|Can you see them?|
My jaw drops as I look out into the field - a herd, a sounder of hogs, maybe 25 strong, is rooting contentedly in the rain-soaked soil. There are three or four black ones that look enormous compared to the kaleidoscope of shoats swirling around their feet. One of them is a boar and he is sniffing the sows to see if any of them are in season for breeding. In addition to the tankers, another five or six sturdy looking pigs of varying colors and patterns complete the group. They are 200 yards away and the sun is setting rapidly.
We huddle briefly and decide to drive parallel to the sounder to where we can park the trucks behind a small, isolated copse of palmettos and oaks. We dismount and creep en masse around the edge. The distance is 150 yards. The pigs are unaware. We belly-crawl the final few yards to a 12-inch dirt berm and steady our rifles on that and dial our scopes up to maximum magnification. The firing line is evenly-spaced across a 30-yard front. Brian is five yards to my right and Nate is a similar distance to my left. Mr. X instructs everyone to pick out a target and commence firing on the count of three. I put my crosshairs on a relatively stationary reddish blond hog and click the safety off.
It occurs to me that someone else may have also targeted this hog. Nate confirms this as Mr. X starts the countdown. "I'm on the big red one in the middle," he whispers. Well, hell. I pull off and frantically try to acquire another target that isn't moving or has its ass to me before ignition. I don't. "Three!" BoBoBoBooom, boom, bamBoom - chaos.
Hogs are running everywhere. As I look through my scope for a target (very hard to do at 9X). I note, somewhat concerned, that all of the hogs appear to have survived the first volley. The boys commence firing at will just as the 10-15 younguns decide as a group to break for the nearest cover, which happens to be right behind us. Everyone is now standing, with a great view of what happens next. The larger pigs take their cue from the shoats and start running towards us. It's like a reenactment of Pickett's Charge. I finally find a pig - the red one, running head-on - in my scope and fire - reload - find another pig. The shoats have closed the distance to 20 yards and are threatening to infiltrate the line, with the big hogs right on their tails.
Brian stones a white sow with black spots just before things get dicey. The red hog (the bloody red hog!) survives the gauntlet and runs between the two of us and into the safety of the thicket. The rest of the sounder, led by the little ones, seems to have finally figured out where we are and our evil intentions and makes a turn to the west, giving everyone broadside shots at running hogs at 15 yards.
My scope is still on 9-power. I can't find anything. Finally, a black blur streaks across my field of view and I swing hard to the left, catch back up with it, pull ahead of it and squeeze the trigger. The pig staggers and I reload. There's no need to rush, however, Nate closes the deal with a well-placed shot. The pigs are once again ass-to me and I lower my gun in time to see Steve and Mr. X bring down a sizeable silver-colored sow, and then it's over. The surviving pigs are moving at warp speed across the field toward the far treeline. We are left standing in the dusky, dusty light, shaking our heads in disbelief. Did that really just happen?
There are four pigs down, including one of the shoats that no one claims to have been aiming at.
Mr. X says he's never seen anything like it - that goes double for the rest of us.
We head back to the house to show Sean (he's been under the weather since our arrival and stayed back from the afternoon hunt to rest and cook dinner). Dinner is wild duck gumbo, two baked chickens and couscous. Did I tell you about our hosts? Afterward, we decide to process all the pigs so we'll have more time to hunt the next day before we have to leave. We break out the scales and weigh the bounty. The tomato field smack down amounts to 544 pounds of pork on the hoof. The largest is Steve and Mr. X's sow, which weighs in at 149 pounds. The shoat tips the scales at 26 pounds. We make plans to split him down the middle and smoke him over coals with a sweet glaze - imagine pork candy if you will. Added to the two hogs taken and processed before lunch and our total for the first day is over 800 pounds, live weight.
I am woken by Nate, who's already dressed and ready to go. Sean appears to have driven back whatever ails him, at least for the moment, and has his truck keys in-hand. On the way to the groves, there is a phone call - Mr. X says there's a big black hog in the middle of the field.
