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Bowhunting the Space Invaders

Feral hogs are challenging to hunt, great to eat, and they are rooting around in every region of the state, including the Panhandle.

By Brandon Ray

Late on an April morning I am hidden on a hill, scraping yelp after yelp from my box call, expecting a reply the big turkeys that live in the creek bottom below me. Nothing but a hot Panhandle wind answers my calls. These birds seem to have developed laryngitis. Usually the bottom resounds with gobbles this time of year.

Scanning the creek bottom and the prairie below me, I find a reason for the silence: a cluster of black dots in the distance. Too big for turkeys. I check them out through my binoculars and find a clan of five feral hogs 300 yards out. My turkey hunt has turned into a hog hunt.

I scramble down the hillside with bow in hand, knowing the hogs soon will retreat from the hot, open grass for the thick cover and shade along the muddy creek. Once in the brush they will be nearly impossible to find. Putting the wind in my face, I trot toward them as quietly as I can. Hogs have poor eyesight, but their senses of smell and hearing are excellent.

Bent at the waist, I scurry from mesquite to mesquite, trying to stay hidden as I close in. It's easy to tell where they are. They sound like five noisy vacuum cleaners as they grunt and snort, rooting up whatever food they can find. Their noise also covers the sound of my footsteps in the dry grass.

At 80 yards away, I slow down and try to anticipate which way the herd will move. Putting myself between the hogs and the creek, I nock an arrow on my bow, lean against a slight depression in the ground surrounded by tall broomweed and wait. Time ticks by. From my hideout I see the backs of the hogs moving closer. An average-sized pig is the first to pass within bow range. It sports a wide white stripe around its black bulk. When the pig's head goes behind a patch of cactus, I pull my bow to full power. With the bent bowstring ready at my ear, I wait. At 12 short paces it turns broadside. At the pop of the string the herd bolts for the shade at the water's edge, but only four make it there.

Texas' Wild Bacon

Two things are obvious about that hunt last spring. No. 1: I probably would be a more successful turkey hunter if I could stay focused on turkeys. And No. 2: feral hogs are everywhere. Whether I'm hunting turkeys, mule deer or white-tailed deer, these days I often find feral hogs where there used to be none. Recently my sister spotted a big, black boar in a Conservation Reserve Program field on our Panhandle ranch. The property has been in my family for 55 years, and until this year we never had seen a wild hog. Hogs long have been a problem in East Texas, where they tear up habitat in wildlife management areas, and even have become a nuisance in some suburban areas, tearing up lawns. If your neighbors have feral hogs, usually it is just a matter of time before their growing herd spreads to adjoining properties.

Even in the extreme conditions of the Texas Panhandle, where summer heat can top 100 degrees and a winter day can be 10 degrees with snow and hard north winds, the feral hog seems right at home. Like the coyote, the feral hog can adapt to almost any environment. Unlike the much smaller javelina, feral hogs are not native to Texas.

"Early Spanish explorers probably were the first to introduce hogs into Texas more than 300 years ago," says TPWD biologist Rick Taylor. "As colonization increased, hog numbers subsequently increased. They provided an important source of cured meat and lard for settlers. During the fight for Texas independence, as people fled to the United States or Mexico, many hogs escaped or were released. It was not until the mid-1800s, when hostilities between the United States and Mexico ended, that settlers once again began bringing livestock back into Texas. The livestock included hogs that ranged freely. Many escaped, contributing to the feral population."

Today, feral hogs have adapted to every region of the state. Wild hogs have invaded the brush country of South Texas, the oaks and cedars of Central Texas, the pines of East Texas and even the broad canyons and open plains of West Texas, North Texas and the Panhandle. Hogs can adapt to habitat that varies from forests and swamps to chaparral brush, although they prefer bottomlands where water is usually available for drinking and wallowing in hot weather. The densest populations thrive in East, Southeast and South Texas. Smaller populations have reached West Texas and the Panhandle.

The hog's reproductive capabilities are astounding. Feral hogs can reproduce at six months of age, provided they find good forage. Sows may have two litters per year, which may be born in any season, but production peaks in the spring. An average litter size is four to six, but under good conditions a sow might produce 10 to 12 young.

After the state's huge white-tailed deer population (about 4 million animals in good years), wild hogs are the most plentiful large wild animal in Texas. Current estimates put Texas' hog population at between 1 million and 2 million animals. Why does the estimate vary by as much as 1 million animals? Given feral hogs' reproductive capabilities and secretive, nocturnal nature, it is difficult to get an accurate count of just how many hogs Texas has.

Wild hogs are not just plentiful, they can be destructive. Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service, part of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, deals specifically with problem wildlife. Joe Zotter, a biologist in the Canyon office, comments on the damage wild hogs can cause.

