Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hog Hunting on Horseback

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"I reached into my pocket and pulled a chocolate brown, plastic cased, thumb thick shell and dropped it into the ten gauge's chamber..."

(A couple of notes from the author: The grove has been plowed down and is now part of a subdivision. Chester is still kicking up his heels and is occasionally ridden by the children. I stopped riding; I can’t sit on the saddle for very long anymore.)

I scrunched my stubbled cheek down on the wet wooden stock, trying to line up the sights behind the hog's shoulder. I was using my old Harrington and Richards top break 10 gauge slug gun. The beautifully colored walnut forearm was cool to the touch and the old fashioned ventilated recoil pad was tucked tight into the pocket of my shoulder. I could see patches of the sow's dark hide hidden behind the grape vines and scrub oaks that formed an almost impenetrable barrier between us. But there wasn't a clear shot, not yet. Hoping that an errant breeze wouldn't carry my scent to her, I stood as still as I could muster as there were seven sets of eyes I knew about and maybe a dozen more I didn't.

After a short eternity, the old sow moved forward, rooting for some delicacy, a fat grub perhaps, or a starchy tuber. It was the break I was looking for. The white bead floated just above and behind the elbow. I gently squeezed the trigger, and the powerful recoil took me by surprise. Taking a half step back, I lost sight of the sow, as the recoil shoved the gun against my shoulder and rolled the barrel skyward.

It had started about an hour earlier...

The fog that had enveloped the county at night in a damp and wet embrace, had been lifting and was patchy. I'd been riding for an hour or so, nice and easy, just enjoying the cool dampness, the ephemeral outlines of trees appearing and disappearing in the dawn's glow alongside the abandoned railroad tracks I rode along. Tossing his head occasionally, the gelding I was on had settled into an easy walk that ate up the ground with surprising speed. We had heard a lone coyote howling, but other than that it was peaceful and quiet.

He had been frisky this morning, kicking his heels up and otherwise being energetic; the cold spell brought down to us by the Arctic jet stream had awakened a bit of spunk in an otherwise placid creature. Used to the semi-tropical weather we enjoy most of the year, he was feeling his oats today. Saddling him up in the dim, foggy, dawn had been a bit of an adventure, it was early for him, and it took a few runs around the paddock to settle him down. Cantering back to the stables I tied him up to the hitching post and got the gear. I slipped the single shot H&R shotgun into the fleece lined scabbard, dropped three Federal 10 gauge slugs into my denim jacket's pocket and picked up the gun belt. Hammer resting on an empty chamber, I strapped my 45LC Vaquero to my leg. I always ride for a few minutes first before I load up and again after I've done so, just to make sure everything is strapped on right, the horse is OK, and I'm OK. No clicks, jingles, or rattles greeted me, just the creak of worn and well oiled leather. Adjusting my bandanna and pulling my hat down we took off.

We were moving along now, the clip-clop of his hooves beating a steady rhythm.

I was headed to were an old dirt road cut over the RR tracks and led into an abandoned orange grove. The tattered remains of an old Cracker style home sat on the edge of the grove, its back to a tangle of palmetto, oak and wild grape vines. It can't be seen from the entrance of the grove and every year the weeds grow a little taller and the remains of the house sink a little lower. I had seen hogs, big hogs, lots of hogs in this grove many times, and just as many times I hadn't. I was hoping that this would be one of the times that I would. The mist was pretty well gone by the time we got there and dawn was an hour gone. The first thing I noted was that there was quite a bit of fallen fruit on the ground this time of year. I was getting hopeful that I would run into a big sow for my Southern friends to cook up. I had found the hard way that old boars just don't taste that great, regardless of who's doing the cooking!

There's a big live oak that was likely there when Hernan DeSoto came by with his Conquistadors on his way to Eldorado and whose drooping, massive branches spread over a huge expanse of land in one corner of the grove. I was headed to that corner with Chester, intending to tie him off to one of the branches and scout the edge of the grove. But I thought I might glass the edges of the grove before I went in on the chance that there might be something there. My binoculars are set of Bushnell 7X49s that I acquired 20 some-odd years ago, when I was still dreaming of big game hunting while living in the urban cities of New Jersey. They might not be as bright as a pair Ziess lens but they are clear and relatively light.

