Last month I talked about some of my favorite forms of summertime shooting, from target practice to varminting. All are fun in their own right, but all serve the dual purpose of keeping me in good shooting form for the serious business of fall big game hunting. There's one thing I left out, and it happens to be the most enjoyable off-season shooting of all: Hunting our California wild hogs in the hills and valleys of the Central Coast. It's appropriate that I didn't include it with the rest, because this is genuine and serious hunting that, although it's close to home, I take just as seriously as any other big game hunting. On the other hand, since it's close to home I can go most any time, and it sure helps keep hunting skills sharp!
Most of California's wild hogs got their start from the 19th Century practice of letting domestic swine roam free. From the 1920's onward there have been several introductions of pure European wild boar into the bloodlines, and in some areas the grizzled hairs characteristic of "the real McCoy" are predominant. In other areas the pigs are a polyglot of black, brown, red, belted, spotted, white, you name it. It really doesn't matter; although variously called wild boar, European wild boar, Russian wild boar, and even more exotic titles, domestic swine and pure European boars from the Black Forest are the same species, sus scrofa. No free-ranging California wild hogs are pure European strain; all are properly called feral hogs. They are absolutely wild and have been free ranging for many swine generations, long enough that individual populations have expanded and come together, and now are found in varying densities in all parts of California except the driest deserts and highest mountains. Although all herds have a lot of domestic blood in them, it doesn't take many generations of fending for themselves for pigs to change in appearance. Ears and tails grow straighter, shoulders become more powerful and hips rangier, hair grows thicker, and of course the boars grow their tusks and form a thick cartilage shield that protects the shoulder.
Our wild hogs aren't the nation's largest. The coastal mountains are hot and dry much of the year, a tough place to root out a living. So the 500-pound hogs you here about are pure hogwash, so to speak, at least in this part of the world. A good boar starts at maybe 180 pounds and works up to perhaps double that-but genuine weights over 300 pounds are very rare. Still, 200 pounds is a lot of pig, and ours are absolutely wild and genuinely plentiful. Enough so that the season is open year round, with no bag limit. But don't confuse our wild hogs with the game-fenced animals hunted in many parts of the country. In California the wild hog is a bonafide big game animal; he requires a hunting license and each animal must be tagged. We residents buy our "pig tags" in books of five for a few bucks; nonresidents buy their tags one at a time for about $12 apiece!
The most popular time to hunt wild hogs is late winter and early spring, after most big game seasons are closed and before spring turkey season and summer fishing trips. This is a wonderful time to be in California's coastal hills. Mornings are cool and days mild, and winter rains usually make the slopes and valleys lush and green. When it's cool the pigs are out feeding longer, so in January and February you can hunt all day and have a good chance to spot feeding hogs. It's a great time to hunt . . . but it isn't the best time to hunt pigs!
Those honors go to the summer months, hands down! Pigs are well, pigs, ruled by their stomachs, and they will concentrate on favored food sources. In the fall they'll be in the oaks, scrabbling for acorns. In a dry winter they'll be hungry and lean and they'll be rooting and scavenging frantically. The meat is much poorer in a dry year, but the pigs are very visible . . . until it rains. Sometime between November and January it will almost certainly rain. The new green will come up, and now their entire range is a smorgasboard-and the pigs scatter like quail. You can still find them, but in a wet spring when everything is green you may look very hard and be convinced there are few pigs around. Just wait!
Barley is a favored dry-land crop in the Central Coast region, and barley is an irresistible lure for wild hogs. Depending on when the field was planted as well as when and how much rain was received, the barley will start to head out sometime between May and August. When it starts to get ripe the pigs will come-and they won't quit coming until they've eaten it all, or the remains are harvested.
Because of proximity to the coast there's a tremendous temperature swing between day and night; mornings remain cool and pleasant, but it heats up fast and stays that way until nearly dark. So the hunting day is pretty short in June, getting even shorter in July and August. That's okay, because this is the time of year when you know exactly where the pigs will be concentrated. They'll be spending the hot days bedded in thick chaparral hillsides, coming out just at dark to head toward the barley fields on well-defined trails. A distance of three to five miles from feed to bed isn't unusual. They'll feed through the night, and just at daybreak they'll start to work their way back toward bedding cover, hitting watering holes to and from.
So a summer morning of "pigging" starts early. Well before dawn you'll either be on a rise overlooking barley fields or, perhaps better, on a ridge where you can watch some of those trails the pigs are using. Big boars, with heavy bodies and good tusks, are not common. Hunting pressure reduces their numbers, and I believe they are among the first to die in a very dry year. But the big boars are drawn to barley just like the sows and youngsters, and summer is the best time to find them. The problem is they didn't get big by being dumb, and they will leave the barley early-often at the very first hint of gray. So for trophy boars watching the trails between barley and bedding cover can be even more productive than the fields.
