Wild Hogs: Our Best Teacher

I don’t know exactly who went out and counted them, but by some estimates there are now nine million feral hogs in the United States. After whitetail deer they are now the most numerous large wild animal in North America. The big population is from Oklahoma and Texas on across the Southeast, but feral hogs have been spotted from Mexico’s Yucatan almost to Canada’s treeline, with breeding populations established in various pockets all over the place.

On the one hand, this is not necessarily a good thing. Feral hogs are not native, they don’t belong on this continent. They do tremendous agricultural damage (as much as two billion dollars per year) and, as an invasive species, their long-term impact on native fauna and flora isn’t altogether known. However, despite radical control measures in many areas, wild hogs are as intelligent as they are prolific; once established it’s almost impossible to eradicate them.

I’m of two minds on wild hogs. As a Kansas landowner, I toe the party line: We don’t have them and we don’t want them! Less than 20 miles south of our farm lies the northern edge of Oklahoma’s 900,000-plus feral hog population. For several years, quietly, USDA hunters have been doing a heroic job of holding the line at the Kansas/Oklahoma border. A few have squeaked past; we’ve had pigs reported within five miles to the south, east and west—but no sightings and no sign in our neighborhood. Despite best efforts, wild hogs are established in the extreme southeast corner of Kansas, and in a couple of pockets far to the west. So, I suppose it’s inevitable that, sooner or later, I’ll go check the food plots and find fresh rooting.

As a hunter, that’s not the most terrible thing I can imagine…but I keep that opinion to myself around my farming and ranching neighbors. Thing is, Heaven help me, I really enjoy hog hunting!  Mature boars with good tusks are always a small part of the population, and become extra-wary and, often, almost entirely nocturnal. A good boar is a much under-rated prize. But from a management standpoint, it’s the sows that need controlling and their pork is much better.

States that have feral hogs deal with them variously. In Kansas it’s simple: We don’t want them, so it’s illegal to hunt, sell, transport or even possess feral hogs, although landowners can shoot at will. In most states a hunting license is required, but seasons and bag limits are rare, and night shooting is often legal. Texas, with two to three million hogs, legalized helicopter gunning some time back and, as of Sept. 1, no license at all is required for hogs.

Hunter with feral hog
Julie Worley with her first game animal, a good wild boar, taken on the last morning of Brittany Boddington’s She Hunts Skills Camp at Record Buck Ranch in the Texas Hill Country. She used an MGA in 7mm-08 to make a perfect shot off sticks.

It’s a different situation here on the California Central Coast, where we spend much of the year. Although feral hogs now occur in every California county, the Central Coast is one of the longest-established populations. Pretty much equidistant from L.A. and the Bay Area, we’re in the hog hunting epicenter, and it’s almost a mini-industry, with numerous local outfitters and several meat processors doing good business. Decades ago, the feral hog was declared a “big game animal” in the Golden State and now surpasses deer in hunter participation. There is no season and no bag limit, but each hog must be tagged and reported. “Big game” rules such as shooting hours, methods of take and no baiting also apply.

Our San Luis Obispo County and Monterey County to the north usually have the largest harvest but, although there is agricultural damage, especially when the barley ripens, our hogs are sort of self-limiting because of long, hot summers and periodic drought. Their numbers go up and down with the conditions, but it’s been years since we had a real “pig problem.” On the other hand, we certainly have enough to hunt, and somebody in the neighborhood always wants sausage.

Just yesterday, on a suddenly crisp morning, I got up early, drove up to my friend Tony Lombardo’s ranch for a dawn cruise. Truth is, we saw more deer and tule elk than pigs. Some days are like that. Even so, I shot a perfect eating-size sow with an Aimpoint-sighted .30-30. As a hunter, I’m glad they’re here. For the last 30 years they’ve served as my year-around rifle, cartridge and bullet-testing laboratory.

They’re also one of the greatest teachers for beginning hunters. Wild hogs were the first big game animal for both my daughters, Brittany and Caroline…and both remain avid hunters. In good areas hunting is fairly successful—and that’s not a bad thing for new hunters. The fact that “any pig” is legal helps…and the pork is good.

More: Wild hogs are destructive, and few people think of them as cute and cuddly. Put another way, they sort of fly under the radar of the “Bambi syndrome.” It’s exciting hunting, and while all mature hogs are intimidating, a really big boar is a fearsome creature. Obviously, they don’t (yet) exist in all areas, but the amazing spread of feral hogs has created much opportunity. I can’t imagine a better animal to start new hunters, but it’s super-important that a person’s first animal be a positive experience…and that applies to beginners of all ages.

Julie Worley was among a dozen ladies attending my daughter Brittany’s October ‘19 “She Hunts Skills Camp” at Tom Hammond’s Record Buck Ranch in the Texas Hill Country. Over a packed four-day schedule, seminars included scope mounting, sighting in, gun safety and maintenance, shooting off sticks and bench, shotgun basics, conservation and hunting ethics, shot placement, survival skills, field dressing, butchering, wild game cooking and more.

Record Buck is a gorgeous piece of the Texas hills, and well-stocked with whitetails, turkeys, an amazing array of introduced species, and this part of Texas is overrun with wild hogs. Hunting is optional early mornings and late afternoons, but most attendees choose to hunt. Some are experienced huntresses, some brand new and some very uncertain. Julie wasn’t just uncertain; she came to camp with a problem. Her husband is an avid hunter. As often happens, after a few years, she decided to give it a try. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often and shouldn’t happen at all, but she had a horrible first experience, bad enough to put her off on hunting altogether. She had no confidence and was reluctant to try.

After numerous camps and a hundred She Hunts “graduates” Brittany has seen this before. Julie shot well on the ranges (as most women do!). With no pressure and her confidence building, Julie enjoyed some of the other ladies’ successes. On the next-to-last evening she declared, “I’m going hunting!” A big boar was targeted, but even here you tend to see a lot of pigs for every mature boar. Time was now short; could they find one?

That evening Julie went out with Donna and son-in-law Brad Jannenga. Toward dusk they saw a lot of pigs…but not the right one. Brad did a very smart thing: They made several approaches, got Julie on sticks, discussed shot placement and put her through “dry fire” drills on smaller pigs they had no intentions to shoot. But, even at full dark, no mature boars were seen.

The next morning, the last, they went out before daylight for one last try…and Julie was ready and confident. They came back a couple hours later with a big, beautiful, well-tusked, perfectly shot boar…and lots of smiles! Making new hunters takes time, patience and good coaching—but our increasing and fast-spreading feral hogs are some of the best teachers!–Craig Boddington

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