If at first you don’t succeed, pay someone to help you succeed. Our first hunting trip was a mess. We didn’t find any pigs. We didn’t even know what to look for. We needed help.
The very next day we called a guide. We set up a hunt on his private land north of Lake Sonoma, and after promising him about a hundred times that we were actually going to show up, we were set. Brad and I met Ernie at the Chevron gas station in Cloverdale, just north of Santa Rosa, at 4:50am on Thursday morning.
When we talked to Ernie on the phone he said he hadn’t hunted his land in more than a year, but he’d been there two weeks prior and there was pig sign everywhere. He sounded absolutely confident we were going to find pigs. It’s a pretty big leap of faith to give someone hundreds of dollars on their belief that pigs might be there, there’s no refund if we can’t find any pigs, but we were desperate for access to private land. We did some paperwork at the gas station, handed over a small fortune, and then followed his truck west out of town towards his ranch.
We parked the trucks in the dark. Ernie told us in a hushed voice to gear up and be quiet. Ernie is a man of few words. We knew we needed to gear up, but how much gear? Would we come back to the truck? Should we bring our lunches? Should we load our rifles, or were we going to a staging area? Brad made the mistake of asking without whispering.
Ernie is a cantankerous old bastard. It dawned on us very quickly how cantankerous he is when he told Brad, in a hushed tone, to “shut the fuck up”, that he was “scaring the pigs”. I liked Ernie immediately.
We met Ernie’s helper, Steve, who seemed like a nice enough guy. I guess it was Steve’s first time working for Ernie. Steve immediately started smoking. Pigs have a good sense of smell; I heard Ernie quietly swearing at him. Brad locked his truck. It beeped loudly. Ernie sighed deeply.
We left the trucks and walked up the trail a half hour before sunrise. It was cool and dark. The air was crisp. We walked up a hill and along a ridgeline as the sky got brighter and brighter. It was beautiful. The valleys on either side of us were filled with fog, like a soft white mass of water. Other hills rose out of the low-lying fog like islands. I kicked myself for not having brought the camera.
We walked at a medium-slow pace, luckily heading into the very light wind, occasionally coming together for whispered words of wisdom from Ernie. We saw pig sign right away, the ground under every oak tree was completely rooted out, and a lot of the sign was fresh. The dirt wasn’t baked and was still soft and damp; the pigs could have been here just a few hours ago! We chambered rounds and continued on slowly.
Ernie pointed out things we didn’t notice: rub marks on trees, how some of the rooting was directional, and small paths leading down into the wooded valleys. Brad also told me he would mutter “What the fuck is that boy doing?” or “God damn it, he’s going to scare off the pigs” when I would occasionally break off and scout out an area by myself. I would come back to see him shaking his head. Hahaha.
I called Ernie a “Drama Queen” after he bitched me out about something I did that was wrong. He loved that.
We split up to cover a little more ground, Ernie and I checked out the remainder of the ridgeline trail we were on, Brad and Steve went down into a valley to check out some sign Ernie had seen two weeks earlier. I had a feeling that Brad was going to find the pigs first and was just waiting to hear the BOOM of his 30-06, but just like us they found lots of rooted dirt and no pigs. We met back up and doubled-back to check out another area.
The sun slowly rose and fully illuminated the pig wonderland we were hunting in. There were entire hillsides that were completely rooted out and it seemed like the ground under every single oak tree had been freshly turned. We found some pig wallows with fresh tracks, but no pigs. Frustrating, but exciting. We hunted on.
Steve had stopped chain-smoking a few hours ago, but was now plagued with a long loud smoker’s cough. We would be quietly creeping along, avoiding sticks and other noise-making debris on the ground when suddenly from behind us we would hear “HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK! HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACCCCCKKKKKKK!!”. Ernie would glare back at Steve and whisper “Shut the fuck up Steve!”. Ernie was really hitting his prime, occasionally telling us “God damn it, you’re doing it wrong!” when we did something – anything – in a manner he disapproved with.
By 8AM we had reached the end of the second ridge trail. We had heard noises a few times, one that I was sure came from something large and four-legged, but didn’t see any wildlife. Brad and I were itching to head off on our own and that seemed to suit Ernie just fine. He said “Alright rookies, I’m sending you off on your own. If you see a pig, don’t fuck it up. Steve, god damn it, just try to be quiet.”
We headed down about 400ft into the valley and crossed a small stream before heading into the tree canopy and occasionally dense underbrush. Again there were lots of pig sign, but no pigs. We followed the stream slowly through the forest; thankfully most of Steve’s hacking coughs (followed by muttered “Steve! Shut the fuck up!” comments from Brad and me) were masked by the white noise of the flowing water.
We were starting to get a bit discouraged. Where were the pigs? I wondered how much work it would be to use some sort of rototiller machine to dig up the ground near oak trees and sucker wanna-be hunters into giving you hundreds of dollars for the pleasure of tromping around your pig-less estate. It probably wasn’t economically viable, but Ernie was obviously a sadist, so maybe teasing others with fresh tilled earth was something he enjoyed.
Brad and Steve were exchanging a few whispered words (“You’re doing it wrong!”) and I was walking a few feet ahead. We came up over a small crest. 35 yards away was a beautiful black pig with dark brown legs. I gestured wildly, brought my rifle up, clicked off the safety, and dropped down into the prone position. Brad whispered “No! It’s a dog!”, and then a few seconds later said “No, no, ok, shoot”.
