lessons from a wild-pig road­trip

A GROUP OF OFF-SEA­SON MON­TANA DEER HUNTERS HEADS TO OKLAHOMA TO TEST THE THE­SIS THAT FERAL PIGS ARE EV­ERY­WHERE AND UN­WANTED

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY ANDREW MCK­EAN

You may have been fooled by the same trick­ery that we were. You’ve heard that most of Amer­ica’s heart­land south of In­ter­state 70 has been taken over by feral pigs, and that landown­ers would be grate­ful if you’d come shoot them.

That was the siren song that lured six of us Mon­tana deer hunters into a Sub­ur­ban last March and in­formed our de­ci­sion to tow an en­closed trailer con­tain­ing an up­right freezer, a gen­er­a­tor, fold­ing ta­bles, cool­ers, cut­ting boards, and more all the way to Oklahoma. Our in­ten­tion: to con­vert ma­raud­ing pigs into pork to feed our fam­i­lies and break the monotony of veni­son.

We fig­ured we’d be greeted, if not as con­quer­ing he­roes, at least as a wel­come and in­ex­pen­sive so­lu­tion to the vex­ing prob­lem of in­va­sive hogs, which cause un­told mil­lions in agri­cul­tural dam­age ev­ery year. Com­mer­cial hog erad­i­ca­tion can cost hun­dreds of dol­lars per an­i­mal. We’d be do­ing ev­ery­one a fa­vor, we fig­ured, by tak­ing a few hogs off the land, and would scratch our big-game-hunt­ing itch at the same time.

Plus, the pigs provided the im­pe­tus to take a road trip my bud­dies had talked about for years. We are a mot­ley crew—a school su­per­in­ten­dent, a pair of cel­lu­lar­tower con­struc­tion fore­men, a bank-branch man­ager, a state fish­hatch­ery worker, and an out­door writer—with var­ied rea­sons for hit­ting the road. For some of us, it was an op­por­tu­nity to ex­tend our fel­low­ship beyond our lit­tle com­mu­nity in north­east Mon­tana. For oth­ers, it was a chance to hunt a new species. For me, it was an ex­per­i­ment. Are hogs un­wanted ver­min or val­ued game an­i­mals?

As it turned out—this will sur­prise no one who lives in and hunts Amer­ica’s Hog Belt—the re­al­ity on the ground was mighty dif­fer­ent from our ex­pec­ta­tions. Here’s what you need to know if you act on the same im­pulse we did and put to­gether a DIY feral-pig hunt.

HOGS ARE PROFIT CEN­TERS

Be­cause I had hunted deer on north­ern Oklahoma’s Chain Ranch in the past, and knew the sprawl­ing prop­erty held plenty of hogs, it seemed like a good place to start our wild-pork quest. The Chain is like many large ranches that host com­mer­cial-hunt­ing op­er­a­tions in that it con­sid­ers hog hunt­ing a mi­nor-league ver­sion of its deer­hunt­ing en­ter­prise. That means they charge hunters for the priv­i­lege of re­mov­ing ra­pa­cious pigs from their prop­erty.

We sent the Chain a de­posit of $100 per per­son, and agreed to pay $200 a day per per­son. In re­turn, we got hunt­ing ac­cess and the run of a man­u­fac­tured home.

When we ar­rived, we learned the kicker: Ev­ery hog killed would cost us an ad­di­tional $100. When you have to shell out a Ben­jamin ev­ery time you pull the trig­ger, you get pretty se­lec­tive. The prob­lem—if you can call it a prob­lem—was that we had an over­abun­dance of tar­gets. The Chain runs a trap line of feed­ers that dis­trib­ute corn twice a day to deer, wild pigs, and any other crit­ters look­ing for a high-fruc­tose hand­out. Chain Ranch guides de­liv­ered us to box blinds over­look­ing the feed­ers, drove away, and re­turned af­ter dark. If money hadn’t been a lim­it­ing fac­tor, we could ‘ve stacked up a cou­ple dozen pork­ers. In­stead, our group killed five hogs, rang­ing in size from lit­tle 30-pound suck­lings to 200-pounders.

To a per­son, we were sur­prised at the ex­pe­ri­ence. For a group of spot-and-stalk hunters, the blinds were con­strain­ing. Then there was the fence. It turned out that the “pas­ture” we hunted was a 500acre high-fence pen in which wild hogs trapped from the wider ranch were re­leased to max­i­mize suc­cess for the Chain’s pay­ing hunters. When we re­al­ized the sit­u­a­tion, we agreed to move on af­ter our sin­gle hunt on the prop­erty.