After about ten minutes of careful scrutiny, I found nothing. The trees marched away in ragged rows, weeds having overtaken the rows between. The American Goldfinches were flitting from tree to tree, having come down to spend the winter with us, their chirps and trills sounding a merry welcome.. But beautiful as they were, there were no hogs. Cursing my luck, I went in, ambling towards the tree, going through my mind where we would go next. But Chester hadn't taken a dozen steps, when I heard them. Near the house, as good as I could tell, there was the unmistakable sound of contented pigs rooting around, their snorts and grunts soft yet clear.

An interesting thing, pigs might not see very well, but they have noses and ears that make up for it. If you're on horseback though, and the pigs have contact with cattle, they will not recognize you as a threat. Likewise if there are two of you hunting, and you stay close to each others, they'll ignore you. All those legs make them think you are a cow. But I didn't want to risk putting them off, so I reined away from the pigs, circling around the orange trees to the live oak. Luckily I didn't spook them.

Tying Chester off to the tree, I loosened his girth and pulled my H&R top break out of the scabbard. It was one of the first firearms I had bought when I turned eighteen. Navy Arms was just a big gun shop in Ridgefield, NJ at the time and I spent many a memorable afternoon just handling used rifles and shotguns, and the inevitable surplus third-world bolt actions that flooded the gun market in the late 70's. This one was on the used gun rack and it was love at first sight; the heavy barrel has a rich, deep bluing and wears a lovely walnut stock. It cost me $69.00 plus another seven bucks for a couple of boxes of buckshot.

Thumbing the action open, I reached into my pocket and pulled a chocolate brown, plastic cased, thumb thick shell and dropped it into the gaping hole that is a ten gauge chamber; 776 grains of lead kerplunked their way home. I gently closed the color case hardened action, wincing as it locked safe-like shut, afraid that the hogs might hear it. The other shell went between the fore and middle finger of my left hand ala' Peter Capstick. They might not be cape buffalo, but hogs can be dangerous and I wanted to be ready for a quick follow up shot if necessary. Of course I had my six-shooter on my hip, but for dramatic purposes... Well, I could imagine they were M'bogo.

The best way to sneak up on hogs is to move as quickly and quietly as possible while out of sight. Then when you are as close as you can get, get low, use cover, and move slowly. Their eyesight is poor, and if you are low, and an errant breeze doesn't carry your scent to them, you can almost get into their midst's.

Quickly I planned my stalk. I hoofed it back down a row of trees until I figured I was directly opposite the old house. Trying to peer through the lichen covered branches I slipped my way through the tree rows. Finally I could make out the outlines of the dilapidated house. Moving ever more cautiously, I crept forward until I was clear of the trees. The hogs had moved off just a bit from where I thought them to be. I could hear them, the muffled snuffs and grunts evidence that they were still busy rooting and eating. Ahead of me were 30 yards of wet, knee high weeds and then I could take cover behind the house's foundation. The air was still and the light still muted by the cloud cover and fog above.

The advantage of wet grass is that it is very quiet going through it. The disadvantage is that it is Nature's equivalent to a car wash. By the time I had crawled to the foundation I was sopping wet. Since I was pretty excited I didn't really care, more concerned with my stalk than the wet. I would regret it later.

Using the house as cover, I crawled my way to the corner of the water worn limestone foundation. Peering out from around the foundation's corner, I could just make out some movement behind the brush and brambles. Trying to count the number of hogs was almost impossible, the heavy cover concealed some and let them reappear, making it difficult, to say the least. But I could be sure of at least seven. I would have to get on my belly and crawl. Hooking my forefinger over the muzzle and behind the sight, and laying the slug-gun over my forearm and bicep, I got down on my belly and low crawled out from behind the foundation, using the tall grass as cover to reach my next objective, a wide bay laurel bush that was big enough to conceal me. Reaching it, I slowly raised myself up on my arms and peered around the bush. There, directly ahead of me, not 30 yards away was my quarry. From my vantage point I could see that it was a good sized sow without pigs. She had "Roast me!" written all over her. But between me and pork chops was an almost net-like web of vines and stunted trees. My only choice was to wait until she stepped into a clear spot so I could take her. I lowered myself down and tried to get my feet under me.

