 'em. Stay low and follow me single file. Just make sure that when I stop, you stop, and we'll get you into good rifle range."
As I said, pigs don't have the best eyesight, but they aren't exactly like nearsighted Mr. Magoo either. When a pig lifts its head for a look, the trick is for you to freeze in place, no matter where you are or what you're doing, until the critter goes back to feeding. Then you can move in some more. Beware, though, if it happens to be a big bunch of pigs. You've got to keep your eye on all of them or you're apt to see their hairy tails and rear ends scurry away.
Our tactic worked that blustery afternoon. We soon found ourselves kneeling in rocks about 70 yards from the pigs, deciding on a target. One plump, blond sow stood out from the rest, and that one went home with me. (Unfortunately, Ramage, who was one of the most colorful characters I ever had the pleasure of hunting with, has since passed away.)
ADDING THE NUMBERS
I killed my first wild boar in the 1960s when feral pigs were hunted only in nine or 10 of the state's counties. Since then, the adaptable animals have spread out considerably. By the early 1990s they were present in 45 counties, and now they have a foothold in more than 50 counties, but their numbers are still quite low in some of them. Although there's no way to get an accurate count on the overall number of wild pigs in the state, the tally, according to the DFG, is somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000.
Last year more than half of the pigs taken in the state came from the Central Coast region, which is where feral domestic hogs first got their start in the Golden State back in the 1700s, and where European wild boar stock was
introduced in the 1920s. Apparently, although the harvest figure is still high in the region, it's lower than it was a few years ago because the pig population there declined, at least a little, during a recent drought period.
"Minor variations in hunter harvest from one region to another is mostly due to habitat quality/rainfall issues," said Doug Updike, a senior wildlife biologist with the DFG's Wildlife Management Branch in Sacramento. "While pigs are continuing to expand into new areas, it is very difficult to predict future trends in specific areas such as the Central Coast region. However, because of their high reproductive potential, pigs tend to bounce back rapidly from declines when conditions are favorable. As it is right now, we expect to see an increase in the harvest coming from the west slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the San Joaquin Valley region, while the Central Coast remains about the same."
As we've seen, the Central Coast counties still produce more wild pigs annually than any other region in the state. The best counties there, in numerical order, are Monterey, Sonoma, San Benito, San Luis Obispo and Mendocino. The reported take ranged from 288 in Mendocino County to 1,202 in Monterey County.
Eight years ago, 72 percent of the statewide hog harvest came from this region. Last year it was only 53 percent, which reinforces the possibility of a decline in the overall population there. Whether that's the case is difficult to assess as increases in hog populations in other parts of the state may influence that figure.
"Last year the pig population seemed to be down a little because production was down in 2002, when it was really dry and the feed was poor," said Doug Roth of Camp Five Outfitters. "However, we saw lots of young hogs in 2003, and those are takers now. A good acorn crop this year is going to help, too, so I expect good hunting throughout the winter and spring of 2005. In any event, we don't see a shortage of hogs on any of our places."
Camp Five Outfitters expects its clients to kill 250 pigs this year off 60,000 acres.
On a smaller scale, guide Eldon Bergman, who is based near Paso Robles, has chased wild hogs for 43 years, probably longer than any other guide in the state. According to Bergman, hogs on the properties he hunts seem to be just about everywhere.
"From October through May we saw hogs in bunches of 10 to 40 nearly every time out," Bergman said. "Hunting wasn't always easy, true, but that's hunting. I think 2005 is going to be a very productive year."
In the northern California, Tehama County was tops with a reported harvest of 312 pigs. Shasta and Humboldt counties were second and third, respectively. Over all, this region accounted for 9 percent of the statewide harvest in 2003, and things are looking up for 2005, according to guide John Drew, who hunts in western Tehama County.
"Conditions are good for the hogs right now," he said. "I was surprised to see how well they fared with virtually no acorns last fall. And this year, with what looks like a bumper crop, the pigs should really be happy and productive."
