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Moments of Truth: Tennessee Hog Hunting

A hunt on the historic Cumberland Plateau strengthens family traditions and presses one man to face his deepest fears.

Moments of Truth: Tennessee Hog Hunting

(Adobe stock)

We were deep in rural Tennessee when the rain came. It was light and so quick that the sun was still out, and it danced in the sunlight as we drove. With the rain coming and going, it was easy to imagine we were traveling through different pockets of a land unique in their own secrets. That land was the historic Cumberland Plateau, and we had come to this high wooded country to hunt wild hogs.

“Almost there, buddy,” I said to my 12-year-old nephew, Steven, riding shotgun on his first road trip.

I wondered as my pickup traced the curving back road through the rain—then sun, then rain again—what lessons this hunt would hold. Hunting aggressive game with a young sidekick in unfamiliar woods, I knew, was not for the careless or the faint of heart. Ensuring a safe and successful hunt would take all the discipline I could teach him. But little did I know that the lessons on this hunt in America’s original backwoods would come from him and would force me to confront fears I didn’t know I had. They were deep fears that I had buried and would only be able to find on a special hunt, in a special place.

Coming of Age

As we ventured into the woods the next morning with our guide Roger Matheson and his hounds, we confronted a new reality: hunting angry hogs on foot. Roger told us a stand would be no good during the heat, so we’d be on the ground, stalking animals sometimes known to charge hunters as soon as run from them. Unlike some TV hog hunts with night vision and semi-autos, my young nephew and I were doing it old school with bolt-action deer rifles and daytime effort.

Brain Reisinger, Tennessee Cumberland Mountains terrain
The Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee are full of deep, wooded ravines where hogs thrive. (Shutterstock image)

I had planned for our hunt outside Crossville, Tenn., to be more than the usual proving ground all hunts are. Steven had already shot several bucks during gun season—a rite of passage in our native Wisconsin—and was at that age when emboldened hunters develop good, or bad, habits. We were in the perfect place for an adventure 700 miles from home. The plateau, which spreads west from the Cumberland Mountains, had been home to Native Americans for centuries, according to state and local histories, and remained distant to most settlers until the 1770s. That’s when the frontiersman Daniel Boone birthed his legend, leading a wagon train over the mountains to fully open pre-Revolutionary America’s 13 colonies to western lands.

But now the stakes were higher than I had planned in this historic backwoods, and rising further still with each step over winding woodland trails, across creek beds and past plunging ravines. The intermittent rain from the day before continued as we walked, not falling anew but dripping through the heavy forest as yesterday’s water worked its way from treetops to dirt. These woods resembled the mixed forests of home but seemed wilder with taller trees and deeper ravines. We watched Roger’s redbone hounds run ahead in the sunlight slanting through the trees, their noses grounded in search of sign. Eventually, they disappeared.

Brain Reisinger, Tennessee wild hog
The hogs living on the Cumberland Plateau often exhibit the traits of their Russian ancestors. (Shutterstock image)

Although we didn’t say it, Steven and I were both thinking of danger. It was bothering me more than it normally would as the day-old raindrops tapped the ground.

Shortly before our trip, Steven had lost Buster, a blue heeler cattle dog he’d grown up with. Buster had a secret tumor so big it broke his back. While Steven saw memories of Buster on our journey, I found that the farther I got from civilization’s distractions, the more I saw my dad, fighting a bad case of COVID in our backroom between hospital visits months earlier. He’d made it, but I’d felt strangely stretched ever since by a hectic day job, endless writing projects and worries over our family farm navigating tough times. As it would turn out, there were more tests to come.

Into the Fray

We broke from the trees into an open field and heard the sudden grunt of a wild hog. Steven looked at Roger. One bark from the hounds, then another, and we followed the sounds across the clearing into the woods beyond. Through the trees to our right, we saw the dogs flash brown-red then a rough black color plunging through the underbrush. Who was chasing whom was unclear.

We readied our rifles and strode toward the sound of the dogs. I kept one eye on Steven and whispered tips to him about remaining ready—and safe. The hogs on the Cumberland Plateau often have Russian lineage, Roger had told us, though their forebears also include other varieties of pigs that went feral generations earlier. Mature boars and sows grow to more than 200 pounds. They’ll eat anything, including their own, and hunters and biologists agree that their rapid breeding means they endanger other game and local habitats.

I thought of what Roger had told us to do if a hog turned on us and there was no time for a shot. Sometimes the dogs would divert a charging hog. If one got past, he advised we step behind a tree. Hogs have keen hearing and smell, but poor eyesight, so a hunter stepping behind a tree disappears from their view momentarily. I’d shot deer, elk and bear with my .270, but it seemed a thin defense now, easing through these wild woods with my young nephew.

Soon we saw them on the main trail, clustered atop a hill: two rough black hogs, wheeling and grunting at their captors. I looked at Steven, ready to let him shoot, as my dad had done with both of us for two generations. He shook his head.