Les­son Learned: Ex­pect to pay as much as $500 a day for out­fit­ted hog hunt­ing, and ask spe­cific ques­tions about hunt­ing ar­range­ments.

MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE LO­CALS

Our next stop was 150 miles down the road at Jeff Puck­ett’s house. A for­mer Nor­man, Oklahoma, po­lice of­fi­cer, Puck­ett is now a public-re­la­tions ac­count su­per­vi­sor for sev­eral out­door brands. I’ve known him for years, and when I told him about our road trip, he in­vited us to stay with him and hunt his friend Mike’s prop­erty in south­east­ern Oklahoma.

The high­light of our trip was hunt­ing Mike’s over­grown farm, a mix of hard­woods and fes­cue pas­tures in for­mer Chero­kee In­dian ter­ri­tory. Mike showed us to his blinds— many over­look­ing feed­ers—and left us to hunt our way. “Shoot ev­ery pig you see,” he told us.

And we did, mostly. Ky missed a be­he­moth boar—mike es­ti­mated it weighed 600 pounds—while Ed killed an eater-size year­ling with his .458 SOCOM. Ryan and I saw a few, but they were mov­ing too fast to get a shot. Walk­ing back through the woods at lunchtime, Ryan and I spooked a sow and her week-old piglets. We didn’t have a shot at the sow, but tak­ing Mike’s ad­mo­ni­tion se­ri­ously, I killed a piglet so small, it would fit in­side a bread bag.

Mike didn’t want any pay­ment or fa­vors in re­turn for al­low­ing us to hunt his place. But af­ter we learned he’s smit­ten with turkey hunt­ing, we in­vited him to Mon­tana, where we hope to guide him to his first Mer­riam’s gob­bler this spring.

Les­son Learned: Lever­age con­tacts and re­la­tion­ships with your net­work of friends and of­fer to trade hunts in ex­change for ac­cess to prop­erty with hogs.

PUBLIC LAND IS IFFY

While we knew hunt­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties on public land di­min­ish the far­ther south and east you travel from Mon­tana, we hoped we might have op­por­tu­ni­ties to hunt pi­grich sec­tions of state and fed­eral land. Ul­ti­mately, we didn’t give our­selves enough time to re­search public-land op­tions.

Lo­cals told us public land can be pro­duc­tive, but noted it can take years to learn the best spots, in­clud­ing what is called “mit­i­ga­tion land”—prop­er­ties man­aged for en­dan­gered species and where in­va­sive hogs are of­ten avail­able to hunt for free or a small fee.

Les­son Learned: Do plenty of re­search on public plots, but ex­pect to find the best hunt­ing on pri­vate land.

GET NIGHT-HUNT­ING GEAR

We saw many more pigs at night than we did in the day­time. Our noc­tur­nal ex­pe­ri­ences were guided by one of the Chain staffers, who fit­ted us with night-vi­sion gog­gles and drove us around the prop­erty, and by Puck­ett, who gave us a ther­mal-im­age tour of his deer lease.

This by-night hunt­ing squares with what I know about most se­ri­ous Texas and Oklahoma hog hunters—that “rid­ing the night train,” as lo­cals call af­ter-hours hunt­ing, is the ticket for the most and largest pigs. For lo­cals, in­vest­ing in pricey night-vi­sion and ther­mal-imag­ing sights might make sense—goodqual­ity ther­mal sights can re­tail for as much as $5,000. But for visi­tors, who might hunt pigs only once or twice a year, the ex­pe­ri­ence was more nov­elty than prac­ti­cal re­al­ity.

Les­son Learned: Con­sider short-term rentals. You can rent night-vi­sion firearms for $300 for a three-day rental (ul­ti­matenight vi­sion.com/rentals-s/1820.htm), or a ther­mal sight sys­tem for $150 per day (nightvi­sion­rentals.com/ prod­uct/pvs-7-pack­age/).

All told, we killed eight hogs. We loaded the wrapped meat in our freezer and pointed the Sub­ur­ban north, weary but wiser for our first road trip for wild pork.

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From right: Puck­ett shows off his cus­tom AR in .50 Be­owulf to the au­thor, Ed Sugg, and Ryan Lott. “Big Chris” John­srud checks the zero on his Rem­ing­ton 700 at Chain Ranch’s shoot­ing range. Wild pigs have been on Big Chris’ bucket list for years, and he...

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