PIGS IN THE RAIN
I am just back from the Wilderness Hunting Lodge in Monterey, Tennessee. I went for a pig shoot with my hunting partner Art (with whom I’ve been to Africa three times), and two colleagues, Phil and Paul. We had planned this jaunt some months ago. I had previously done a similar trip to a different lodge in the same general area with another friend. This trip was a retirement present to myself.
Places like Wilderness advertise that they have “wild boars” but this is nonsense. There may be true wild Russian boars in the USA, but they’re in zoos, not at pig-shooting venues in rural Tennessee. I’m not a farmer, I’m a city kid; but after 30+ years in veterinary schools I’ve picked up some knowledge. I know a pig when I see one, and these beasts were pigs. Pigs were brought to the New World from the Old in Colonial times, they aren’t native to North America. Wild boars are to pigs what wolves are to dogs. Cocker Spaniels, Chihuahuas, and Labrador Retrievers are all the same animal, no matter how differently they look. They’re all descendants of Canis lupus. The true wild boar of Eurasia is the ancestral stock of all domesticated pigs: it and the domestic hog are the same species and will freely interbreed. Poland Chinas, American Landrace, Hampshires, etc., mongrel farm pigs: they're all Sus scrofa, the same species as the true wild boar. Check out this video on You Tube: and look at the colors of those "Russian boars" they're shooting. My Siberian Husky is more "Russian" than those pigs!
Free-living pigs revert to the wild type pretty quickly when they’re free to mate, so three generations out from whatever the ancestral stock may have been, a pig is a pig is a pig, in the immortal words of the poet Gertrude Swine. A feral hog is essentially indistinguishable as any specific type. Certainly there are anatomical characteristics that to an anatomist or taxonomist would distinguish the ancestral wild boar and the various breeds of domestic hog, but it would take DNA analysis to decide who’s what. If there’s a genuine free-roaming herd of true “wild boar” anywhere in North America, I’d be very surprised. The old Southern term “razorback” used to denote a free-living swine is far more appropriate as a descriptor, but of course the term “wild boar” is better marketing. Anyone can kill a pig, but only A Real Man can handle a “Wild Russian Boar.”
Feral hogs are a serious menace to agriculture and the environment in some places, such as Texas and Florida, but the old saying that “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade,” applies. The proliferation and spread of feral swine has given the hunting industry the genesis of a huge advertising and marketing campaign for guns and ammunition. The increasingly popular sport of hunting hogs has led to “specialized” guns and ammunition with truly creative names such as “Hog Hammer” and so forth.
I used my 1940-vintage Burgsmüller drilling. This is a classic gun for boar hunting, brought home from Germany as a war trophy by some GI in 1945; in its 70+ years I’m sure mine was not the first pig it’s taken! The rifle barrel, which is astonishingly accurate, is chambered for 8x57JR. Sellier & Bellot are the only firm still producing this caliber, with a 196-grain soft-point round nosed bullet with a good bit of exposed lead. It shoves that bullet at a plodding 2400 FPS muzzle velocity, but a heavy bullet with a lot of momentum is far more effective than the ho-hum velocity implies. I’ve used this gun on an ostrich and a whitetail with excellent results, and I had complete confidence in its effectiveness. The shotgun barrels were loaded with #1 buckshot, but never got fired.
Phil opted for an even older warhorse, a Yugoslavian made Mauser Model 98, also in 8x57. Art had a Kimber Classic Select bolt action in .308; Paul an up-to-date
assault rifle Black Gun "Modern Sporting Rifle," specifically a S&W M&P 10, an AR-10 variant. It was also in .308. The truth is that almost any centerfire rifle will reliably kill hogs if the shooter knows what he’s doing (not all of them do, alas) but the gun companies never waste an opportunity to convince people they need a new rifle.
We left very early on a Friday, long before the crack of Dawn. Originally we planned to hunt half a day on Friday, all day Saturday and Sunday, and perhaps another half day on Monday. In the end we came home Sunday afternoon, having all scored.
The weather was wet, wet, wet. Friday afternoon was drizzly and foggy, temperatures in the low 40’s. Saturday it rained most of the morning and then cleared off, but we lost several hours to the downpour. Sunday was cloudy but it wasn’t raining at least, and the overcast wasn’t a handicap.
Art connected first, on Friday afternoon. He’d been placed in a shooting box somewhere up in the woods. A pig ran by, and BANG! that was that. I was in another box in a different spot, and saw some pigs in the mist but never had a shot.
Saturday morning I managed to pull off a boneheaded stunt that I thought only occurred in cartoons and bad jokes. I was in the shooting box only a short while when I realized that I was in considerable gastrointestinal distress, if you catch my meaning. Now, I have read and absorbed the wisdom of Kathleen Meyer’s book, How To Shit In The Woods. Moreover, after having lived in India for a while, the “dive-bomber position” held no terrors for me. I came out of the shack, found a convenient location behind it, and let fly.
