In just a few hours it would be a hot July morning, but a pleasantly cool dawn was just breaking when we took a stand on a ridge. In the early morning, the pigs would work their way up from the irresistible barley fields in the broad valleys below, headed toward thick chaparral bedding areas in the higher hills behind us. In theory, our ridge straddled a movement corridor, and we would soon see pigs.
Our California pigs tend to operate along major trails, at least until they’re disturbed. But they have choices, so it doesn’t always work perfectly. It didn’t this morning! The older boars usually move first, often in the dark. They are Dracula pigs that might turn to dust if touched by a ray of sunlight. At first light a big one picked his way along the opposite ridge, much too far to shoot and too far to get ahead of. We held our ground, and two more boars followed the same path, totally out of reach.
Then a big group appeared on the farthest ridge we could see. Initially they were on the sidehill facing us, and I thought they might cross a saddle and come our way. Instead they turned the other way, up and over and gone. By now it was full daylight, bright sun held back only by the marine layer. I figured we’d lost the gamble, but guide Tom Willoughby Jr. knew this ranch and his pigs, and we held our ground. Another half-hour passed, and a big mob of pigs appeared in the canyon mouth below us. Perfect!
Honestly, our local pigs are sort of my in-house ballistic laboratory, so I don’t always use the most sensible choices. On this morning I was carrying an open-sighted Mauser. When the pigs paused 80 yards below us they were still in shadow, and I could barely see the pig over the sights. I picked out what seemed to be the largest pig and tried anyway, missed, and that should have been the end of the game.
But once on a course pigs are sometimes determined, and these continued angling up our ridge, headed for a saddle. We ran along the ridge top, putting on the brakes just as they crested. I got set and got lucky, rolling a good-sized boar at the tail end of the herd. It wasn’t yet seven o’clock, a fine morning of summer pigging!
Surveys suggest that most hunters, something like 80 percent, do all of their hunting in close proximity to their homes. That does make me a bit of an exception, but I’m not surprised at this because I’ve seen it all my life, and I’ll take it a step farther: Most hunters not only pursue their sport close to home, but they also tend to concentrate on the game that is most available and most accessible close to home!
When I was a kid in Kansas, hunters were upland bird hunters, pursuing the pheasants and bobwhite quail that were abundant back then, in a time when access was still available for the asking. Fast-forward 20 years. Quail had become scarce, but “posted” signs had proliferated. So had reservoirs and impoundments that brought in unprecedented numbers of waterfowl. Most of my quail hunting buddies obtained decoys and boats and became duck hunters. Fast forward another 20 years, and they are now whitetail hunters, pursuing the bounty that Kansas is now best known for.
Central California, where I spend much of my time, is no different. Not too long ago we had fantastic deer hunting. It’s a weird and brutally hot August-September season, but it’s a long season with a two-buck limit, and it was deer season most of us looked forward to with the most anticipation. Different factors are blamed: Vineyards blocking access to water and browse; too many predators; human encroachment; a long drought. Undoubtedly it’s a combination of factors, but the deer herd along the Central Coast has collapsed, and with the collapse hunter participation has plummeted.
Our feral hogs have been present for at least a century. They, too, are drought-sensitive, so the population rises and falls, but the pigs have been resilient, and have slowly increased their range until they are now present in every California county. For at least 20 years they have been California’s most important big game animal, very spotty in most areas but concentrated in just a few. The Central Coast, primarily San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties, is definitely one of the centers, in good years the wild hogs almost a mini-industry.
The advantages to the wild hogs is the season is year-‘round with no bag limit (licenses and tags are required, and every pig taken must be tagged). In good years sows drop multiple litters of multiple piglets, so hunting alone cannot contain them-only Mother Nature can do that. So the further rule is that any wild pig is legal game. Relatively few hunters consciously go after a smelly old boar, a “sausage ping.” Prime sows offer tastier, and some hunters purposefully go after perhaps the best of all, a young porker of 80 to 100 pounds.
The primary drawback is that there is very little public land, and in any case most of the pigs are on private land where there is agriculture and permanent water. Unless you know somebody access is very limited, and even if you do, a lot of the very pig country is leased by local outfitters. This makes it pretty tough for do-it-yourself hunters, even us locals, but in general it’s not a bad thing because costs for guided hunts are extremely low, and the hunting is very successful. This makes our pig hunting an ideal situation for outsiders, whether from the big cities to the north and south, or from the other side of the country.
Winters are mild, summers brutally hot during midday, but thanks to dry air and proximity to the coast, a huge temperature swing that makes even summer evenings and mornings cool and pleasant. So pig hunting year-round truly is practical. When I was an outsider I used to think the winter months were the best. December through March you can hunt all day, and although pigs are more nocturnal than diurnal or crepuscular, daylight movement is likely. The problem is that’s when we get our rains, so you must bank on the weather. Pigs are fair-weather creatures; when it’s raining you have to kick them out of their beds, and if it rains too much the ranch roads become gumbo and access is impossible.
The summer sounds impractical, but it’s actually a pretty good time. The only real crop in the area is barley, and pigs can’t stay out of it. The barley will begin to head out in late spring, and as long as there is barley in a field you know where the pigs will be every night! The hunting day is short, just a couple of hours in the morning and last light in the evening, but that’s not all bad for me-I can get in a day’s work during a summer pig hunt. Also a nap, because with the long daylight the nights are even shorter. For visitors, well, there’s wine-tasting in the local vineyards (after the pigs are tagged!), fishing in the local lakes, or just plain napping, an essential during summer pig hunting!
There are quite a few local guides who are very good, but two that I use the most are Tom Willoughby and his son; phone (831) 385-3003, operating out of the King City area about 50 miles north of me; and August Harden, here in the Paso Robles area; phone (805) 423 4613. Honest, you can expect to take a meat hog on a two-day hunt-failures are pretty rare. Trophy boars, well, that’s another story. There are always a few around, but they are a small percentage of the population, and have lived long enough to become more way and very nocturnal. This makes a real trophy hog, with thick lower tusks showing three inches or more, a greatly under-rated trophy. Even if you prefer a meat hog, you shouldn’t pass on a good boar-you might not see one for many more outings! Whatever kind of pig you take, you will then discover the other part of our local wild hog cottage industry: Sausage making, in myriad forms. My favorite is jalapeno-cheddar, a Central Coast exclusive!