Vol. 3 - Living High on the Hog
by Blaine Eldredge
Something I like about wild pigs: The first hogs to run wild in America escaped from Hernando de Soto’s expedition, something it’s hard to blame them for doing. They flourished in the swamps and — like most animals living in swamps — kept to themselves. Five hundred years went by. Eventually, civilization caught up, and Southern residents caught glimpses of arcane swine vanishing into the slash pine. I say arcane because the European cousins of those pigs had either died out or been bred into oblivion centuries before. In fact the breeds were presumed extinct. Until they appeared again. It’s wild stuff, like finding a Dodo in California.
Then things got really weird. Folks in Texas imported Eurasian wild hogs for hunting purposes. Eurasian wild hogs are like pigs bred with hyenas:Hooves, flat snouts, curly-cue tails, but then stiff black hair, big teeth and spiny mohawks. The hogs escaped. They found and bonked feral pigs living in the South. In so doing they created an American super hog that’s canny, resilient, famously destructive, and delicious.
I knew all that but I’d never seen one. Then, in March, we needed meat. Many of my friends avoid meat of uncertain origins, and a few of us only eat animals we’ve hunted and killed ourselves. There’s not much hunting in Colorado in March, so I asked my buddy Zion (his real name) if he knew anyone in Texas who’d like us to come poke a couple hogs. He said yes, everyone in Texas wants you to kill wild pigs. We roped in Zion’s brother, Salem (also his real name), and another guy, Anthony, and went down, through West Texas, to an old military base outside Abilene.
At Zion’s direction, we pulled up at a pole building surrounded by mesquite and Zion got out. “Boys,” he said, “I feel alive again.” He grinned hugely. Zion and Salem are from Texas. At the border they were overtaken by a kind of jubilant lawlessness. No seatbelts, no agreeing with what anyone said, nothing but huge West Texas smiles.
“It is nice,” I agreed, on account it was March, 75 and breezy, the one good month in Texas. The trees were bare but hearty green grass grew everywhere. “Where’s Norm?” Norm was — we hoped — the landowner.
Zion gestured at the thickets on either side. “Around,” he said. He indicated a steep caliche road ascending a hill nearby. “Anybody wanna run that?”
We said no thanks and wandered past a WWII shooting range heavily overgrown with prickly pear cactus. In fact neither Anthony nor myself was confident Norm existed. Not because Zion spurns the truth, but because not everything he says seems to portray reality in the conventional way. I’ve got examples but suffice it to say Anthony and I both thought we’d end up sleeping in T shirts on the side of a dirt road.
Then, suddenly and to general relief, Norm pulled up. Red polo shirt, work pants, and immense goodwill. He stepped out of a dusty Isuzu Trooper and asked how everyone was.
“Well,” he said, after introductions, “What’s the goal? You after some time together or meat for the freezer or what?”
Meat for the freezer, we answered.
“Alright,” Norm said, “We’ll get serious about it.” He crossed his arms. “I got blinds for everybody on the back of the property. Why don’t you get your guns and we’ll get set up?”
We did. Norm asked us to keep our chambers empty in the truck, and we took off, up white dirt roads to caprock hills where oak and juniper trees grew. Then he delivered us at individual tower blinds, I got out at one defined as “nice,” climbed a steep ladder, and got a look around.
It was indeed very nice. In fact we’d learn everything Norm did was nice, virtuous, and accommodating. Inside were two office chairs, spent .22 casings, and a can of Sterno I took as a precaution against cold weather. I cracked the windows so I could get a rifle out, made sure I could fire either direction, and waited.