The First Law Of Toilet Paper is: “Thou shalt go nowhere without it,” and I never do, so I was prepared for this situation. Unfortunately, as I was concluding the festivities and re-trousering—yep, you guessed it—I looked up to lock eyes with a very large pig 30 yards away, watching me with astonishment. Very nonchalantly, I strolled around to the front of the shack, retrieved my gun (which of course I should have taken with me in the first place) but by the time I was ready the pig had vanished. That was the last pig I saw that day. He was a good one too, but since he was pink with black spots, I suspect he wasn’t any more “Russian” than I am. The afternoon was even wetter than the morning, and fully as pig-free. By then Paul had shot one, but Phil and I were still out of luck at that point.
It’s not as if there weren’t pigs in plenty: there were hundreds of them, usually running in packs of 30 to 50. I asked how many pigs were on the property but was told that no one really knew. The place is heavily forested with oak and hickory trees. Acorns, hickory nuts, and even chestnuts were abundant. Even with all the hogs running loose and foraging on them there was no shortage. There was an amazingly healthy population of squirrels, as well, as you’d expect.
We had our choice of how we wanted to hunt: walk, sit, or have the dogs drive the pigs. Nobody opted for the dogs, but Paul and Phil decided to walk around. Me, I’m a sitter. There was no way I was going to walk around much. For one thing there were other people besides us four; for another, the ground was covered with wet leaves floating on a gelatinous base of heavy mud. That part of Tennessee is mainly made up of very steep ridges and hollows, layers of rock overlain with thin soil. Thanks to the rain, the soil was totally saturated, forming nice, ankle deep mud. Thick, goopy, yellowish mud.
The guides ferried us to the shooting boxes in little Kubota ATV’s. I was mightily impressed with these vehicles. They never bogged down even when the mud was 6 inches deep or more and slicker than oiled snot. They would go up and down grades that I couldn’t have managed on foot without a walking stick. The ride was pretty bouncy, but these diesel-powered mechanical mules were as sure-footed as the real ones: while occasionally they would tip alarmingly, it would have taken some doing to roll one. When a pig was killed the guides went in to bring the body out, in the cargo area behind the seats. I’d never use an ATV here but if I owned a farm I’d certainly want to have a fleet of them.
Now, of course the shooting was all done behind a fence. The property is large, about 3000 acres (though not all in one parcel); the fence is pretty sturdy and high enough to keep whitetails out. Tennessee law requires that hogs be confined, but the area is large enough and the available cover good enough that a pig seeking an escape route can usually find it. I would not call what I did “fair chase” in all respects, but I would argue that it was “fair-enough” chase. Nor do I have an ethical issue with paying for this “hunt” because pigs—even so-called “Russian boars”—are livestock and private property, not native game animals (in fact, they aren’t game animals at all under Tennessee law).
Having been skunked on Friday and Saturday, I went out again on Sunday morning. We checked a few sites where the guide said there were sure to be pigs, to no avail. However, in one location quite close to the Lodge there was a decent sized cornfield, and as we drove past it I could see pigs in it. We turned back, entered the field, and drove down to the far end where the pigs were. Sure enough, there were at least 20-25 of them unconcernedly rooting for corn kernels, ploughing up the ground with their snouts as effectively as could be done with a tractor. In the process they were generating some of the worst mud of all, 10 inches of slimy goo heavily laden with pig shit and “fragrant” beyond description.
You will often read about how smart wild pigs are and how wary they are, how easily they’re spooked, and so forth. Not this crowd. We actually got out of the Kubota and walked up to them. It wasn’t a “stalk.” They knew we were there, but didn’t care: there was food in the offing, it was getting cold, and they were intent on chowing down. A pair of humans was nothing to be concerned about. A few looked at us curiously and then went back to rooting and munching.
I didn’t want a boar. Boars, especially large old ones, have sometimes got an “off” flavor due to secretions they produce in their prepuce. Alas, one problem with shooting a pig 50-100 yards away is that you’re sort of flipping a coin as to what you’re actually going to get, if you haven’t had a chance to check the animal out with binoculars. In this case I was close enough to assess the gender of a hog using the Mark I Eyeball. I spotted a big one, and looked underneath: sure enough, no penis, but a nice row of obvious teats. This was the likeliest candidate for good eats and plenty of them.
I told my guide, “I’ll take that big sow, as soon as she steps out of the group and I can fire without hitting someone behind her.” It took a few minutes but eventually she did just that. She stepped forward a bit, giving me a nice broadside presentation from the right.
There was nothing behind her; I had a safe backstop area. All systems were GO: safety OFF, barrel selector on RIFLE, cross hairs lined up…5, 4, 3, 2, 1…BANG!
Down she went, hit just behind the right shoulder, straight through the heart. In keeping with my usual practice, I walked up and popped her with my little .380 “just in case” and that was that.
To be frank, it was more in the nature of an execution than a hunt. I was no more than 30 yards away, she was completely unconcerned about my presence, and the bullet probably came as a complete surprise. The kill was certainly a bit anticlimactic. No adrenalin rush, no mad charge, nothing. The other pigs didn’t even run. They sort of stood there and seemed to be trying to figure out why Aunt Bertha was lying on the ground all of a sudden.
