July 11, 2018
Darkness slowly dissolved, tinging the rolling reaches of grain fields the color of wine and leaving pools of lingering darkness in the canyons and hollows. My spotting scope finally resolved a moving black dot far down-country into the massive form of a lone boar slowly working his way from the pecan groves in the valley bottom to his bedding ground in the brushy canyons above. Humpbacked, reclusive, and wild, this was the sort of boar I'd come to California's central coast region for.
Hunting hogs here is far different from the massive herds of southern hogs lured to timed corn feeders. Early settlers brought domestic pigs to California in the 1700s, but the feral population traces its wilder roots to the 1920s, when an enterprising soul loosed a bunch of Eurasian wild boar in Monterey County. Cagey, aggressive, and adaptable, the wild blood mingled with domestic blood and created a feral breed of survivors that now spreads across 56 of California's 58 counties.
Visually distinguished by their humped, high-ridged backs; long, coarse hair; straight, bristly tails; big tusks; and long, straight snouts, fera Sus scrofa — as they're known among those of scientific bent — all exhibit some degree of domestic characteristics. Colors vary wildly, from black or red to mottled brindle patterns and even belted white on black.
As the golden morning sunlight washed across grassy slopes and peeked into shadowed hollows, my Zeiss binocular revealed more wild pigs in the distance, most progressed slowly but diligently up toward broken-country thickets. A close pair of young boars vanished into a canyon bottom, bumping a grumpy, angular sow trailed by three half-grown piglets from a brushy patch.
Bearing up to two litters per year in good habitat, California's wild pigs have slowly increased in population over the past half-century, offering sportsmen greater and wider opportunities. Hunters reported over 30,000 harvested between 1990 and 1999, a threefold increase since the decade encompassing 1960 to 1969. However, like everywhere across the country, increasing numbers of hunters and encroaching populations have made gaining access more difficult.
Preferring brushy, broken landscapes punctuated with lush cropland, the West's wild pigs commonly travel up to several miles between feeding and bedding areas. BLM, Forest Service, and other public lands provide some opportunity, but statistically, over 90 percent of the state's wild pig harvest is taken on private land each year.
Unless they're die-hard DIY hunters with lots of time to scout and hunt, hunters hungry for a California hog are better off finding an accommodating landowner willing to let them hunt for a modest trespass fee or hiring a guide with access to private land.
Once access is gained, find high-traffic areas by scouting for sign. Wild pig tracks are broader and blunter than deer tracks, and trails worn into hillsides tend to go straight up and over the hill rather than up it at an angle like a typical deer or elk trail. Look for evidence of what the local hogs are currently eating by examining any scat you find. Mast, grain crops, and roots all influence movement patterns. Watch for wallows in cool, wet, muddy areas; they look like a miniature elk wallow. Freshly rooted-up areas indicate recent activity and can be a good location to stalk in the early mornings and sit and watch during the long California evenings.
Hunting methods are not much different from those used on mule deer and western whitetails. Guided by a friend who works at Weatherby, I sat atop a knoll and watched the world unfold around me in my binocular, revealed in sharp, verdant detail. Spot-and-stalk or spot-and-ambush are two favorite methods of hunting western wild boar, and we focused on the shady bottoms of broken draws and hollows, hoping to catch a mature boar tardy to his bed.
The giant boar we spotted at dawn was too far away to hunt that morning — by the time we got to him he'd be secreted in some dark hole. This was mid-October and the wild pigs were emerging from their summer nocturnal patterns, but they still sought cover early. Working our way back to the truck, we wound down a dusty path into the cool recesses of a turkey-track of several draws coming together to form a canyon. An ancient farmstead sat abandoned at the bottom, and a few fruit trees gone wild still offered a bit of small, fragrant fruit to the local wildlife. Leaving the truck, we stalked the gnarled old orchard.
Wild pigs don't see particularly well, but their senses of smell and hearing rank with the best. Angling into the wind, we crept softly in the dust. A rustle across the tiny basin gave away a good-size boar, belted white-on-black with farm-pig coloring but bearing the fiercely ridged back and long tusks and coarse hair of his Eurasian ancestry. The wild fruit he'd lingered to taste was his doom, and as he tried to vanish into waist-high grasses flowing up the far slope, a 127-grain Barnes LRX from my 6.5-300 Weatherby caught him mid-ribcage, shattering his vitals and crashing out through his far shoulder. He dropped and rolled to the valley floor.
It is California, so lead-free bullets are required by law. Luckily, most major bullet companies produce at least one good lead-free projectile, and more are introduced every year. While I'm morally opposed to the lead-free slippery slope, I confess I'm partial to a good homogeneous bullet for hogs, where heavy muscle and dense bones call for a tough, deep-penetrating bullet.
Barnes's TSX, TTSX, and LRX are arguably the best of the lot (unlike competing brands that emphasize lead-core projectiles and dabble in lead-free designs, Barnes's primary focus is lead-free bullets — and it shows), but Hornady's GMX, Nosler's E-Tip, Federal's Trophy Copper, and others all perform splendidly on wild hogs as well. Pick the one that shoots most accurately in your rifle and hunt with confidence.
Bowhunters are best served by tough broadheads that will punch through heavy gristle. To be legal, a hunting bow must be able to cast a hunting arrow a minimum of 130 yards. Muzzleloaders are required to be .40 caliber or larger. Rifles, handguns, and shotguns in cartridges appropriate for deer are generally suitable. Because wild pigs are considered game animals in California, it's illegal to hunt them with a spear or knife.
Non-resident tags are a bit costly — $75.60 — but there is no bag or daily limit. A $164.16 hunting license is also required. (Don't ask me to explain the funky prices.)
While wild pigs have spread across most of California, the Central Coast is home to the greatest population and accounts for the lion's share (historically about 75 percent) of the western hogs killed each year. According to California's Department of Fish & Wildlife, average reported take over the past three years puts the following five counties at the top: Kern (614), Merced (392), Mendocino (233), Napa (172), and Shasta (170).
California is not the place to "engage" wild hogs with night vision optics or a spear at close quarters. Those hunts can be effective population-control efforts or fantastic adventures, but taking a western wild pig is a gentleman's boar hunt. Spectacular sunrises over orange groves and sunsets over sweeping dry-land ridges set the scene, and spot-and-stalk methods test your hunting skills.
To bring home the bacon, make a pilgrimage to the coastal slopes and hunt wide-open country for big wild boars.