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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hunting Marsh Hawgs (Part 1): The Place That Time Forgot

Mark at the (semi-) ready, searching for wild pigs.
There is a place, a vast and wild place, where you can experience the South Carolina Low Country in all of its beautiful, historic and natural glory. It was once a land of cypress swamps and brackish marshes, crisscrossed  by an ancient river, the Black, with all of its tidal creeks and narrow highlands of longleaf pine savannas. It is a place where ambitious white settlers grew rich on the backs of black slaves, who cleared the swamps (by hand), ditched the marshlands (by hand) and planted rice (by hand); Carolina Gold.

The rice fields are long gone, replaced through decades of neglect by sawgrass and of industry by impoundments, but the stately coastal plantations of antebellum remain as a reminder of days gone by, when this part of the South was a rich land of opportunity without peer.

That is not to say the marshlands between the Black River and the Intracoastal Waterway are now poor. In terms of wildlife, they are indeed bountiful. The place virtually bulges at the seams with life; alligators, turtles, catfish, gar, mullet, fiddler crabs, migrating waterfowl, herons, ospreys, bald eagles, anhingas, swallow-tailed kites and pigs, wild pigs, which is the reason I drove the 6-and-1/2 hours to get there last week.

It so happened the Brothers Degan needed a place to celebrate the start of Mark's bachelor weekend. Mark will soon be married and Brian wanted to take his little brother hog hunting before they met with a gang of ruffians in Savannah, Ga. to consummate the end of Mark's single life.

Our fearless guide, David Thomas.
It also so happened that I have friend with unique access and opportunity to offer would-be hog hunters in that particular part of the world. David Thomas is a native son of coastal South Carolina, a commercial fisherman, a bona fide redneck (in the very best sense) and an enthusiastic hunting guide with the seasonal rites to one of the planet's little slices of heaven - the Squirrel Creek Island Hunt Club.

I left Black Mountain at 3:30 a.m. to pick up Mark at his home outside Charlotte. From there, we drove toward the rising sun and the Samworth Wildlife Management Area boat ramp, to rendezvous with Brian and David. During our 20-minute boat ride to privately-owned Squirrel Creek Island and the 700-some acres of marshland it commands, David explained the variety of ways we could perish during our day-and-a-half adventure. We each had an option of A) death by sinkhole, B) death by man-eating alligator, C) death by disorientation and subsequent exposure or, most likely D) death by heart attack caused by shooting and dragging a massive wild boar across the middle of the marsh whilst trying to avoid options A through C. He promised, however, to do his best to keep us from such fates and we quickly pushed the dangers from our minds when he pulled the boat up to the landing at Squirrel Creek Island.
Squirrel Creek Island Hunt Club

The cabin (more like a lodge) is a testament to redneck ingenuity and hard work (in the very best sense). David was among the select few willing to take up the seemingly impossible task of ferrying building materials and construction of what, in my mind will always be the Taj Mahal of hunter-gatherer testosterone. It is a hunting lodge of unsurpassed maleness, with the all trappings and bric-a-brac of days afield gone by, a huge kitchen, eight beds, reliable plumbing, semi-reliable electricity, improbably reliable satellite TV and a porch perfectly situated to watch the always reliable sun setting over the marsh.

It was around noon as we quickly unloaded our gear and put David's plan into action. Brian and Mark took up their weapons (Mark with his scoped slug gun and Brian with his bow) and headed over to the end of the island where David has a tall two-seater ladder stand overlooking the marsh. In the meantime, the island's two corn feeders were filled up and David an I returned to the boat to go back and grab the rest of our stuff at the ramp. (I did tell you this was a 1-and-1/2 day hunt, right?)

Upon our return, some 90 minutes later, Mark and Brian reported they had seen nine wild pigs, all of them small, too small to bother with, but astonishing nonetheless considering the time of day and the minimal effort we'd put in so far. David considered leaving the Brothers Degan up there to wait out a bigger hog, but eventually chose to rally our party and take to the waterways in search of a spot-and-stalk opportunity.

As we putted through the ditches and levies that once served to access and maintain the now defunct rice fields, it was astonishing to think about the human labor that went into the transformation from swampland to agriculture in this endless tidewater.

David and his compatriots have continued in that spirit by turning the area into a hog hunter's dream. Throughout the marsh, they have erected ladder stands against tall, isolated cypress trees - the offspring of those mighty forests that once dominated - and created a means to locate and hunt the wild pigs that would otherwise be invisible as they forage in the sea of sawgrass and other marsh vegetation. On our way to one of these lookout posts, I spied a familiar shape swimming across the narrow canal in front of the boat. "Hog!" I announced excitedly in what was probably more than a stage whisper. I immediately received a stinging slap to the back of my head, but when I turned around to challenge the perpetrator, I dropped my ire amid the disapproving gaze of three sets of eyes. With the sizeable hog now alerted to our presence (don't ask me why they don't seem to be bothered by the sound of an outboard motor) we had no choice but to leave it alone and continue on in the hope of another chance.

