Wild hogs — they’re big, they’re ugly, and they can be a bit ornery when cornered, but they sure are tasty on a plate. They are prevalent in South Carolina to the point of being a pestilence. And if for those who enjoy the thrill of the hunt, going after wild hogs is as close to big game hunting as possible in this state. Google “wild hog hunting in South Carolina,” and search results will show an abundance of lodges, plantations and retreats ready to welcome those whose food source is somewhere other than a grocery store.
Hogs run in packs, also known as sounders, numbering between 20 and 30 sows and young pigs. The males tend to be loners. When spooked, they bolt away raising sand and dust, sounding like a thundering herd. But mostly they root around in the soil, and in South Carolina, that’s a big problem.
According to a report prepared by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, wild hogs have been spotted in all 46 counties and cause agricultural damage possibly reaching into the tens of millions of dollars every year. Add the potential economic impact on livestock due to the transfer of disease, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the best way to spell P-I-G is BBQ.
Helen and Tuck Laffitte own a farm in Fort Motte bordering the Santee River. Feral pigs abound on their property. “They can go into a plowed field, root it up and make such potholes that it becomes very difficult to even drive a tractor across it much less walk across. They turn it into a moonscape,” Tuck says.
“They’ll destroy crops if they are there. They can take out several acres in a night if a small herd rolls in. Any field that’s been cultivated in the past has a good amount of roots and tubers growing in it. They’ll just go after them.”
Wild hogs became such a problem for the Laffittes in 2012, says Helen, that they called in teams of hunters. “We’ve hunted them, and we’ve also had hog hunters with dogs on the property. We were having such a terrible problem two years ago that we got these guys who just do it all the time and have the dogs that are effective at tracking them,” she says. “We’ve got a mixture: part Russian boar and part feral pig. For the folks who hunt hogs, it’s their hobby. They just love it. They have the hog dogs and come on horseback.”
The solution was only partially effective. Like all animals that travel in a pack, when you shoot one, the rest dash away at top speed into the underbrush. “Each time we’ve had them come up on a group of 20 to 30, if they catch 10 percent, they consider that a good day. That leaves 90 percent of them still out there.”
Helen says that the sows produce a new litter about every three months and remain fertile for about five years. The only other alternative to hunting them is trapping.
The Laffittes have gone to considerable lengths to keep their property hog free. “We had to fence in all of our cultivatable fields either with hog wire fence or electric fencing, both of which are pretty effective but fairly expensive. We’re just talking about 10-acre and six-acre fields; not the kind of expense you’d have trying to cover a large farming operation of several hundred acres,” Tuck says.
Helen says for all their efforts they have in fact seen a noticeable decline in the wild hogs that roam their land. “I think they don’t have the food they used to be able to get to at our farm. The population along the watershed on the Congaree, the Wateree and the Santee are in the swamps so when the water comes up, they come up the bluff looking for food. And they roam about a 30 mile area up and down the river.”
“The reasons people are attracted to wild hog hunting are myriad,” says S.C. DNR Certified Wildlife Biologist Charles Ruth. “Most hunters treat them as big game. Since there is no closed season for hunting hogs on private land, hunters have the opportunity to hunt hogs when other game seasons are closed. Some hunters liken hogs to dangerous game although they are really not.” People mostly hunt the pigs for one simple reason, Charles says: they are good table fare.
Not only can one hunt hogs any time — “All day, all night, and even on Sunday,” as outdoorsman Pope Walker puts it — but there are also no bag limits or regulations on size or gender. But as much as the sport draws people in, the folks who track and bag the animals can sometimes be their own worst enemy.
“Hunting is somewhat of a double edged sword as it relates to hog management and control,” Charles says. On the one hand, removing hogs through hunting reduces the number of animals; however, there is ample evidence that the spread of hogs in South Carolina in the past 15 years has increased due to hunters transporting and releasing hogs in areas where they previously did not appear.
“They do this so they will have hogs to hunt. This is not good because hogs are not native and tend to be invasive. They compete with native wildlife for food and habitat and can destroy habitat, crops and property,” Charles says.