By the time I was able to get up on my feet I had decided to get my knees replaced with something a little less noisy. Say, a diesel powered lift! It was a wonder that any game animal in the county hadn't been run off by the unnatural pops and snaps that emanated from my joints. Peeking from behind the laurel I could see that they were still there, unconcerned and fortuitously unknowing. Focused on the sow as I was, I didn't notice a youngish pig come out from the screen of palmetto nearer to the house. When I finally did take heed, it was too late to do anything but stand stock still and hope that it didn't cross over my tracks. For once the fates were on my side and out of the corner of my eye I could see that the little pig turned and pranced back to wherever it came from.

That sow, meanwhile, was working herself off to the left of my position. The cover thinned out in that direction and I figured that would be my chance. All she needed to do was root forward five or six more feet and I would have her. I hefted the H&R up and pulled the trigger and as quietly as possible thumbed the hammer back, released the trigger and eased the hammer back down on the sear.

I still had the other shell in my left hand, double checking my grip on it, I slowly, ever so slowly, raised the ten bore up. My eyes were glued to the sow while simultaneously trying to keep an eye on the others. She began to move steadily towards the hole in the brush so I finished tucking the gun into my shoulder and lined up the sights. Many years ago, I had replaced the front blade sight with a large white bead, which incidentally, I tell everyone is a warthog tusk bead, but which actually is a fake ivory one. I find it easy to pick up in dim or bright light, and I think it looks cool with its African Bawana look! A few more steps and I could take her. The bead was nestled in the rear sight's notch; both eyes open, my focus on the one spot on her hide where I would send the bullet.

When she took that fateful step, I squeezed the trigger, the hammer dropped, the gun roared, and all hell broke loose. Barking and snorting, pigs went flying in every direction, up, down, sideways; two sped by me with their afterburners on full. Not one for admiring my shots, I pulled the barrel back down and thumbed the lever over. The svelte action broke and the powerful ejectors promptly shot the hot casing right by my ear. As I slammed the reserve slug down the slugger's maw I looked to where the sow had been. Closing the action, thumb on the hammer, I could see she wasn't where I expected her to be, but I was confident I had hit her.

When one and three-quarter ounces of lead and 3000 pounds of energy hit you, by all rights you should be down, skinned and quartered. It didn't happen that way. Still looking past the shrub I was using, I could see that she just wasn't there. Cracking the H&R open again, carefully this time, as I didn't relish the thought of a fully loaded shell slamming me in the forehead, I pulled the round out and leaned the gun on the shrub. Though I wasn't expecting any trouble, I unlimbered my Vaquero and checked that I had a loaded chamber on line, and thumbed this hammer back.

I quickly walked forwards to were the sow had been and eased my way through the snarled scrub and tangled vines as best I could. As soon as I got near enough to the spot where she had been standing to see well, I could tell that it would be a short trail. Following the trail with my eyes, I saw her not twenty feet away. Lowering the Ruger's hammer, I slipped the six-gun back into its holster.

The slug, traveling at about 1100 fps had taken her low in the chest, right behind the elbow, tracking forward and obliterated the heart, and then punched a fist sized hole out the other side. I went back to where she was standing, and tried to line up the angle of fire. After a little back and forth looking, I found the furrow where the slug had slammed into the ground after passing through the hog. But after a pretty diligent search I couldn't find it. I figure with all the retained momentum it sailed into the next county after skipping along the dirt.

The rest was pretty anti-climactic. After fetching my trusty steed, I stowed all the guns after wiping them down with a silicon impregnated rag I carry in a double ziplock bag. I field dressed the sow, putting the entrails out in the open so our aerial garbage disposal friends would find them easily and clean it up quickly. I had never tried to put anything, other than my kids, on the horses back so when I tried to heave the 150 lbs or so of sow over his rump he just wasn't going to cooperate. It took snubbing him up tight to a tree and a lot of gymnastics on my part to get that pig up on him, but I ultimately prevailed, and I only got stepped on once!

By midmorning, wet, cold and sniffling, I had it at my Mexican friends' home. After much back slapping, merriment and the medicinal use of Bacardi's 151 Anejo rum, of which everyone partook of in case I was contagious, I left them with the promise that I'd be back later that evening for the party!

But that, my friends, is another story!

Best Regards,
Albert

2 comments:

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Now that's what the rasch chronicles are all about! Great writing about great times. I've been on the road for a few weeks and i first read this post in a public library, now reading it again it's still a delight. Looking forward to hearing more.
SBW

Phillip said...

Ahh... got that pig loaded up and only got stepped on once. Now that there's a good horse!

Hadn't been around in a while, but glad to see you're still in good form! I enjoyed the tale.