High on the Hog

Hunter Brad Elliott shares the dos — and don’ts — of hunting feral pigs in the swamplands of Alabama.

I don’t pretend to be the authority on hog hunting, but I’ve done my fair share of quiet creeping through the swamp, inching toward a sounder through the kind of mud that grabs hold of your boots and doesn’t let go. In all honesty, hog hunting is very good for the ego because it’s not that difficult. But that definitely doesn’t mean my track record is free of embarrassing blunders. One day, I was sitting in a ladder stand deer hunting, and I saw a bunch of hogs move across the clear cut. They were too far for me to shoot, so I decided to go looking for them. I walked down in the bottom and saw one or two of them as they ran off in the direction of a cane thicket. I followed the path they cut, and all of a sudden it was like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” hog edition. I found myself in cane about 10 feet tall, and I couldn’t get out. 

Hogs were everywhere, running all around me and going crazy. It felt like I was walking on top of hogs trying to get out of there. I’ve never been so scared in my entire life. They were running in all directions, and I was just trying to get away. They were squealing, I was yelling. I was running, they were running. I didn’t know which way to go — all of the cane looked the same! 

No hogs were killed that day, but my pride was hurt a little bit.

They’re called feral hogs, but these aren’t simply pigs that have escaped from local farms. It has been reported that explorer Hernando de Soto brought the first pigs to North America on his 1539 expedition. Over a three-year period (and a journey of 3,100 miles) many of those pigs either escaped into the wild, were gifted to Native Americans or were left in our neck of the woods to provide de Soto’s men a pork dinner on their inevitable return south. It didn’t take long for the animals to proliferate, and today, at least 23 states have wild hog populations. It’s crazy to think that the hogs I’m hunting are the direct descendants of those de Soto pigs.

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Many people don’t realize how much of a threat hogs pose to the environment. First of all, they’re omnivorous, meaning that their endless appetite for both plants and animals can disrupt entire food chains. When they aren’t rooting up acres of forest floor, they’re preying on turtles, fawns, and the eggs of many birds and reptiles. Secondly, their rate of reproduction is astounding; a sow (female) can become pregnant at just 6 months old, and pig populations can double in just four months. Causing an estimated $800 million of agricultural damage each year in the United States, pigs have also been called the most destructive animal in Alabama.

To curb these destructive tendencies, there exists no bag limit or season for hogs in the state of Alabama. Because of this, hog hunting is a pretty casual, guilt-free excursion.

Until my wife and I moved to Mobile in 2006, I had never even seen a wild hog. I grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, and primarily considered myself a bird hunter. Ducks are still my favorite thing to hunt because, like hog hunting, you only have to keep quiet for a short period of time. Most people I know will tell you how much I like to talk.

For the most part, hog hunting for me is a by-product of other hunts. If you aren’t having luck with the deer or ducks or squirrels, you always have hogs to fall back on. I was introduced to hog hunting via deer hunting. When I first started hunting deer in Mobile, not killing hogs was very hard. It can be a bit slow sitting in a green field waiting for deer, so when hogs come out, you’re immediately tempted to shoot them. The thing is, if you shoot the hogs, your deer hunt is typically over because you’ve completely exposed your position. It’s still an inner battle I have with myself whenever I’m deer hunting — whether or not to shoot the hogs. Because in the end, it’s better than not getting to shoot anything, which is how a lot of deer hunts go.

Dressed and ready for a hog hunt. From left to right: Garner Jeffery, Brad Elliott and Palmer Whiting. Photo courtesy Brad Elliott

That said, sometimes we do go out looking for hogs. In that case, I would take an all-terrain vehicle that can navigate the swamp between the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, near Carlton, Alabama. This swampland can go completely underwater due to flooding. Some pigs make it to higher ground, some survive by floating on logs but many drown during those periods of high water, when one or both of the rivers are above significant flood stage. In fact, the population seems to fluctuate drastically based on how many floods we have in a given year. 

It’s important to have a large area to hunt because you might have to cover some ground. We ride down logging roads or whatever roads are available until we come across some hogs. That’s when you stop, get quiet and listen for them to run. They have very short bursts of energy, so once you spook them, they run really fast for a small period of time before stopping and getting really still to try and see you. You don’t chase them when they’re running because you will never catch them. You want them to run and stop as quickly as possible so that you can then sneak up on them. 

They’re very near-sighted, so they can’t see very well, and if you move slowly enough, you can get surprisingly close. That said, they’re smart and extremely instinctive animals with an amazing sense of smell. If I’m hunting with a group of people, everybody spreads out and inches their way forward to get a good shot.

Believe me, the meat does not go to waste; if I’m not taking pork home with me, someone else at the hunting camp is. It’s a very lean meat — not like the pork most of us are used to. If cooking a shoulder or ham from a wild hog, it’s a good idea to wrap it in bacon to keep the meat from drying out too quickly. It’s not hard to blame somebody for preferring store-bought pork. That reminds me of the time that one of my friends was on a hunt, and the hogs ran into a thicket. I guess he drew the short straw because it was somehow decided that he would be the one to enter the thicket to flush the hogs out. They have some sharp teeth, and I know better than most people about the dangers of walking into a thicket full of hogs. He turned around and said, “Can’t we just go to Piggly Wiggly and buy us a ham?”

Female hogs are the best to eat. Boar hogs produce andosterone (a male sex hormone) and skatole (a digestive by-product), the combination of which leads to something called “boar taint,” an unpleasant odor and taste. For this reason, some hunters will trap and castrate boar hogs before releasing them back into the swamp. Following castration, these “barrow” hogs, often marked by a notch on the ear, will not produce the chemicals responsible for boar taint, resulting in a better-tasting meat. Not to mention, boar testicles are considered by many to be a backwoods delicacy — I’ll just take their word for it.  

Besides being a high-adrenaline and entertaining, yet casual, hunt, hog hunting has been a great way to introduce my kids to the woods. My wife and I have four children, two boys and two girls, and they get just as excited about hog hunting as they do about deer, duck or turkey hunting. It’s great to watch them learn the art of stalking an animal, staying disciplined enough to quietly creep up close enough to get a shot. It’s the perfect opportunity to get them outside when nothing else is in season, and they can each tell you the exact number of hogs they’ve killed. 

It’s also a good teaching opportunity about the ethics of hunting and the importance of managing an invasive species. They might not yet realize what a special place this part of the world is, but their father does, and he’s working on teaching them.

He’ll also warn them about those cane thickets.

Brad Elliott is an avid outdoorsman and hunter. He lives in Mobile with his wife Kimberly and their four children. MB contributor Breck Pappas assisted with this story.

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