Mr. Pig was a male boar, probably about 180lbs. He was snuffling and pawing around in the grass. He turned away from us and I had no shot, but just as quickly he turned broadside. I moved the crosshairs above his elbow, just behind his shoulder. I took a few deep breaths and slowly squeezed the trigger. He suddenly looked up, right at me, and we both knew that his time had come.
I was surprised by the gunshot. My ears rang. Just like at the range I knew exactly where the shot went before the rifle jerked off-target. It was perfect. Brad and Steve took off running. Why? Where were they going? The pig was down, the pig was… wait… where was the pig?
I lay on the ground, stunned, while Brad and Steve ran off into the forest. What was going on? Where was my pig? Where were they going? I was suddenly standing and running after them. I worked the bolt action and chambered another round. Why was the pig still moving? I shot it in the vitals! Where did it go? My brain was lagging behind my body, it was truly a visceral experience.
I caught up to the other guys after about 100 yards. Brad had shouldered his rifle and was pointing uphill. He shot twice and after the second shot the escaping boar abruptly stopped running and started rolling back down the hill towards us. We all took a second to catch our breath.
We checked the boar carefully: my shot was right where I had aimed, just behind the pig’s shoulder. Both of Brad’s shots hit the pig, the first a through-and-through gut shot, the second went through the ear and neck and stopped the pig so quickly. Steve said he thought that my shot would have been fatal and that the pig wouldn’t have made it to the top of the hill, but I was pretty happy it hadn’t escaped. Tracking a wounded pig didn’t sound like much fun.
We hung the pig from a tree by his hind legs and Ernie came back on an ATV to direct the skinning operation. I must confess I was very happy to have someone else do this part, figuring out how to hunt is easy compared to field-dressing an animal. Ernie and Steve skinned the boar, cutting the skin away from the legs, open on the rump, and around the whole boar all the way down to the neck. They cut around the anus and removed the penis, opened up the stomach cavity, and scooped out the organs as if with an ice cream cone. They cut off the hooves, hacksaw’d off the head, and voila, we were done!
The process was eye-opening. It was surprising how easily (with Ernie’s expert help) the animal was transformed into a hanging rack of meat, very similar to what you might see in an action movie where the villain hides in an industrial freezer. I don’t know what I was expecting, but once you’ve pulled off the skin and scooped out the innards, everything else is meat!
We left the innards, skin, and head where we had dressed the boar – other pigs, vultures, and various forest animals would take care of the cleanup for us – and packed the meat up the 400ft hill to the ATV. Ernie took the ATV and meat back to the staging area to get the truck, then returned to pick us up as we walked back. We made the mistake of getting into the truck with Ernie, who promptly tried to kill us by driving like an absolute maniac. Seriously, 60mph over a bumpy dirt road with hanging tree branches that would sweep the back of the pickup truck. I think Ernie was looking for some payback for the “Drama Queen” comment I made earlier.
Brad and I took the pig into town, packed it in ice (it was a cold morning, so we didn’t worry too much about cooling the carcass), and took it to the processor at Willowside Meats on Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa. The guys there were super helpful, telling us politely not to gut-shoot our next pig, and took our order for smoked ham, loin chops, and sausage.
We went back to Ernie and Steve and hunted the rest of the afternoon without success. Ernie put together a plan for us and we went off with Steve again. We covered a lot of ground and Steve started falling back behind us. We ended up losing Steve as dusk fell. He must have missed the turnoff from the path we were taking. By this time it was getting dark and we weren’t sure we could find him by heading back, so we headed back up to the main ridgeline trail and started on the long walk back to camp.
As soon as we realized we’d lost Steve, and it was getting too late to shoot a pig anyway, we started hollering. He shouted back once or twice, but we weren’t worried, he had a radio, a flashlight, and was in the same spot where we shot the pig that morning. When we all met back up, Ernie was a little pissed “You guys just fucking left him? That’s not right”. Ernie was right, even if we were frustrated at drag-ass Steve’s inability to keep up, we should have been a lot more careful to stay with him. Anyway, no harm, no foul, Steve didn’t get eaten by coyotes and we had a great hunting experience.
Thoughts on the day:
We hunted the valleys and hills in the wrong order. Pigs have a fantastic sense of smell, much better than their eyesight or their hearing. The Hog Blog has a great article on hunting with the wind. Because the wind was so light, we should have been paying attention to the thermals, which flow downhill in the mornings and uphill in the afternoons: we should have been hunting from the valleys upwards in the morning, and hunting from the ridgetop down into the valleys in the afternoon. We did it the other way around.
Ernie was incredibly knowledgeable (and very funny), and we both learned a lot from him, but we didn’t get the guide experience we were hoping for. Our goal for hiring a guide was to receive expert instruction on a topic we know nothing about, but what we got was some hunting tips and one day’s access to his land. I wish that he would have spent more time teaching.
I’m not taking any more ‘behind the shoulder’ shots. If you don’t mind the graphic images, Texasboars has a great article on the Anatomy of Wild Hogs that illustrates how low and forward the pig’s heart is. The advice to shoot ‘just behind the shoulder’ will probably hit the lungs, but as we now know from experience, pigs can haul ass with damaged lungs. I’m now going to shoot just below the shoulder or go for the Hog-Blog-recommended neck shot.
I’m going to spend more time at the range. I need to work on shooting faster and reacting quicker after the shot.
Finally: hunting is fun! We had a great time hiking, our guides worked with us all day, the kill was exciting, the pig didn’t escape, and most importantly I can now say that I’ve brought home the bacon.