The evening is the exact reverse; pigs may not leave the bedding cover until almost dark-and you can figure the older boars will come out last. So in the evening you must watch the wind carefully and set up as close to the bedding cover as you dare. Chances are it will be dark long before any mature animals get close to the barley!
Okay, if you know where they're bedding, why not go in after them? You can, but our chaparral and manzanita hillsides are an incredibly dense tangle, a very difficult place to get a shot. Short on time, we often prowl the edges and glass, and sometimes we spot bits and pieces of bedded hogs. Sometimes we work little fingers and pockets of cover, throwing rocks and letting our scent carry, and often we jump pigs this way. The hound hunters do this commonly, except they let the dogs find the pigs. Generally we avoid this, however, because pigs are strange this way. You can hunt them in the feeding grounds day after day, but if you disturb them in their beds just once they may move on and not return for a long time.
So, given a choice, we live with a short hunting day. In the summer I figure it's all over by eight a.m., nine latest; in the evening it isn't dark until sometime after eight, and we rarely start hunting again until past six o'clock-knowing, even then, that only the last half-hour is likely to count! For me this is a great situation; I can work through the day and not miss a thing. For visitors it's nerve-wracking, especially at first, but it's better to leave the pigs alone and do some sightseeing, napping, or perhaps some ground squirrel shooting through the long, hot day.
A couple of years ago fellow writer Greg Tinsley, gunmaker John Lazzeroni, and I made a summer hunt with Kyler Hamann, a good friend and local outfitter (Boaring Experiences LLC, (805) 461-0294. In the grayest dawn we saw a herd of pigs-mostly boars-working their way along a hillside between two barley fields, maybe a mile away. On our previous hunt together Tinsley had first shot, so this time it was my turn. We hotfooted it over there and were almost too late-by the time we finally sorted out a really good boar they were almost into tall barley, which will swallow an army of pigs. I got the shot off, and took one of the nicest boars I've taken in decades of hunting them. That should have been the morning, but while we were dressing my hog we spotted another group working their way through yet another field of low barley, probably another mile away. We hotfooted it yet again, and Greg took a beautiful boar at least the equal of mine.
That was a great morning, and usually I figure the summer mornings are a bit better than the summer evenings because you have more time. But it doesn't always work that way; sometimes the pigs move better in the morning, and sometimes in the evening-but rarely is the movement equally good, and the difference seems altogether random. An outfitter buddy of mine, Kirk Kelso, came over to hunt with me and I set up a date with yet another outfitter friend, August Harden (Cross Country Outfitters, Inc., (805) 467-3947. Conditions were perfect, still early summer with the barley headed up nicely-and plenty of sign where the pigs were hammering the crops. But we had a very slow morning, seeing only a handful of scrawny pigs. Hmmm.
That evening August took us along a firebreak topping a ridge that looked down into a thick chaparral pocket, at least three miles from the nearest barley. Although there was sign everywhere, there was one low spot on the ridge, a natural saddle where multiple trails converged out of the brush. We sat and waited, and with less than a half-hour of light remaining we had seen absolutely nothing. Then the pocket came alive, and we could hear the grunts and squeals and snorts as many pigs fought among themselves. In that last half-hour more than 75 pigs cross below us, and just at dark Kirk took a very nice boar in perfect body condition. You don't need a long hunting day if you're in the right place at the right time!
The only drawback to our pig hunting is that public land is very limited in this part of the world, and most of the pigs are on private land anyway because of agriculture and developed water. Personally, I don't see this as a drawback. There are at least a half-dozen really good outfitters operating out of the Central Coast towns of Paso Robles and Atascadero. Services vary, but prices are quite inexpensive as guided hunts go and success is extremely high. Given the value of time and the scarcity of do-it-yourself land, I think a two-day guided pig hunt is one of the rare bargains in our hunting world. Not everybody will come away with a trophy boar to mount-but any pig is legal, so you'll almost certainly come away with a whole bunch of the most flavorful pork you'll ever eat-and a desire to do it again soon.
Arguably the most experienced hunting writer alive today, Craig Boddington has hunted big game in 29 American states, five Mexican states, and seven Canadian provinces . In addition to his vast North American hunting background, he has been on 46 African safaris and has thoroughly hunted 25 different countries, effectively spanning all six continents.
He currently lives on California's Central Coast when he's not away hunting or on duty with the U.S. Marines. His work includes numerous magazine articles as well as 14 books on hunting and shooting (several of which can be obtained through Cabela's).
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