I have just returned from the Caryonah Lodge in Crossville, TN, a venue for shooting feral hogs. This was a two-day trip, I was part of a group of 29 hunters from several states (New Hampshire to Texas) who converged on the lodge for the weekend of December 11-13th.
I left Blacksburg on Friday morning, around 9:00 AM EST, stopping briefly at the Smoky Mountain Knife Works in Sevierville, where I bought Mrs Outdoorsman several paring knives; and a hop up to the Bass Pro Shops nearby, which I found very disappointing. It’s a good deal smaller than most BSP’s I’ve visited and their stock—especially in the gun department—was very mundane. Some BSP’s have a nice selection of used guns: this one had none. I spent maybe 15 minutes in the store, left, and headed on westwards.
It’s about a six-hour drive, but including the above stops and a stop for lunch made it more like 7-1/2. However, I gained the extra time back, as Crossville is in the Central Time Zone. It’s a small town (about 10,000 population) located approximately halfway between Nowhere and Somewhere Else; or, as the Official Crossville Site says, “No matter where you come from or where you want to go, Crossville is in the center of it all.” Seems a pretty enough place, what little I saw of it. The Lodge is on the western side, not far off Interstate 40, and has apparently been in operation for more than half a century. It’s about 3000 acres (1200 hectares), which seems to be pretty solidly grown up in mature red oaks and hickories. You would think it would be a squirrel’s Paradise, but I only saw one squirrel in the two days there.
Pigs, however, are another story. The pigs are present in abundance. These hogs are descendants of livestock allegedly from the Colonial era mixed with introduced European stock, though I have my doubts about how much European blood is left in them. The Russian boar and the farm hog are the same species (Sus scrofa) and will freely interbreed; when domestic hogs are permitted to run wild and breed in the wild they revert to the wild type, a lean and rangy pig called a “razorback.” Mixed with Russian boar this would indeed produce a pretty tough and durable animal. Or, as Caryonah’s somewhat florid description would have it:
Once living only in the forests of Europe, the wild boar was introduced into Tennessee in 1912 by wealthy English sportsmen, found the hills and hollows to his liking and grew even more fierce as he multiplied in the mountains. Fast and dangerous, he sports razor-sharp tusks and hulking shoulders to back up his short and cunning charges. A foe worthy of any huntsman’s steel. Now an mixture of both the Russian Wild Boar and the famed southern “razorback,” he has, if anything, gained a more savage temper - YOU’LL BE PROUD OF YOUR TROPHY BOAR!
I’d heard legends about the ferocity and cunning of these animals, and perhaps when their ancestors left Russia they were all they're claimed to be. Based on my (admittedly limited) observations of them on the ranch, they were just pigs. They were a little scruffier and darker-colored than most, but, well, they were pigs. I’m a city kid and haven’t much mixed with pigs, but if these guys had been pink and white they’d have been indistinguishable from the ones I’ve seen at county fairs. I hasten to add I didn’t get a trophy boar, but several people did and thought enough of them to have their heads mounted.
I got there on Friday afternoon about 3:00 local time, by which time most everyone else had arrived, including Mike V. and his son, Duffy; and two of Mike’s friends, Gary and Bob, whom I’d not previously met. The group totaled 29 people, filling the lodge’s accommodations, and included at least one physician, several lawyers, some military types, one or two gunsmiths, a retiree here and there, and at least one tubby and unathletic university professor. License plates from up and down the Eastern seaboard, and there was one gentleman from New York who demonstrated forcibly to me that this is indeed a small world—more about him later.
When I arrived several people were checking sights on the short shooting range provided, and I was tickled to see some of the armaments that people had brought. One man had an original Sharps rifle in .45-110; another had an English double rifle in .450/.400; yet a third had a Cape Gun in 12 gauge/9.3x72R. Not to be outdone, I had brought along my Pedersoli .72 double rifle (with which I embarrassed myself), and a Snider carbine; as well as a sensible back-up, my Husqvarna sporter in 8x57mm. There were many very expensive custom bolt actions, and one guy was toting an M-14 with a 5-round magazine. Calibers ran the gamut from .257 Weatherby to the .577, though I had brought that along just to show it to Mike and Bob. My rifle was universally acknowledged to have “the biggest balls” which made it even more embarrassing than usual on Saturday morning when I took it to the woods.
