Thursday, January 20, 2011

Florida Hog Hunt, Part I: The Long Road To Glory

I hit the alarm clock on its second beep: 4 a.m. It doesn't matter. I've been up since 2:30, wide-eyed in anticipation of hitting the road for what has become an annual tradition for me and my gang - two days in the orange groves outside Tampa, Fla. hunting wild pigs.

We couldn't do it without Sean. Our man on the ground has a great friendship with Mr. X. Mr. X is the man you need to know if you like the taste of wild pork. The story of their initial meeting is a testament to perseverance and good will. After moving outside Tampa several years ago and finding himself with nowhere to hunt, Sean started a letter writing campaign, leaving respectfully-written inquiries taped to every gate surrounding every juice orange grove and agricultural field in the area. The first round went unanswered, so he repeated. Sean's phone rang one night. It was Mr. X. "Are you the sonnufabitch who keeps leaving letters on my gates?" "Yes sir. Yes I am," Sean replied. "Well, meet me tomorrow morning and I'll show you around."

The wild hog population in Florida is estimated at around 1 million animals. In their never-ending quest to fill their bellies, those pigs do millions of dollars of damage to Florida's vast agricultural croplands, including the orange groves Mr. X oversees.

It is said Hernando DeSoto, Spanish explorer, conquistador and all-around asshole, first introduced pigs to the Florida Peninsula to feed his troops as they raped and pillaged their way to the Mississippi River in search of gold and commodities. The ancestors of those free-ranging hogs, along with infusions from escaped domestic swine and introduced European boar form the bloodline of today's feral pig problem across the Southeast.

In Florida, wild hogs are considered nuisance animals and therefore, they can be harvested without bag limits, 365 days a year on private land. We try to do our part.

I turn the ignition key at 4:30 a.m. and pull out of Black Mountain, N.C. for the 4-hour journey to Florence, S.C., where I meet up with Brian, who is driving a similar distance from the N.C. coast. It's 22 degrees when I leave and the snow from last week's storm still covers the ground all the way to Columbia.

We leave my truck in a WalMart parking lot and transfer my gear into an aged Blazer K-5 that will take us the rest of the way - we hope. "The Beast" is one of our friend Warren's most-prized possessions. Warren and Nate, the fourth member of the crew, happen to be in Tampa for a conference - serendipity. We'll bring their gear and rendezvous at Sean's house just after sundown.

"The Beast" drinks. Thanks Moose!
"The Beast" is running well. We gas up the big diesel twice along the way, thanks in no small part to the $100 gas card I have in my wallet, courtesy of Daniel "Moose" McLaughlin, who ran a contest on his blog, Moose Droppings, last December. If you hunt and/or fish in North Carolina, you should be reading Moose Droppings. McLaughlin does a great job of reporting important hunting and fishing news in the Tarheel State.

I've been friends with Brian for six years now. When Sue and I lived on the N.C. coast, Brian and I shared more outdoor adventures than I can remember. He is one of my closest pals and yet, even though he and his beautiful family visited us in the mountains over the recent holidays, we still have lots to catch up on. I'm not sure why it is, but a long road trip is the best way I know to reconnect. We talk about anything and everything and I remember how lucky I am to know him.

For lunch, we make our annual pilgrimage to one of the best BBQ smokehouses in the South - The GA Pig. Located off Ext. 29 on I-95, you'll know you're at The Pig we you see the smoke billowing from the ramshackle barn just east of the highway. Inside, the pitmaster sweats over a massive brick fireplace, turning out some of the most succulent pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked sausage and ribs you'll ever taste. Make sure you include the Brunswick stew as one of your sides. We've never tasted any better. 

We're driving through Orlando when Nate sends a cryptic text message. He and Warren arrived at Sean's around mid-afternoon and there had been talk of them checking a hog trap before our arrival. "One down" is all it says.

An hour later, Nate sends another text  - this time in regards to the football playoff game between my beloved Patriots and the trash-talking N.Y. Jets. "14-3." The radio in "The Beast" doesn't get AM stations so I can't keep track of the game, but my nerves are calmed by the sight of tropical air plants growing on the power lines. We're almost there.

We arrive at Sean's around 6:30 p.m. The Patriots are 5 minutes from losing to the dog-ass Jets, but I'm placated by a sumptuous meal of broiled yellowtail snapper, homemade menudo and Brussels sprouts spread out on the table. Sean and his wife, Susan, are consummate hosts who have been taking care of us these last four years we've been coming down for the hunt. Their friendship and hospitality can never be repaid.