"Ranchers often call us because hogs are eating their round hay bales intended for cattle or rooting up crops such as wheat and milo," he says. "In the central region of the state, hogs can prey on newborn lambs and goats. One rancher in the eastern Texas Panhandle contacted us after a herd of hogs destroyed 210 acres of peanuts. Within five days, the hogs rooted up and consumed the entire crop. The hogs destroyed approximately $11,000 worth of the farmer's peanut crop in less than a week! A wildlife damage management specialist trapped approximately 40 hogs in the brush surrounding what was left of the peanut field."

If you ever have the misfortune to run into a herd of hogs on the highway at night, you will appreciate a different sort of destruction. A couple of years ago I hit a black hog with my pickup late one night in Central Texas. The 200-pounder hit the left fender, inflicting serious damage. A big hog that makes a direct hit on a small car could do much more than bend a fender. The accident could be deadly for both pig and motorist. My new truck is equipped with a stout front bumper for such encounters.

A fellow hunter says hogs routinely run deer away from feeders and food plots on his Panhandle lease. Instead of the deer benefiting from expensive protein feed and lush, green food plots, hogs reap the rewards. I have witnessed deer running away from big, hungry hogs around feed areas in South and Central Texas.

Many ranchers would like to eliminate hogs completely because of the damage they cause, but other landowners with good numbers of wild hogs often lease hunting rights or sell guided hunts. Guided hunts in North Texas and the Panhandle fetch between $100 and $400 per day. An old boar with long ivory tusks is a coveted trophy among hunters. However, the meat from an older boar has a stronger taste. For the best eating, pigs weighing less than 150 pounds are ideal. Feral hogs are leaner than pen-raised pork, and the meat from average-sized pigs is quite tasty.

January, February and March are ideal months to hunt Texas' wild pork. Leaves have fallen from trees and other vegetation, making the pigs easier to spot. Hogs travel more in daylight in the cooler temperatures. Winter also makes food harder to find, so hunters can do well with spot-and-stalk tactics near bright green wheat fields, or stand-hunting near corn feeders.

Bowhunting the Mob

One of the bigger, uglier hogs I've pursued with bow and arrow appeared on a cool, drizzly day at the top of Texas. The ranch owner complained of hogs raiding one of the secluded, 10-acre food plots he had planted with wheat and fenced for the property's deer. On the first morning I found a hungry mob of at least 30 space invaders snacking on the wheat. Most were black, but at the center was a boar six inches taller than the others. Its hide was mottled black and white. It lorded over the herd, the king of the mob.

I crouched and circled the corner of the field, then eased down the fenceline, the wind in my face. Several of the hogs slipped under the barbed wire and vanished in the cedars and mesquites. I sat motionless in knee-deep broomweed and waited. Three bigger hogs as black as the bottom of a deep well stopped and milled around in the broomweed straight in front of me. Each hog wore a white blaze across its forehead.

Then the big boar I wanted slipped under the fence and stared in my direction. Its mostly white head and long snout looked huge through my binoculars. Its long body tapered down to a narrow back end. Its spotted hide blended surprisingly well with the short brush. As I drew my bow, it turned slightly. With a low, guttural growl it nosed one of the pigs in front of it. My sight pin hovered for a moment on the boar's chest; then the arrow was gone.

A short time later I knelt over the lifeless hog. One of the boar's thick lower tusks was broken clean in half, probably from a fight with another boar. Its other lower tusk was knife-sharp. I touched it with my fingertip and compared it to the sharpened steel of one of the broadheads in my quiver. It amazes me how one well-placed arrow with a razor's edge can kill such an enormous beast just as cleanly as the biggest, hardest-kicking rifle.

I had a good hunt, but I had scarcely dented the hog population. Some other boar would take up the king's position and the sows will keep producing. That's why the state has no limit on how many wild hogs a hunter can take, nor is there a closed season on them. It's legal to take wild hogs any time of year, but with winter here, now is the perfect time for hunters anywhere in the state to fill their freezers with some of Texas' wild bacon.

Hints for Hogs

After shooting more than 30 Texas porkers with archery gear, I can identify one constant among them: Hogs are tough! Shot placement is important on tough-as-a-tank, oversized feral hogs. Be patient and wait for a broadside or slightly quartering-away shot angle. Aim behind the shoulder approximately halfway up from the brisket. This provides the best angle to put an arrow through both lungs for a quick, humane kill and avoids the thick hide armoring the chest.

My personal gear list for chasing hogs with archery tackle includes a compound bow pulling between 60 and 65 pounds. My arrows are aluminum/carbon composite shafts fletched with 4-inch feathers and tipped with 85-grain titanium broadheads. High-quality 10 x 40 binoculars go everywhere with me to locate hogs, and I use a laser rangefinder to gauge the exact distance of the shot.

The feral hog is not a game animal in Texas and is unprotected. Hogs may be taken by any means at any time of year, day or night. There are no seasons or bag limits, but a hunting license and landowner permission are required to hunt them.

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