Friday night we were given an excellent dinner of hamburgers and bratwurst, of both of which I partook in hearty measure. This was washed down with post-prandial liquor of amazing quality as well as quantity; but I was totally wiped by the drive and hit the hay early. Although the food was good I must say I was a little disconcerted to find that the accommodations were four to a (not so very large) room, with bunk beds! The last time I slept in a bunk bed was in a barracks in Vietnam. I’m a light sleeper and was very pleased to find that I had a set of foam earplugs, so that I could ignore the snores of my bunkmates: they weren’t so fortunate as to be able to ignore mine, which I’m told are substantial (I’ve never heard myself snore and so I regard this as a fable).
We were awakened about 6:30 and breakfast was served at 7:30. A very fine batch of sausage balls and scrambled eggs, coffee, with the usual accompaniments. Then Ho! for the woods! The schedule was considerably more leisurely than the Oh-Dark-Thirty routine I’m used to in deer season, but pigs are diurnal and there’s no need to get out there half an hour before the crack of dawn. Just as well, I’d probably have fallen asleep on my stand.
We were ferried to our sites by the guides employed by the Lodge, in the most amazing collection of beater vehicles I have ever seen: a veritable Ghost Fleet of rusted-out Chevy Suburbans, Ford Explorers and unidentifiable superannuated pickups. No headliners, no interior upholstery left, gaping rust holes, leaking exhaust systems, and senile shock absorbers. If ever there were rolling death traps, these were: but one of Tennessee’s peculiarities seems to be that they’re unconcerned about vehicle safety inspections, and all of these clunkers had current license plates!
Ugly and ratty as they were, they ran, and once we got into the woods their condition was explained by the rough tracks along which they’re driven. That part of Tennessee has a pretty fair collection of rocks, a great many of which stick up into the tracks through Caryonah’s land. I believe the Suburban in which I rode (one of the more luxurious components of the fleet: it had floorboards, more or less) hit most of them as it crawled along. My guide told me that “It ain’t much to look at, but she rides purty good, better than them other heaps!”
Some people can’t stand to sit still for a long period of time, but if I have any talents as a hunter at all, it’s the ability to stay in one place until an animal comes along: I’m a champion sitzjäger, probably because I started hunting on plots of ground where you couldn’t go 400 yards in one direction without crossing a property line (and also because I’m pretty lazy). So my guide parked me on a stand site overlooking a muddy slough. There was a hog-wire fence along one side of the slough, and an obvious pig track along that. An older gentleman named Steve, also not one to hoof it through the woods, was set down about 75 yards to my left, so the two of us could watch the fence line, the slough, and the relatively clear space on the other side of the fence. We were assured that the pigs would come along. I guess we got there about 8:30, and not long after we started hearing shots near and far as other members of the group encountered them, and waited our turn.
About 10:30 I heard Steve shoot, and a few seconds later two pigs came whizzing past me, 20 yards out, running left to right. I brought up the Pedersoli, cocked the right hammer, and shot at the bigger pig..and MISSED him, clean, when I could practically have thrown the gun at him! Maybe I should have, I might at least have injured him.
Steve and I looked for any sign of a hit: no dice. He said he’d been watching and saw no reaction whatever at the shot, and agreed that any pig hit with a three-quarter-inch lead ball at 1200 feet per second would have done something to indicate it had happened. There was no blood, no hair, zip. The guide had heard me shoot (“I heard that big cannon go off!”) and came to hunt for a sign of a wound. He couldn’t find anything at all, either, so we declared it a miss.
I was (and remain) profoundly unhappy about that miss. Earlier this season I missed three easy shots with my .58, and I’m beginning to think that maybe open sights and my eyes have come to a parting of the ways. It’s a poor workman who blames his tools, as the saying goes, but I’m not normally that bad a shot. Later on this trip I had some indication that the rifle was at least partially to “blame” but I’m still not convinced and plan to spend some time at the range having a serious heart-to-heart with that rifle. I’m intending to take it to Africa, and I’m just superstitious enough to think it may be bad luck to do so if I haven’t killed something with it first!
