We can hear them sloshing about but we can’t see them, not yet, anyway. The hogs are out there—that we know. We merely need to be patient and await our chance. It will come.
We’re standing atop a dike amid a pattern of rice paddies near Anahuac, Texas, east of Houston. Hogs surround us but, like I said, we can’t see them. Suddenly, thanks to the night-vision goggles (NVGs) atop my head, it’s evident that hogs are everywhere. There’s a big one out here, too, the guide says—there he is, scrambling over a dike. Now I see him, now I don’t. Geez, he’s huge, a big ol’ boar hog, appearing black as earth in the NVGs. But he’s far away and … Then we hear a pig approaching. Get ready, the guide says: “One’s coming.”
With the Crimson Trace MVF-515 on my M&P10 emitting an infrared beam, I don’t even have to shoulder the rifle to pick an aiming point. So I set up and wait, and when the pig pops out of the rice 10 yards in front of me, I fire from the hip.
The guide drags the hog from the paddy, and we admire the beast. It will be some good eating for somebody back at camp, for some locals the outfit taps to take meat off their hands or some soup kitchen in Houston. Even though this is predominantly a depredation hunt, it’s nice to know the meat is spoken for after it hits the ground.
The need for this kind of hunting has been brewing for some time—centuries, if you think about it.
Pigs were brought to the New World in 1539. In later centuries, they were purposely spread by pioneers, who relied on them for meat. Until the early 19th century, Southern farmers ran their stock on any unfenced land. That didn’t hurt pigs a bit; unlike other livestock, they can fend for themselves. It didn’t take long from there: Pigs went wild. After a couple of generations, “domesticated” pigs free to do as they like are apt to turn into free-roaming beasts that aren’t afraid of much; think Porky with a slick hairdo, an attitude and tusks to back it up. Such an animal devours crops, browses on acorns and roots for insects. All that browsing and rooting harms agricultural operations and tears up the same habitat used by other critters.
Today, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Feral Swine Mapping System figure 5 million feral hogs roam at least 39 states. There may be more hogs than that, actually, and maybe more states they inhabit, too. The truth is, only 26 years ago the USDA figured only 1 million hogs roamed about 15 states, mostly across the South and in California. Now they’re found as far north as New Hampshire and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and as far west as Oregon.
Two million feral hogs inhabit Texas. Personnel from USDA Wildlife Services stay busy in the Lone Star State; they kill at least 24,000 hogs a year there. Their strategy: Go into an area with extensive hog damage and try to take 70 percent of the hog population in a first wave of control (usually trapping) then follow up with a second wave within six months. Yet their effort provides only about 24 months of crop or property protection before hog populations ramp up again.
Why? Because hogs are fecund. Under ideal conditions, they can double their number in just a few months. A four-month gestation period enables them to produce two and sometimes three litters per year. In fact, one sow can give birth to up to three litters of six to eight piglets per year. Do the math: That’s 24 new hogs per year, per hog. According to Texas A&M University’s Institute of Renewable Resources, the growth rate of Texas hogs is 18-21 percent. So yeah, Wildlife Services has its work cut out for it.
Based on data collected, the Institute estimates feral hogs cost Texas agriculture about $52 million a year. At least one media report pegs the annual cost of damage caused by hogs and efforts to control it in Texas at $400 million.
A survey of 700 Texas landowners across 1.8 million acres found that hunting accounted for only 11 percent of almost 37,000 dead hogs in 2010. That number didn’t include the take from Wildlife Services. Clearly, far more hogs are trapped and destroyed, trapped and sold, or shot by landowners than are taken by hunters.
So naturally, hog hunting is held in high regard here. Nowadays any number of landowners and outfitters offer hog hunts by day and by night. Just about any firearm is used. There is even “pork-choppering,” so-called because of the bill Gov. Rick Perry signed into law allowing hogs to be hunted from helicopters. But after hunting at night, I’m kind of partial to darkness.
That’s where James Jeffrey comes in. He established Warhawg Tactical Hog Hunting to tap the demand. Why not? He knew where to find the supply—pigs are everywhere in East Texas, at least by my reckoning. Warhawg hunts typically start at dusk and run several hours (we hunted till 2 or 3 a.m. most nights). They run $600 per person per night, and include use of firearms and ammo if you like (take your own; you’ll be happy you did), and use of night-vision equipment, too (use it; you’ll need it). There is no bag limit.
Night vision is critical to night hog hunting. Generations of daytime hunting has sent swine underground, or, at least, under cover of darkness. Jeffrey and his crew use night-vision goggles to scan the night, and some of them even use thermal imaging optics. Navigating the huge farms they cover and locating hogs would be nearly impossible without night vision.
It turns out another item we used was critical, too: Crimson Trace foregrips for the Smith & Wesson M&P15 and M&P10 rifles we toted. MVFs (Modular Vertical Foregrips) come in many flavors including red, green and even infrared. The MVF-515 I mounted had infrared capability, which meant I had to use my NVGs to see an aiming point appear on target. During the nights we hunted we had quite a bit of starlight to see by, which meant many times I probably would have been better off simply using a red laser with my naked eye. But the infrared made things more fun.
Yes, you can shoot a pig from a vehicle down here. But generally, after swine are spotted, a foot-approach plan is made. With NVGs, sometimes it’s possible to get within feet of a pig. It didn’t take long to get me hooked with such equipment and such methods. The first night did that. I spent the next two nights getting comfortable with the idea of feeling like a jack-lighter, or at least somebody doing something that must be illegal.
Except it wasn’t. One guide, a buddy of Jeffrey’s, was a Texas state trooper. When I learned that I felt downright fearless. Cruising a ranch, lights out, in darkness, perched in back of a pickup wearing NVGs, rifle at the ready, scanning the landscape for movement—any movement—is thrilling. Just about any four-legged critter you see is fair game. We saw plenty of pigs plus coyotes. Funny thing: I didn’t see a single deer though I know full well there are plenty of them in the Houston area. I did see one armadillo. Depending on the color of the critter’s hide, it will appear as white, gray or black in the NVGs. Pigs appear black; that is, if they’re a big ol’ hairy boar.
This kind of hunting is dangerous if somebody doesn’t pay attention. In fact it’s about the most dangerous hunt I’ve ever done, and I say that as a guy who’s hunted Cape buffalo, elephant and leopard. The NVGs I used provided no depth perception. While walking, I could see 20 feet to a hundred yards in front of me better than I could determine what I might step on directly in front of me. Paying attention to who’s by your side and where everyone is positioned is critical. You can’t afford to get giddy during a shoot, lose your cool and wheel left while tracking an escapee. It’s too easy to cover a buddy with your muzzle, or worse. Also critical is determining where all dwellings, outbuildings and livestock reside.
We went over all that again the last night, when everyone—the whole lot of us, about 20 in all—gathered near the rice paddies where I dropped the boar the first night. One by one, each vehicle with its guides and hunters slowly ground to a halt on a gravel road hundreds of yards from the paddies. We milled about, checked equipment, joked and otherwise busied ourselves while we waited for the appointed hour, near midnight. The plan: One group left first, drove around the ranch to the far side of the paddies and covered an escape route. The rest of us moved into the field single-file then established three-quarters of a British Square, shoulder-to-shoulder, so we could shoot right, left and direct front without moving a single foot.