My 15-year-old cheerleader daughter, Caroline, has been going to the range with me for several years, and she did her hunter safety course quite a while back. But she hasn’t really expressed much interest in actually going hunting. So I was pretty surprised when, just the other day, she announced that she’d like to give it a try. It was spring break, so we made a couple of trips to the range to make sure she really was ready, and I made a couple of phone calls. The next week, thanks to the long late spring daylight, we went after school with my old friend August Harden and she got her first big game animal, a California wild hog.
Although a bit off and on, I’ve lived in California since the Marines first stationed me there in 1975, and I’ve lived on the Central Coast, the heart of our feral pig population, since 1994. So I tend to take our wild hogs for granted, but I really shouldn’t. Especially for a kid from Kansas, where we didn’t even have a deer season until I was a teenager, it’s a marvelous thing to have a genuine big-game animal available to hunt any time you get the itch.
Unlike some areas, where feral hogs are considered pests, in California our hogs are card-carrying big game animals. The season is year-‘round and, any size and sex is legal and, in most areas, there is no bag limit, but there are other rules. Legal shooting hours and methods of take apply. A basic hunting license has always been required, and in recent years every hog taken requires a tag. We started with resident tags in booklets of five for a few bucks, with part of the tag required to be returned. Ostensibly this wasn’t to make money, but to learn where pigs occurred and were being harvested. Right! Today we buy our resident pig tags at 20 bucks apiece, one at a time! But it’s still a wonderful thing.
Over the years I’ve seen our hog population go up, down, and I suppose sideways. Numbers go down dramatically during a drought, but pigs are prolific, able to produce multiple litters in good years, so when we get rains they come back pretty fast. Realistically, in my area I don’t think we’ll ever see the pig populations we had in good years in the ‘80s and 90’s, primarily because farming practices have changed. Barley has been a traditional dry-land crop on the Central Coast, and pigs thrive on it. Thanks in part to the ever-spreading vineyards, there isn’t nearly as much barley as there used to be. Add in some dry years, and despite good rains the last two years, it’s pretty bleak compared to the way it used to be, when early in the morning we’d see hundreds of pigs streaming from barley fields to bedding grounds. But there are still plenty enough around to make things interesting.
I actually don’t go out all that often, but over the years our pigs have offered a wonderful laboratory for testing guns and bullets… and it’s great to have some jalapeno-cheddar sausage and smoked pork chops in the freezer. Oh, yes, our barley-fed pigs are really good!
When the population was really high the wild hogs created almost a mini-industry along the Central Coast. We’re located about three hours north of Los Angeles and three hours south of San Francisco, and I reckon there were pretty close to a dozen local outfitters making a good living just hunting pigs. I never knew them all, but particularly good friends include August Harden (Cross Country Outfitters), Doug Roth (Camp Five Outfitters), Tom Willoughby, and my two-doors-down neighbor, Jack Wisenhunt (Hog Canyon Hunts). A lot of our local outfitters dropped by the wayside for lack of pigs and places to hunt them, and unlike a decade ago almost nobody does it genuinely full-time. But the opportunity is there, the reduction in pig numbers offset by reduced pressure.
Outfitters? For hogs? Well, that’s a California problem. The majority of the hog population is on private land because of food sources, and access is almost impossible unless you really know somebody. So guided pig hunts, uniformly successful and fairly inexpensive, are the norm. We locals accept this, and outsiders have little choice. For the last few years I’ve agreed to accompany the winning bidders on a pig hunt donated by Tom Willoughby to the King City Friend of the NRA. So, on the first day of February, at some ungodly hour, I met Tom and the winning bidders, Raul Estrada and his uncle, Ed Fuentes, somewhere along the Central Coast.
This is interesting to me because Raul and Ed, from Santa Barbara, are serious public-land deer hunters, so serious they have mules to pack into the vast wilderness areas in the coastal mountains above Santa Barbara…but neither had ever shot a wild hog. Tom Willoughby is nothing if not efficient. We fixed that “experience gap” in short order! Both Ed and Raul took nice “meat hogs,” Raul with a spectacular running shot. Our hunt, typical Tom Willoughby, wasn’t long-but extremely successful and enjoyable.
I had a tag but didn’t use it. A short while later Tom called me, asking if I was busy that afternoon. Uh, yeah, my editors are merciless, and I was busy. But maybe not that busy. Especially when Tom said he thought he knew where a pretty good boar was hanging out.
This was a most unusual pig hunt. In our area we have ridges of heavy chaparral, ideal bedding grounds, and the primary pig movement is from these ridges in the evening as the pigs go out to feed; and from feeding areas to the ridges in the early morning, as the pigs return to their bedding grounds. Often, from one ridge to the next, you can glass bedded pigs through little holes in the brush…but in more than 30 years of hunting the Central Coast I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pig bedded on a wide-open, treeless hillside.
So, when we glassed a black spot in a little depression far up on a totally bare ridge I had a lot of trouble accepting it as a pig. I guess it didn’t matter much because there was no way to tell sex or size on a sleeping pig! We put a big Zeiss spotting scope on that black spot, and it was clearly a pig, almost certainly a decent boar, snoring away in a depression he had dug on the hillside. The distance was about 225 yards, so I set up over my pack, and after a half-hour or so we started clapping our hands and whistling. We needed the pig to stand, not only for the shot, but so we could judge the size and the teeth.
Whistling and clapping didn’t work. The ears twitched, so we knew the pig could hear us, but he probably thought he was completely hidden. So he stayed tight. When the shadows got long we had to make a decision, so I fired a shot well over the pig’s head. He stood up, and he was a good boar, with gleam of teeth in his jaws. Good enough! I adjusted the hold and shot him through both shoulders, and he made a few yards and went down. I love pig hunting along the Central Coast.