Steve and I then went to the spot where he’d been standing when he shot his pig, and staked out the gut pile 25 yards away. He spotted for me, and I watched the track, but nothing came along and eventually it was time to go back to the Lodge for lunch, about 1:30.
Back at the Lodge I took some (deserved) razzing about the miss. Mike Valentine’s son Duffy had killed a big ‘un, and Mike got his later in the day. John Songster, a 14-year-old from Pulaski, Virginia, whacked what may have been the biggest of the day.
After lunch it was time to head back out. I went in and swapped guns. I decided I wasn’t going to take any more chances so I brought the Husky for the afternoon session. Additionally the weather forecast was for rain: and rain and muzzleloaders are an unhappy combination.
Back into the Suburban, bouncing along an even worse track than the first one to a site the guide called “Kenneth’s Bluff.” This proved to be a rocky outcropping overlooking another bottomland with a bog in it. “Set raht thar,” he told me, “and watch that bottom. They’ll come down that hill over thar.” By then it was 3:00 PM (lunch had been another leisurely affair). He went off with the other hunter to make sure he didn’t get lost tramping around the woods.
Sure enough, within 15 minutes I looked up and a pig was casually sauntering through the bottom, moving right to left. I brought up the Husky, put the crosshairs of the shoulder, and fired. The pig stopped, staggered a little, wavered a bit, and dropped dead. Later inspection showed that the shot had hit in the left shoulder, traversed to the right and exited, and in the process shredded the heart. This is exactly the same result that I had with that rifle on the last deer I killed. Again, the ammunition was Remington’s 8x57 factory load, a 175-grain Core-Lokt round nose soft point, which performed perfectly. The distance was perhaps 40 yards.
I went down to take a picture or two of the pig, which proved to be a decent sized sow whose teats proved she’d farrowed at least once but was dried up. While I was taking the pictures, another pig came down the hill, running straight for me! I thought of all those stories about being charged, and realized my rifle was leaned against a tree, unloaded! I went to get it, and the running pig stopped dead, swapped ends, and took off the way he’d come…so much for being charged by a “wild boar.”
One of the guide’s jobs was to dress the pigs out, but I made the ritual neck cut using a special knife: “Ole MS.”
This knife was made by the late Mel Sorg, known on the Net as "Madpoet." I belong to a hunting discussion group of which he was a member, and we pass two of his products around among us to take on our hunts in his memory. When the guide returned I asked him to gut the sow using it, and so he did. He was remarkably efficient at it, too: I don’t think it took him so much as a minute and a half to do the job. He used a different approach than I have been trained to do: he made the cut at the hind end, unzipped the pig, and reached forward to “pull the pluck,” never severing the breast bone at all. At first I thought he’d “hog dressed” it, but the lungs and what was left of the heart were in the pile: and he pulled the large intestine out forwards. I never saw him make a cut around the anus either. I’m certain he must have, though.
I was very interested in the differences in behavior between the pigs and the white-tailed deer I’m used to. For one thing, these guys are diurnal, but I was surprised at how casual they were about the presence of humans in their environment. I understand that they have very poor eyesight and very good noses. Certainly they don’t seem to be able to detect a shooter out in plain view dressed in blaze orange. Given their huge ears they ought to be able to hear pretty well, but if so they gave no indication of being spooked by sounds. The pig I shot was sauntering along in a very relaxed way, though according to my guide she was one of a group that he and the other hunter had spooked. I saw a total of about seven in the course of the day in addition to the one I killed, all trotting along busily, though not running flat-out like deer. And always together. Groups of deer tend to scatter when startled and run in all directions, but the pigs ran as a herd would, all bunched up and all in the same direction. I was also surprised at how little noise they make, even when running. The leaves were reasonably dry, but when a pig trotted past you could hardly hear it. I’m not sure why this should be. Their feet are no smaller than a deer’s, but perhaps they move them in a different way. I usually rely on my ears for warning me when a deer is coming but that didn’t work with these pigs.
