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“Pigs!” I shouted, pointing to a tiny black speck on a hillside a mile away.
“Where?” RJ said, lifting his binoculars. As he did, two more little specks ran in front of the first one. “Wait. I see them. Let’s go!”
RJ, who is RJ Waldron of Northwind Outfitters, took off at a run down into a canyon, leaving our perch at the top of a mountain just east of San Miguel, on California’s Coastal Range. I jogged after him, proud that I’d spotted the game. My eyesight is only so-so, which means I am not often the first person to spot whatever it is we are chasing. We slowed to a brisk walk when we hit the canyon floor, angling toward the hillside where the pigs were milling around.
They were still there when we closed on them. Pigs have even worse eyesight than I do, which means you can stalk pretty close to them if you are quiet and the wind is in your favor. We crept through a field, putting a tree between us and the pigs, just in case they happened to look our way. Safely behind the tree, we got a good look at them. They looked like a family group, wandering around, eating green things. One boar, a couple sows, and a bunch of cute, stripey piglets.
I had one of the sows dead to rights. The crosshairs of my scope hovered over a spot right behind her ear. “Should I shoot?” RJ said no, let’s check this sow to make sure she was not “wet” and still nursing those piglets. With my scope still on her, the oblivious pig munched happily. Finally, she took a few steps into some shorter grass. RJ sighed, and I knew before he said it that this sow was indeed wet. I had no angle on the boar, so we backed out and moved around to head the pigs off on a nearby hillside that was dotted with oaks.
Sure enough, they ambled over our way. And they were close, so close I could see that the wet sow I’d almost shot had black eyes. The boar had orange hair just like the sow, only with black spots all over his back. No shot. No shot. Damn. Then, after what seemed like forever, he walked between two oaks — and looked right at me.
For a long moment we locked eyes. There was no way I could get my rifle up before he could slip away, with a picket of oak trees protecting the boar from any bullet I might be foolish enough to launch after him. Finally, the spotted pig did just that, taking his family with him.
They were gone.
Did we get too close? Should we have waited for them to emerge from the oaks? A million doubts clouded my mind as RJ and I walked back to our quad. The incessant calling of California quail, so comforting before, now sounded like mockery. But RJ remained unperturbed. It was only about 10:30 in the morning, and we had a long day and 12,000 acres to cover before dark. The previous weekend all five of the hunters he’d guided got their pigs. We’d see more, he said. No doubt about it.
As we alternately hiked and drove through those 12,000 verdant acres, I kept thinking about that group of pigs. Part of me had really, really wanted to shoot that sow. I’d had her dead to rights. I could have tagged out before lunch. But RJ made the correct call. Never shoot a wet sow, because even though other sows will often adopt the orphaned piglets, it doesn’t always happen. And you have to be pretty hardcore to want to shoot a nursing mother, no matter what species she is. I am not that hardcore.
Hours passed. RJ and I peered through our binoculars, straining our eyes to spot another tiny black speck against miles of green grass, oaks and manzanita scrub. We saw tule elk, lots of blacktail deer, scores of jackrabbits, a few squirrels, and more California quail than I have ever seen in one place at one time. But no pigs.
Morning turned into afternoon. The devil on my right shoulder kept telling me I should have shot that sow, that I’d be knee-deep in sausages and hams and bacon by now if I had. But the angel on my left shoulder said that karma is more important, that it is better to go pigless than to kill a nursing mother. I focused my will on my left shoulder.
“I know what’s going to happen,” I told RJ some hours later. “I’m going to shoot a pig right before sundown, in a ravine. We’ll have to drag it out and won’t get back until after dark. Then we’ll have to skin it, and I won’t get home to Sacramento until at least three o’clock in the morning.”
RJ smiled that tight smile that says I might be right. “I sure hope not,” he said. On we drove, glassing hillsides, hiking ravines. Still no pigs. Afternoon began to wane when RJ spotted something. “You see that?” I looked at a black spot within a shadow, under a manzanita bush across a canyon nearly a quarter-mile away. It sure looked like a charcoal-gray pig, sleeping under that bush.