We reached the stand, set against a lone, sentinel cypress in the middle of the marsh and David climbed up to glass the area. After a few minutes, he dismounted without any sightings to report, but he insisted it was a good spot and urged Mark to climb back up to stand watch with my rifle while the rest of us continued on to other lookouts.

We hadn't left Mark for more than 30 minutes when Brian's cell phone buzzed. It was Mark. "There are two pigs out in front of me - a red one and a marbled one. What do you want me to do?" "How far?" "75 yards." "How big?" "The marbled one looks pretty nice." "Then I want you to shoot that hog if you get a chance at it." "Will do captain."

David, Brian and I were almost to the base of another ladder stand so we kept on to it and climbed the rungs, all the while expecting to hear Mark's shot. From our vantage a quarter of a mile away, we could see Mark with the rifle shouldered, looking through the scope. We could also see four more hogs, about 400 yards out in front of us. KA-POOW. The pigs disappeared into the grass. The phone rang again. "Did you get him?" "Yep, he's down."

Mark directs the recovery of his hog.
Elated, we boarded the skiff and drove over to pick up Mark and his pig. His shot was perfect - a bullet between the ears at 75 yards and only a short distance to drag the 65-pound sow back to the canal where she could be loaded into the boat.

Despite the relatively short distance between the fallen hog and the boat, I finally understood David's earlier warning that nothing is easy out there in the marsh. As the two of us made our way to the pig, under the guidance of Mark, who remained in the stand, we took turns falling up to our crotches in the soft mud. Even as we crossed the areas of "solid" ground, the earth moved with every step. By the time we got the pig back to the boat, I was looking for an emergency asprin tablet and fearing I was about to succumb to Death Option D.

With a hog in the boat and everyone still alive, David suggested we head back to the island to get up into the stands overlooking the corn feeders, which were set to go off in a couple of hours.

Back on dry ground, the Brothers Degan headed off to one end of the island while I went to the stand they'd started out in at midday. The plan was to stay in radio contact and if I spotted a pig that looked like it could be stalked and the wind stayed right, I would call Brian over to give it a go with his archery tackle. After awhile, David came up and joined me on the watch. Minutes before the feeder was scheduled to go off, a healthy black sow with five shoats in tow crossed the marsh out in front of us. Their direction made it seem they would end up at Mark and Brian's location, so I called to alert them they were about to have company. Mark responded in a whisper. "We've already got five little ones feeding right in front of us."

At the news the Brothers Degan were covered up in hogs, David and I relaxed, sat back and watched the sun starting to set. Our careless conversation was interrupted only minutes later when the sow and her piglets decided to visit our side of the island instead. She came in on the high ground behind us and was about to tuck in to the freshly scattered corn when an errant breeze blew our scent over the set and she came up short. She was a nice one, 80 pounds maybe, and the shoats were pushing 20, but once she caught a whiff of human stink the jig was up and the gang disappeared back into the marsh.

Brian and Mark never saw a shooter pig as the dusk turned into darkness, but they had plenty of fun watching the group of little ones over the course of two hours, eating and tussling until it was too dark to see. We met back at the cabin for food and revelry which probably went on a little too far into the night, but what the hell - Mark had his hog, Duke was playing Arizona on the TV and the Squirrel Creek Island Hunt Club was rocking out in the middle of nowhere. Life was good and tomorrow was another day.

Come back soon for Hunting Marsh Hawgs: Day 2.
Hog fever!


Editor's note: Intrepid hunters looking for an adventure in the South Carolina Lowlands are strongly encouraged to give David Thomas a call and book a trip. He can be reached at 803-456-3387.

4 comments:

  1. Ahh... a vicarious SC hog hunt is better than no SC hog hunt.

    Seriously, it sounds like big fun!

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  2. Man, I can't wait to go back...hell of a place to stick a pig

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  3. I'm no bowhunter, but you guys are. Brian, we've hunted these pigs in quite a few places over the years. Can you think of anywhere that offers bowhunters a better opportunity for spot-and-stalking free range wild pigs?

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  4. The ability of Dave to drive a boat up to a stand over looking a marsh, climb said stand, glass, and navigate the bowhunter from the stand is unmatched. If you can't or prefer not to spot-n-stalk, the bow stands are well thought out and strategically placed allowing any kind of hunter to enjoy the landscape and stick a pig.

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