In the end it was all a bit anticlimactic. I’m not entirely sure I would call this a “hunt,” but it certainly had elements of one, and it was undoubtedly a good deal of fun, though less so for the pig than for me. The property is very large, 3000 acres or so, and it’s almost all densely wooded. There is no lack of opportunity for the pigs to find places to hide, should they choose to, but apparently they don’t. And with that many hunters in the field it’s inevitable some of them would get bumped out and scurry off only to find themselves running up against another shooter.
The pigs at Caryonah are more or less stocked: they’re pigs of a certain type, purchased at auctions or sales and released onto a large enclosure to breed. Given the abundant food supply, they breed like the dickens. I asked one of the guides how many hogs there were on the place, and he replied, “We don’t know. Hundreds, for sure.” Presumably they breed faster than they can be killed off, but if not...well, it's a simple matter to get a few sows and turn them loose to rebuild the population base.
Tennessee law defines a “feral hog" as any wild hog that isn’t on the Catoosa or South Cherokee WMA. Anywhere else, that same pig IS a “feral” hog. A big-game license is required for "feral hogs," but no one at Caryonah said anything about my needing to buy a license. I asked and was told it wasn't needed. This bothered me a bit, as the Tennessee law brochure is quite specific that although there's no closed season and no bag limit, and would you please kill every feral hog you see, these guys don't qualify as "feral" in the legal sense.
I read the definition right, since these pigs are owned (by virtue of having been bought, or of being the descendants of pigs that were bought, released, and escaped being shot, they’re technically not “ferals,” they’re privately-owned livestock. The proprietress implied, when I asked—though she didn’t say outright—that at least some of the animals come from (or once came from) the Tennessee Wildlife authorities. I suppose this is analogous to the situation in South Africa, where surplus animals are purchased from national parks and turned out into private lands. Obviously no hunting license would be needed to shoot livestock if the owner has given permission. With respect to true "feral hogs,” those that meet the definition, the state is adamant: they want them all removed. I doubt that will ever happen, they breed so rapidly that it would take some pretty massive shooting program to get them all. They certainly can't be wiped out statewide, even if they could be on a single property.
I inquired about a fence, and yes indeed the place is fenced: this is apparently a requirement of Tennessee law, since hogs can do a lot of damage and the neighbors don’t like it when a herd of them rips up a cornfield. And of course, Caryonah does have some money and effort invested in their hogs and don't wandering away to be shot in someone's pasture.
It’s all very confusing, but it seems that the people at Caryonah know what they’re doing and it’s all on the up-and-up. I have a very strong philosophical objection to the very concept of a “hunting lease,” as a sort of con game, a way to divert the value of public property (native game animals) into private pockets. Caryonah has many exotics on offer; and while I’m willing to pay to shoot their pigs, and if I had the money I’d think about some of the others, there’s no way I would pay them a dime for a white-tailed deer, which is legally the proprty of the state of Tennessee, not Caryonah Lodge. But these hogs are neither public property (if they’re livestock) nor are they native game animals in any sense, any more than starlings or pigeons are.
The real value of an experience like this—in fact, what you’re really paying for—isn’t the animal, but the camaraderie and swapping of hunting tales and gun lore: the testosterone levels in the air were thick enough to cut with a knife. The Lodge has been hitting some hard going in the economic slump, and it was a pretty good shot in the Bottom Line for them to have 29 people in on a weekend, I imagine. They do offer value for money, but it’s got to be some of the most expensive pork I’ll ever eat.
Oh yes…that guy from New York…he was from Rochester, where my brother lives. I asked him if he had ever heard of a prominent local real estate agent, who happens to have the same name as my brother. “Oh, yes, sure I’ve heard of him. He’s my cousin.” So…the realtor is MY distant cousin, descended from one of my grandfather’s cousins…and he’s a cousin of a cousin…so he and I turn out to be cousins as well. Like those “Russian boars” we’ve not got much of Europe left in us, but we come from wild stock.