We spent a long time looking at the shape. It did not move. Yet the more we looked at it, the more we convinced ourselves that it was a giant boar, bedded down under that bush. RJ checked it with his rangefinder: 332 yards. “You ever shoot something that far?” Yes, I said. I’d shot a cow elk 375 yards away. But a cow elk is 600-plus pounds and I was shooting off a tripod. This would be different. We looked at that pig a long time, knowing full well this might be the last one we’d see today.
“Let’s move on,” RJ said. I was relieved. Shooting a big, probably stinky old boar at 300-plus yards on the side of a canyon was not ideal. Even if everything went well, I know what those old boars can smell like: So much testosterone they’re only good for making chorizo or some other heavily spiced charcuterie. We drove on, into the fading afternoon. We still had a couple hours until sundown, but I’d resigned myself to going pigless.
It wasn’t so bad, I thought. After all, I had not shot a pig since I killed the great Maximus in June of 2009. I could wait a few more months to get another. Maybe when the weather heated up and dried out I’d come back and hunt the water holes.
As we drove, I caught a flash of orange against a green hillside. Huh, oddly colored rock. RJ slammed on the brakes of the quad, almost pitching me off. His eyes were wide. “DID YOU SEE THAT?!” You mean the orange thing? “Yeah! That’s a pig! Let’s go.”
We jumped off the quad and dashed down a steep hillside. Another ridge separated us from the orange pig. Once we dipped below its field of vision, we slowed. When we neared the edge of the final ridge, I dropped to my knees and crawled to its lip. I looked down. The orange pig was not alone. It was with three other adults: Another orange one, a slate gray pig and a chocolate brown pig. Seven little piglets scampered around them.
More sows. Shit.
Prone, I had my rifle steady. Through the scope, I could see the first orange pig was definitely wet. Surely all four couldn’t be nursing? The pigs had no idea were were above them, so we took our time. The other orange one was wet, too. Off limits. The slate gray one was huge. I followed it around with the crosshairs of my scope. “What about the gray one? It is wet?” RJ said he couldn’t tell. Then it stepped into the open, teats all hanging down. Wet. Damn.
“See the brown one?” RJ asked. I did. It was the smallest of the adults, off by itself a ways. “That one is definitely not wet. Shoot that one.” How far were we? RJ said it was 162 yards. Easy shot.
I have no idea why I name the pigs I shoot. I don’t do this with other animals. But there is something about pigs, something more “us” than “them.” The name Matilda popped into my head unbidden. Matilda? OK, then, Ms. Piggie, you will be Matilda. Still unaware of our presence, she kept her face in the greenery, munching away. I waited for her to turn so I could get a clean shot.
And it was at that moment I almost didn’t pull the trigger. I had so set my mind that I would not get a pig at this hunt that I found it difficult to reawaken my inner killer. Thankfully, RJ either didn’t pick up on my inner conflict or was kind enough to say nothing. Time slowed. For what seemed like an hour, but what was probably only a few seconds, I watched Matilda eat. Should I do this? Can I do this?
I’d come a long way to hunt wild pigs, and I had plans for every part of this animal. She would feed Holly and me for many, many meals. And, importantly, she was not a nursing mother. I centered my crosshairs on her right shoulder. At that angle, the bullet would pass through both lungs and probably come out behind her ear. She would never know what hit her. I inhaled deeply. Under my breath, I muttered, “Sorry, Matilda.” I asked the heavens for a clean shot, and squeezed the trigger.
Matilda fell. Dead.
“Great shot!” RJ just about came out of his skin with joy. We’d worked hard to get this pig, and he was happy I’d closed the deal. I felt a wave of relief that I’d done so cleanly. RJ left to get the quad closer to Matilda. I walked over to her. She’d been eating yarrow. Ironic, as this herb will staunch a bloody wound better than most modern remedies. I put a sprig of it in her mouth, a sign of respect I’d learned early in my hunting career. Sorry, Matilda.
I emptied my rifle, put away my cartridges and reached into my pocket for my skinning knife.
We left only her lungs, bladder, intestines and stomach in the grass at the bottom of that canyon. Everything else will end up on our table in some form or another. I do not kill lightly. And I will remember Matilda for many meals to come.