Pig hunting is hunting’s version of war. The animal is invasive. Pigs eat the eggs of endangered turtles, kill whitetail fawns and calves, tear up arable land, sometimes dig deep trenches and destroy $80,000 irrigation equipment, ruin crops, the list goes on. They’re wily but without the redemptive virtue of the coyote, namely, they’re not pretty. Almost everybody living with hogs hates them; there’s not a lot of rules to hunting them. There are no bag limits, no wanton waste restrictions, no prescribed method of take, you can hunt them or trap them or run them to ground with dogs whenever. If that sounds unfair, remember how resilient the animals are: Pigs are crepuscular but go nocturnal when hunted. They can eat anything. They breed whenever. Generally they resemble humans the way orcs resemble elves. Of course they have redeeming traits, but there’s something in their pandemic-like spread that’s enough to freak out even ardent animal lovers.
I waited in the tower. The views were nice. To the west, somebody was burning a section of land. To the south, the same green thicket. The sun went down and the sky turned electric orange. Then, in the cobalt evening, somebody fired. A pause. They fired again. My phone buzzed. Who is that? Zion asked. Anthony? A pause. Not me, Anthony replied. Two more shots followed. Salem, Anthony asked He doesn’t have service, Zion explained.
I got down at dark. The night was warm and quiet with the hoo-whistle of doves. Gray foxes came out to snarf corn at the feeder. Eventually, the Trooper pulled up, and I asked about the gunshots. Zion gave a cryptic smile and tilted his head at the trailer. I poked my head around and saw a good boar in the red brake lights.
Salem looked up from his phone.
“Are you stoked?” I stuck my head in the window.
“Yeah,” he said. He nodded affirmation. Then he tilted his head some as though to ask, Anything else? No, I thought, You only just accomplished our aim in coming here. No big. I filed the understatement with the others and got in. Down at the barn, Norm was set up with a couple scimitar-style butcher knives and hog seasoning. “You got a musky old boar!” he said, with real enthusiasm. He grabbed the hog’s teeth. “Look at those!” He looked down. “Ah, shoot,” he said, without alarm. “I said I’d keep my pants clean, but there it goes.”
An aside: Anthony and I were both afraid of brucellosis, something hogs carry. Humans catch it and get flu-like symptoms. We’d seen YouTube videos of game wardens gutting hogs in shoulder-length gloves and rubber coveralls. But here was Norm, who was, we learned, a dentist of some renown, grabbing teeth and getting pig blood on his khakis. We asked if he was nervous about pig diseases.
“Oh, no,” he said, and rattled off a list of regular pests. “Just wash your hands after.” That was enough for us. We de-boned the pig and tossed the offal in the desert, then circled back for pasta around 11:00.
And that was it. No more pigs did we see. Turkeys, deer, squirrels, yes. So many squirrels that, as we drove out for one attempt, Zion looked over from the passenger seat and said, “If those squirrels come back, they’re dead.” He gave one of his family’s signature cryptic smiles. “I mean — you could shoot the ground next to them, right?” We had a theory about that, an adaptation of a technique called “barking,” and said he should knock himself out, which he did. The squirrel was harvested and tasted great.
Then, on the last night, we pulled up to find Norm at the pole barn. He’d built a fire and was in a hospitable mood. He talked about his life with God, miracles he’d seen, and then, looking at the sky, asked if we wanted to try the thermal.
The thermal was a thermal vision monocular with a range of about a quarter mile. Hold it to your eye, and even the trees stand out in their varying temperatures. We took the Trooper, drove out, and crept on tiptoe to an overlook. Norm had a green SureFire flashlight in one hand and the thermal monocular in the other. “I’ll hand off the thermal, and then I’ll bring the light in. You’ll have a minute to get your scope on them before they run.” The stars were full out, no moon to speak of, a beautiful night. We made the overlook. Norm checked with the monocular. One way, then the other. Then he straightened. He handed me the thermal. “Nothing doing,” he said.
That was true. We searched a mile or so of ground. There was a bird or two, and a coyote ran off. But there were no pigs to be seen. “I’d love to keep helping you guys,” Norm said, “but I’ve got a surgery to perform at seven o’clock tomorrow.” That was good with us — it was 11:30, and anyway we had West Texas to cross.
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