In the interim Phil had got one as he tramped through the muck. My guide took me back to the processing shed, and rounded up a couple of hands to fetch Aunt Bertha in. Phil’s guide had already brought his pig back. So there we all were, at 9:45 AM, completely done a day before we'd planned to leave. We all had pigs, we had a 350-mile return trip to make, so there was no point in hanging around. We settled our bills, packed the trucks and off we went.
Art and Paul had made their kills early and their pigs were already cut and wrapped, so the meat came home with us directly. Phil and I left ours to be hung and cut later. Phil travels to Arkansas regularly so he’ll stop off on his way home later this month to get them.
Aunt Bertha weighed at least 250 pounds on the hoof (or trotter, if you want to be precise), possibly a bit more. I expect we’ll get a meat yield of about 100 pounds, and if my previous experience is any guide, it will be very good eating. Commercial pork these days is flabby and tasteless and pumped full of salt water, but free roaming ferals taste like pigs are supposed to taste. They taste like the pork I remember eating in my youth in the days before pigs were bred for complete absence of fat, fed Pig Chow instead of garbage, acorns, and the odd road kill, and bred to be completely without any fat. I’m looking forward to a year or more of Real Pork, not the "Moist 'N' Tender" crap they sell at the supermarket. Try finding commercial pork that hasn't been "enhanced with a solution" (a solution of just what, they never say)!
The Lodge itself is nothing special. My friend and I had done a shoot at Caryonah Lodge a couple of years ago, in the same general part of the state. Wilderness’ accommodations were Spartan. I expected a bunkhouse type setup, but we were four in a room that was perhaps 20 x 15 feet, and was actually fitted up for six! Things were tight, but it was no worse than barracks life. There were two other rooms on the same level, and one, count ‘em, one bathroom that in high season had to do for a total of EIGHTEEN people! There were two other guys in another room so that we were six of us using the same facilities. Housekeeping was not up to the standards of Namibia, which I’m afraid has spoiled me.
The floor above ours was occupied by a movie crew. Some show called “Brotherhood Outdoors” was shooting a segment for the Sportsman’s Channel. The crew consisted of a cameraman/director, a handsome male host, and a pretty, rather willowy young woman who was his co-host. They had the entire second level, and I suspect they weren’t stuffed in four to a room. Plus there was a very sizable RV outside that was theirs.
The food was adequate, and as you might expect, heavy on pork. One night they had lasagna, which I simply won’t eat, especially not when it’s made with canned tomato sauce and over-cooked pasta. The meals were cafeteria style, in a large room with a fireplace and a big screen TV blaring country music when it wasn’t blaring CNN. One night there was fried chicken, with very good mashed potatoes and Southern style green beans. It was basic stodge but it was OK.
There were dogs all over the place. The movie girl had brought two of hers along (as props? I don’t know) but there were three or four Jack Russell Terrorists, and what appeared to be a Brittany/Blue Tick cross, a rather handsome animal. The dogs were all outside: wet, cold, shivering, but ready to go whenever a Kubota went out to retrieve a pig. There was one fiendishly cute puppy, a German Hunting Terrier/Dachshund cross, maybe 8 weeks old. Had I not already been dogged out I might have brought him home; as it was the movie girl adopted him. The owner kept trying to give away one or two of the JRT’s but there were no takers.
Would I do this again? Probably, but I likely would go to a somewhat more upscale place. The price wasn’t exorbitant—and we had made our reservations so far in advance we beat a price rise of $100 that had been announced a month or so ago—but it was enough that I thought they should at least have been a bit more willing to provide basic necessities in the cabin, such as drinking cups. There was a coffee maker but no coffee, no water except in the bathroom sink. Everyone was friendly and helpful, and the “hunting” was fine; but the operation was just a bit ratty around the edges. I don’t know how long this place has been open, but if it’s fairly new they may be just sanding off some of the rough spots slowly.
Reflecting on the nature of this “hunt,” and the way it ended, I have to think that in many ways Aunt Bertha had a pretty good lot in life. She was probably born on the property, in an environment where food was abundant enough that she got her 9 or 10 square meals per day; and where four-legged predators were non-existent. She roamed as she willed, she had mud in which to wallow on hot days, she had companionship of other pigs. She never had to fight for food or shelter, she mated with the boar(s) of her choice, she suckled her piglets, and went on with her life more or less unbound by sorrow. Likely enough she never felt fear except from bigger pigs or perhaps a thunderstorm.
She didn’t know that she was born to be killed. When Her Time came she wasn’t chivvied into a scary dark truck to be taken to a slaughter plant where she’d have been prodded into a chute, stunned by electrocution and killed by exsanguination. She may not yet know she’s dead, in fact: Aunt Bertha’s passing out of her halcyon world was as instantaneous and as painless as I could make it. Wilderness Hunting Lodge may not be Hog Heaven, but from the point of view of a pig, it might be something on the order of a Porcine Club Med.