In 2003, the big news in this region occurred when the oldest, and most successful, pig-hunting operation in the area, the Dye Creek Preserve, closed down its guided hog hunting operation for lack of pigs. The news in 2004 was definitely brighter. The Dye Creek hog population, while not what it once was, is climbing once again, and there will be limited hunting on the preserve this winter.
Where to get more hog-hunting information? Check this list!
The Department of Fish and Game's Hunting Guide For Wild Pigs In California is online at www.dfg.ca.gov/coned/pigguide.pdf. Get a printed copy by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone, 916-653-2225.
For a list of licensed hunting guides, contact the DFG's License and Revenue Branch, 3211 S Street, Sacramento, CA 95816; phone 916-227-2271.
Two excellent books take in-depth looks at pig hunting in California. First is Bob Robb's newest offering, Hunting Wild Boar In California — Vol. 2. An autographed copy costs $19.95. Order from Bob Robb Books, P.O. Box 771083, Eagle River, AK 99577; e-mail email@example.com. Safari Press published Gary Kramer's The Complete Guide to Hunting Wild Boar in California. Order an autographed copy for $19.90 from Gary Kramer, P.O. Box 903, Willows, CA 95988; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Matthews' California Hog Hunter is a quarterly newsletter with the latest scoop on pig hunting throughout the state. To subscribe or purchase a single copy, contact CA Hog Hunter, P.O. Box 9007, San Bernardino, CA 92427; phone 909-887-3444; e-mail email@example.com.
The Bureau of Land Management sells a packet of central California hog hunting maps for just $4. Write the BLM at 20 Hamilton Ct., Hollister, CA 95023; phone 831-630-5000.
Big Game Hunting Maps is a private company that offers a special California wild pig packet covering 28 pig-country BLM areas. Contact BGHM, 6288 Marlborough Dr., Goleta, CA 93117; phone 805-967-4482; or online, www.biggamehuntingmaps.com. — John Higley
According to Gordy Long, operations manager for Multiple Use Managers, the outfit that runs the hunting program, the lack of pressure has been good for the hogs. "Right now we're seeing some healthy young pigs and quite a few adults, including some great boars," Long said. "Starting in January 2005, we're going to take 30 or 40 hogs and we'll see what happens after that."
In southern Trinity County Jim Schaasfma of Arrow Five Outfitters reports excellent pig-hunting success last winter and spring. "Last year we didn't have many acorns, but the pigs over-wintered well and stayed in better shape than we expected," he said. "This year the acorns are there and we expect to take 60 fat hogs on our hunts from February through May."
The 14 counties of the Sacramento Valley-Central Sierra region accounted for only 7 percent of the statewide harvest, but more than 100 hogs were taken in Glenn and Colusa counties. That's quite respectable when you learn that their harvests in 1994 were 21 and 34, respectively.
In the San Joaquin Valley-Southern Sierra region, nine counties produced 26 percent of the statewide take in 2003. Especially notable was Kern County, where 987 pigs were reported killed, mostly on the sprawling Tejon Ranch.
Don Geivet, resources
manager for the Tejon, is still amazed by the number of pigs on the property. "It's hard to put a number on the pig population," Geivet said, "but there are plenty of them. Last year we ran 300 guided hunts and held five 'Pig-o-Ramas' where we let guys camp on the ranch and hunt on their own for two and a half days. There's also a bowhunting operation on the ranch which is quite popular. Last year we took around 1,000 pigs and I expect we'll do the same this winter and spring."
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Check the sidebar for information sources, including how to get a complete list of hunting guides.
As for the guides who helped with this article, you can contact them as follows: Camp 5 Outfitters, (new number) 805-238-3634; the Tejon Ranch Company, 661-663-4208 or www.tejonranch.com; Arrow Five Outfitters, 707-923-9633; the Dye Creek Preserve, 530-527-3588 or 800-557-7087; Eldon Bergman, 805-238-5504; and Shasta Outfitters, 530-200-3278 or www.shastaoutfitters.com.
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