This is precisely how the Laffittes were introduced to their problem. “The first 10 years we were here, we never saw one. But there are so many hunters who’ve released hogs in different swamps to try to make them a hunting species, they’re just everywhere,” Tuck says.
The average size of an adult wild hog is 200 pounds for males and 175 pounds for females and produces enough protein for several feasts. Charles says, “Some people say it’s similar in taste to domestic pork although it’s generally leaner. Some say it has a more nutty flavor.”
One person who knows for sure is Pope Walker. He’s one of those people who love the sport of hunting game. Hogs have been in South Carolina since the 1500s, and Pope’s been around the hunting of them since he was a “little fella.”
For Pope, as with many, any day outdoors is better than any day indoors; therefore, any time he gets the chance, he lets the hunt begin. “I go to a particular area, and I use dogs –– primarily bay dogs. We get to an area where there have been hogs and find fresh tracks and will turn a dog or two out. Then we wait for the dogs to bay if there’s something in that area. It’s similar to quail hunting where you turn a couple of dogs out and keep moving, moving, moving.” The dogs might strike a trail and go a few hundred yards, or they might go three-quarters of a mile.
When Pope hunts, he goes all out, puts on the dog, so to speak. “We sometimes go on horses, sometimes walk, sometimes use four-wheelers. I don’t want to catch the hog. I want to walk in there and shoot the hog. That way I don’t get the dogs cut up or hurt or anything. But I’ve learned that every man has a different hunting style. There are a lot of guys who like barking dogs so that they can hear the race. Then they turn some catch dogs loose and catch the hog.”
Both Pope and Charles say hog hunters are usually experienced people who turn to hogs because their animal of preference is out of season. “They’re usually deer hunters, coon hunters or squirrel hunters. They are outdoor people who typically like dogs and know something about dogs from other sports” Pope says.
For experienced hunters, tracking and shooting wild hogs only requires one additional special skill: knowing your dogs. “You need to know what they’re on. Are they running deer? Are they specific to hogs? If you have your own dogs, you know which one is doing what because you have GPS tracking on the collar. And you know which dog is baying by his particular voice,” Pope explains.
Tracking and bagging wild hogs is the essence of the sport itself, according to Pope’s philosophy. “Basically it’s a day in the woods. I mean, we don’t always get them. Sometimes they run like hell, and they won’t stop. Then you grab the dogs and just go try to find another one,” he says.
Crucial in finding another one are the dogs, an integral part of the hunting experience. “Some people go out and spend $2,000 on a dog,” Pope says. “Some people raise them up and get older dogs to teach younger ones what to do. It’s time-consuming, but it’s part of the fun watching young dogs come along.”
When Helen and Tuck have a successful hunt, they, like a lot of hunters, use a local meat processor. Pope field dresses his hogs, hanging the majority of the meat up in a cooler to be cooked later. “I will take some to have ground into sausage. Most of the time I give them away. They are very good to eat, unless you get one of those great big boar hogs. Most of the time you can’t tell the difference in the taste unless you get one of those old males. You can smell them cooking and think uh-uh. It’s pretty bad,” Pope says with a laugh.
Another appeal of hog hunting is the fact that hunters can use almost any type of weapon. Charles says most prefer either a bow and arrow or any of the center-fire caliber long rifles. But people do use crossbows and even large caliber pistols to hunt the animals; some only use knives. “I think everyone prefers something different,” Pope says. “I use an old Winchester 30-30 that I bought when I was in high school. You need something heavy enough to do the job, but typically you’re at very close range. You might be 10 feet to 30 feet away. A lot of times when they’re bayed, it’s in real heavy cover. You get close in, and you clear your dogs. You’ve got to know where they are before you take a shot. The last thing you want to do is shoot a dog.”
For people who prefer the taste of wild game and also enjoy the exhilaration of the hunt, South Carolina’s wild pigs seem to present a win-win situation. It’s rare that something so bad as these destructive animals are can also be so good. They provide an excellent sport as well as an excellent food source. Rarely has pestilence tasted so good served over rice.