Pig trap
After dinner, we hear the story of the dead 120-pound boar in the back of Steve's truck in the driveway. (Steve has come up from his home in the Keys to complete our hunting party.) The boys did indeed check the trap before our arrival. As they walked along the sandy road and came around the bend where the trap was set, two pigs were feeding just outside the entrance. Guns were loaded and Steve and Warren crept to 85 yards. The pigs were accounted for and a 1-2-3 countdown was initiated under the direction of Mr. X. Steve's hog is pole-axed on the spot while Warren's runs off unscathed. (Remember, we had Warren's gun in "The Beast," so he was using a borrowed lever-action with iron sights.) Warren is easily forgiven.

It's in the mid-50s outside and I chose to bed down on the sleeping porch Susan has so kindly made up. The frigid Blue Ridge Mountains seem a million miles away as I lay my head down on the pillow for blessed sleep. 14 hours on the road seems a lot harder on my body this time around. I must be getting old.

6 a.m. comes all too soon and we all huddle around the coffee pot in Sean's kitchen, waiting for daylight. The groves we are hunting are just 5 minutes from the house, so there's no need to rush out there in the dark.

Our strategy is simple and usually effective. We drive around the outer service roads and look down the lanes between row after row of orange trees until pigs are spotted. Once located, wind and distance to the pigs are factored and we work our way on foot into position for a shot.

We separate into two vehicles and enter the first block in convoy at 7 a.m. In less than 30 minutes, a hog is spotted and the shooters pile out to deploy. Warren and Nate are first up, as they have the most space in their meat freezers back home. Brian, Steve and I serve as back-up shooters, positioning ourselves several rows on either side of the primary shooters just in case the hog makes it past them. It does and with frantic hand gestures, I'm informed it's heading my way. I prop up my rifle on my shooting sticks and click the safety off. The red-and-black spotted boar is moving at a steady trot, so I'll have little time to acquire him in the 12-foot lane between the orange trees. If I don't get a shot off, he'll make it to the heavy cover surrounding the grove and be gone forever.

The pig's head emerges from the low branches on the right side of the row. He looks my way briefly and then continues across the lane. I hold on his neck a fire. The boar jumps a little and speeds across the lane and out of sight. The 65-yard shot felt good and after a minute, I walk down to where the pig had crossed. With Nate and Sean's help, we find his tracks in the sandy soil and a few yards later, blood. The trail goes 20 yards and we find my pig. My shot was further back than I aimed, but it appears to have clipped the lungs and the result is a 150-pounder that vastly outweighs any of the pigs I have harvested in the past. I'm elated. One half-hour into the trip and I have a full cooler. Ahhh Florida!

We load him up and keep going, but the pigs seem to have retired into the scrubby headlands early this morning. With an approaching thunderstorm in the background, we try a push through some heavy cover. Nate and Brian catch glimpses of a smallish pig, but there is no shot and we jump back into the trucks as the first heavy raindrops start to fall and lightning flashes across the sky. It's time for lunch.

For the next 3 hours it rains, sometimes torrentially, but there's an end to it on the radar and Sean and Mr. X assure us the pigs will be on the move as soon as the rain stops.

We're back in the groves 15 minutes after the rain stops and there are fresh tracks everywhere we look. We seem to be running just behind the herd, however, as we can't find any pigs for the first hour. Finally, the back end of a hog is spotted at close range and we bounce out to deploy the firing line once again. I sling my rifle over my shoulder and grab the video camera as the rest of the crew runs along the edge of the grove to catch up with, and get ahead of the pig on the move. The boys run around a bend in the road and I lose sight of them. BOOM!

I jog up and see Brian, standing in the middle of the service road, reloading his single-shot slug gun. In the water-filled ditch beside him, floats a beautiful 125-pound sow. As Brian was trying to sprint up ahead of the pig to act as a blocker for Warren and Nate, the sow chose to step out on the road in front of him at 20 yards and he dropped the hammer on her.

There are more pigs in the area that we keep catching glimpses of but can't put it together. Mr. X pulls up after checking on a few things and suggests we split up to cover more ground as the sun sets. I stay with Steve and Warren while Nate and Brian hop into Mr. X's truck and they race off to another part of the property. Twenty minutes later, we've seen another pig at great distance and we're driving around the grove to get closer. Steve's phone rings - it's Mr. X. "You need to get yer asses over here to the tomato fields. There's pigs everywhere!"

Stay tuned...


  1. Well, I am back in thee land of the living! When I saw the Missus dusting off the life insurance policies I thought I had better make that last effort.

    Always a good read from you as usual and I am jealous as hell. My brother rang me today to say the bow and the broadheads that Amish Tom sent me from the States have arrived in German customs so they are half way here.

    Once they do arrive, there's a few feral pigs around my place that are in for a shock!