Warren is elected to take the shot, for which the rest of us should all be thankful for. As we pull up, Mr. X hands Warren his favorite 30-06 and points to the porker - 200 yards out in the field. Video cameras are deployed for posterity and there stands sleep-deprived Warren, with a bloodthirsty audience breathing down his neck, an unfamiliar rifle, two cups of coffee coursing through his veins and the prospect of the furthest shot he's ever attempted. It doesn't go well. There is a problem with the gun. Warren can't figure out how to chamber a round into the chute. He looks back at the crowd for guidance, gets it, and pushes the receiver button. "SCHWANNNNG" The pig looks up for the first time, sees his would-be executioners and decides life might be better somewhere over in Nassau County. I have never seen a pig run so fast.
It is the only pig we see all morning.
The group is getting whittled down. Mr. X has business to attend to, Steve has departed for the Keys and Warren has taken himself out of the line-up so that he might find a mechanic who can fix the back window motor in "The Beast," which has stopped working. If he cannot, we'll be forced to drive 14 hours through the night breathing diesel fumes.
We're more than halfway through and I pause to reform the line. To my right, Nate emerges into an opening and comes abreast of me some 20 yards away. To my left, I wait to see Brian. He's not there. I start thinking he might have something going on when I see his head poke up behind a tall clump of grass, then he ducks back down, then he's up again. It looks like he's about to pull back on his bowstring when, instead, he takes off running out of the headland and into the open pasture beyond. I can't see what's happening so I run over to where I last saw him and look out.
Brian is still running. There is a herd of pigs running ahead of him, making for another sheltered headland across the pasture. The pasture is full of cows. Brian has his bow and arrow. He looks like an aborigine, racing across the plains; all he needs is a loin cloth.
I run after Brian and the pigs, but I can't catch up before they all dive into the thick cover on the other side of the field. This sequence of events would be surprising except that I've seen it time and time again. When most hunters get busted by the game we seek, the normal reaction is to stop, watch the animal(s) run away and feel sorry for ourselves. Brian chases them. He says it catches them by surprise and half the time, it actually works. The animal stops to see what kind of maniac is chasing it through the forest and then Brian strikes.
I wait outside the head, which is actually a 3- or 4-acre, oval-shaped island of thick vegetation in the middle of the cow pasture. Sean drives up, followed by Nate and I tell them what's happening in there. We sit there outside the head, talking about what an idiot Brian is and then the phone rings.
"Hey, it's me. I'm in the head. There's pigs everywhere," Brian whispers. We let him know we're right outside the edge and he responds, "Did you bring my gun?"
Brian backs out and we regroup. Another 3-man push is initiated, with Sean working the video camera just behind. I'm just inside the thicket on one end, Nate's on the other and Brian's going right down the middle. It's thick in there, but if you get low you can see clearly for 25-50 yards. Two-thirds of the way through and I haven't seen or heard anything, but since we know the pigs are in there, it's getting to be crunch time. I reach the end of my transect, just inside the edge and BOOOM. Then nothing. I can see Nate moving on the other end of the thicket and I'm about to start crossing over to him then BOOOM. I crouch down just as the reeds rustle beside me and a rather large pig explodes out of the tangle. It's running right for me, then it veers slightly and splits Nate and I with just five yards to spare on my side. Nate is shouting to let me know where he is and I let the hog get beyond the danger zone and then touch off a shot. The hog keeps on running.
I think about running after it, a-la Brian, but then the bushes beside me rattle again. As I spin around, 6 or 8 tiny striped piglets emerge from the tangle and start running around my feet. I consider shooting, then I consider hand-grabbing, then they are gone. I have just enough time to run to the edge of the head and watch the hog I shot at run around the corner under a full head of steam.
Back at the house there is a bustle of activity. Nate's pig is broken down while gear is cleaned and packed. Warren drives up in "The Beast" triumphantly. The window motor is fixed. We stow or gear as tightly as we can and say goodbye to Nate and Sean, who must make it to the Tampa airport in time for Nate's 7 p.m. boarding call. Warren has decided to drive back with Brian and I. Space in "The Beast" is at premium but we make it work. The trip back to Florence and my parked truck is misery - all fog and rain - but we make it around 4 a.m.
I bid farewell to my traveling companions and go the last four hours to Black Mountain on my own. There's snow on the ground. It's 35 degrees. The orange groves seem very far away.