I have a newfound respect for the ferocity of wild boar after this weekend’s hunt. And I have now seen up close that boar are not just wild pigs; they are something else entirely.
Holly and I drove down to high hills of Monterey County to our friend Michael’s Native Hunt ranch Friday night to see if I could kill a wild hog. I was excited, because if I succeeded, it would be my first big game animal since October 2007, when I hunted antelope in Wyoming. Holly’s been doing all the big-game hunting recently.
Now Michael, our friend and guide Sam, and our fellow blogger Phillip are crazy about hog hunting. Phillip’s blog is exclusively about it. Sam likens pig hunting to a poor man’s grizzly hunt. I never really understood that. I mean a pig’s tastier than a deer, but they’re more or less the same when it comes to hunting them: You spot a pig, you stalk within gun range, you shoot, and if all goes well, the hog dies with one shot.
Spotting and stalking is what they do on Michael’s ranch, but the ranch is largely deep canyons and thick, thick scrub. Long shots are possible, but most of the boar that live there hang out in the rough stuff. This is Sam and his hound Tough walking through one of the more open areas:
Late in the morning, Sam and I drove our ATV into the bottom of one of these canyons, known as Cherry Lane because it is lined with wild pin cherries (not ripe yet. damn.) In the hollow at the canyon’s base, the trail was tight and the scrub was close around us. We got out and looked around, and a few steps away I spotted some wild sage.
I bent down to pick some, when I heard rustling and grunting in the scrub around us. A troop of about a dozen boar walked into the clearing and stopped, not 10 feet from us. Feral hogs would have turned and ran, as would pretty much any other game animal in the United States. But not the Eurasian boar. They stood their ground and stared at us, snorting.
Winston Churchill once said, “I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” For the first time I felt what it’s like to be the equal of a wild animal; up until then I’d always been the predator, the game prey. These boar were not scared of us. And we were in their way.
Two big black sows, each pushing 200 pounds, advanced. Sam drew his revolver, I shouldered my rifle. “Don’t shoot,” Sam said. He did not want me to start a melee.
Just then the sows rushed in. All I could think was that I was going to kill this pig before it hit me. Sam cocked his pistol. But then the sows stopped; it was a false charge. Five feet apart, we equals stood our ground. And then for whatever reason, the tension broke. The sows rejoined the group, they all walked around us and vanished into the scrub.
Now I knew what Michael and Sam and Phillip had been talking about. This was a close encounter with an animal that can and often does fight back. People get killed and injured by wild boar every year in Europe. I get it now.
And this was not our first encounter with a killer that day.
Earlier in the morning, Holly, Sam and I were cruising around looking for hogs when a copper-colored flash darted across the trail no more than 20 yards in front of us. It had a long tail. Mountain lion.
I had never seen a lion in the wild before, although I’d had my tracks crossed by one once when I was hunting rabbits in the hills below Nevada City. All three of us — even Sam — were startled. He said he had not seen a lion in two years. We stopped the ATV and Sam got out. He wanted to see if it had killed a boar or a deer in the nearby scrub. We stayed with the vehicle as he clambered into the scrub. I didn’t think the lion would circle around and come back, but you never know.
Crashing in the scrub. Christ! Phew. Just a blacktail doe. Maybe that’s what the lion was stalking when we interrupted it. I called out to Sam, but he did not answer. A few more minutes went by, and we heard rustling in the scrub behind us. It was definitely not Sam.
A cottontail bolted from the scrub across the road. The rustling continued. And then a blond wild boar stuck its head out of the scrub, looked at us for a long moment, then disappeared back into the brush before I could get my wits about me and my rifle shouldered.
Sam returned and we told him about the hogs. He said he wasn’t sure they’d re-emerge and at any rate wasn’t terribly keen on getting into the thick stuff with a lion prowling around, so we moved on.
About 100 yards down the tail, the brush on our right opened up into a little meadow — and there was the blond boar, ambling through the field with two darker hogs. This was our chance! Sam said shoot the blond pig. It was barely 50 yards away, so I braced my arm on the side of the ATV and aimed for his front shoulder.
Crack! The bullet hit true and the pig went down.
It was over, just like that. We walked over to the boar and immediately noticed that it had enormous tusks for a pig of only about 80 pounds; Sam estimated them at nearly 2 inches. It was an older boar, too, about four years old. Sam saw it had torn ears from fighting, and declared that he must have been a tough little bastard to survive.
And then we saw just how tough. Right behind his head was a black open wound the size of a saucer, crawling with maggots. Absolutely revolting. Either he had escaped a lion attack or some poacher had shot this pig and took a chunk out of the back of his neck.
Ugly, maggot-ridden wound or no, this was my pig. So we loaded him onto the ATV. On the way back to camp we worried that the meat might be poisoned from infection; it would be easy enough to spot because the meat discolors and gets a greenish cast. We’d know soon enough. As we drove, we couldn’t get over how normal this boar had looked: He was leading his little troop, ran just like the others and wasn’t overly skinny.
“Boar are tough bastards,” Sam said, and began retelling similar stories of beat-up pigs hunters he’d guided had shot. We then remembered that maggots are actually a good sign on an open wound: Maggots only eat dead tissue, so they clean the wound, preventing gangrene and the sorts of infections we were worried about. “Yeah, remember that scene with Russell Crowe in the movie ‘Gladiator’,” I said.
That’s when I decided this pig’s name would be Maximus, just like Crowe’s character in the movie; for some reason Holly and I name all our pigs. After all, Maximus was a tough bastard, too, and as Crowe isn’t the tallest actor on the set, that fit as well. When we skinned him and cut away the old wound, the meat was clean and bright. But for me, Maximus would have survived.