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“You shoot,” he said.

“You don’t want to shoot first?” I asked.

“No.”

He shook his head again, and I saw in the honest emotion on his face that he meant it.

Brian Reisinger, hog hero
After his nephew passed on the shot, the author downed the first hog of the trip at about 70 yards. (Brian Reisinger photo)

Turning, I sighted the hogs, uphill nearly 70 yards away. We’d often taken deer at hundreds of yards, but part of me didn’t blame Steven. He was uneasy shooting uphill, and this was offhand with potentially hostile targets. Another part didn’t understand. We’d traveled all this way, and this could be his only chance.

I settled my crosshair on the muscular black beast on the left, and waited for Roger’s signal that the dogs were out of the way. He gave it and I shot, the clear crack of my rifle searing through the forest as the hog dropped to the ground.

The other hog bolted and we eyed its path as we approached mine, a Russian sow, mortally wounded behind the shoulders. I finished it, and we turned toward the second, a mixed Russian boar tearing downhill through the woods. Steven didn’t hesitate as he had a moment earlier, but I watched him and remained ready. If he was going to shoot this hog, it would be fast.

The boar doubled back and ran our way, not a direct charge but a cut in our direction, once then twice. Roger yelled for us to get out of the way. The first time we scrambled to our right in unison to grant the hog a wider berth. The second time I saw a tree just to my right and slipped behind its thick trunk.

I told myself, for a moment, that I could shoot more effectively from there if the hog charged. Then I thought of Steven, and it was behind that tree that I learned from him. Just as he had admitted he wasn’t ready to shoot, I sought honesty from myself. Was I behind this tree because I was afraid? I looked out and saw Steven on the trail, and I knew the answer was yes. I stepped clear of the tree and strode toward him and Roger.

Brian Reisinger, Steven hog hero photo
Twelve-year-old Steven remained calm in a quickly changing situation and downed this boar with a single shot from his deer rifle. (Brian Reisinger photo)

I wondered as I reached them what I’d have told my sister if the hog had charged in the instant I had spent behind that tree. But there was no time to dwell on it. The hog plunged back into the woods, and we started after him. I touched Steven’s shoulder to let him know I was there, and then we saw the hog huddled against the trees. Steven got down on one knee, and I held my rifle ready as he raised his. He’d only have a moment, once the dogs were clear, to shoot before the hog might move again—running off or finally charging, we didn’t know which. Roger yelled, and Steven shot.

We got to the hog, down but still moving. When Roger told us to finish it with his knife, Steven asked me to do it. I patted his back and attended to the hog on the forest floor.

The Trail Ahead

Meadow Park Lake extended in a smooth plane of water in front of us before dropping, slick and stark, off the dam. With our quarry down we were exploring the Cumberland Plateau, fishing from a dock that may as well have been the end of the world.

It was natural to feel at the edge of our experience in this place. The first settlers of what became nearby Crossville had followed a woodland path known as the Walton Road, cut by Capt. William Walton. He’d come to Tennessee, according to state and local histories, by way of the Cumberland Gap, through which Daniel Boone had blazed a trail. The land we traveled was perhaps not unlike the hunting grounds frontier families encountered as they searched for new territory in colonial America.

Brian Reisinger, Tennessee creek
The terrain of the Cumberland Plateau includes creeks and mixed forestland, offering hogs plenty of places to find food and water. (Brian Reisinger photo)

In my head, I kept turning over our own journey in those storied woods, knowing there was a lesson deeper than disciplined hunting. Certainly we’d learned many times there is no triumph without trial. But this lesson was more subtle and powerful, and it settled over me by that dam at the end of the world. Steven had taught me the lesson of admitting vulnerability. As a child—one becoming a young man before my eyes—he had not yet learned all of the reasons adults hide their vulnerabilities. Without the honesty that follows facing your fears, Steven might have never mustered the courage to take on that second hog, and I might have never told myself to get out from behind that tree.

The rain was intermittent again, the sun still shining from behind the clouds as it fell, and I thought of other vulnerabilities. I was burnt out. I was worried about losing the life I was building with my young wife. I was concerned I wouldn’t accomplish all I wanted to before we had kids, and that those thoughts would make me a bad father. And I realized, then, the impact of seeing my dad’s mortality during his COVID fight, of checking his breathing at night, of rushing him to the hospital, of watching to make sure he didn’t fall as we tested his recovering lungs. The pandemic had bred fears for so many: isolation, loss, uncertainty, economic fallout. Mine was that I was running out of time.

We fished and talked, and the rain kissed the water and our skin, and we began to plan our journey home. My dad and sister had found Steven a new puppy he wanted to meet, and I had fears to face—some the kind a man can shed in the backwoods of the Cumberland Plateau, others the kind that take longer. As I looked up from the dock at the sun, I thought it might shine brighter soon enough, even if that strange Cumberland rain kept on falling.

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