|My first pig.
My experience was quite different from Pollan's, maybe because I'm more familiar with hunting than he was, but in any case my hunt was by all accounts a supreme success: this had as much to do with the skill and experience of our guides as with my mental preparation and visualization. Before the hunt I spent quite a bit of time at the range with my rifle, a nice little 7mm short mag Winchester, a flat shooter. I knew that rifle shooting was very different from shotgunning, which I’m used to from hunting waterfowl and upland game. Different in one very good way at least, in that you have time to think about your shot, to zero in and really feel the target, which unlike most waterfowl is large and not moving in an unpredictable course above your head in the rain at 40-50 mph. Still I knew there would be unique challenges in finding and stalking a pig, getting off a shot, and making a clean kill.
My excellent friend Roy Howell had a spot open for me on a hunt with Rhinos Guide Service, an outfit with property up in the mountains west of Cloverdale in southern Mendocino County, south of Booneville, near Malliard Redwoods State Park. We met in Cloverdale for lunch on a Friday afternoon in late April, then caravanned out to the property, following logging roads for 30 or 40 miles into the remote backcountry, legendary for the cultivation of primo bud, and, as it turned out, pig hunting. After passing several locked gates and crossing some beautiful clear steelhead spawning streams, we arrived at the hunting camp, situated by a creek in a clearing in one of the many canyons that run through the property. Here we unloaded, camoed up, and prepped for the hunt, which would begin that afternoon.
|Kerry Griffith of Rhinos Guide Service
I met with our guide Kerry Griffith, the owner of Rhinos and a consummate outdoorsman. He gave us many invaluable pointers on stalking the pigs, staying quiet and upwind of your quarry, and optimal shot placement. Wild pigs have a highly developed sense of hearing, and an even more highly developed sense of smell, but they can’t see very well at all. This last deficiency turns out to be a good advantage when stalking them. Most of the time, the pigs are constantly moving, browsing and feeding. In the late spring, when the woods and meadows are filled with young delicious sprouting things, they’re gorging on things like wild oats, rattlesnake grass and clover. They basically live in a huge supermarket of free food, and they grow fat, prosper, and multiply. Kerry also explained that we were to carefully pick our pigs, and avoid shooting nursing (or wet) sows, as doing so would not only deprive several piglets of nourishment and condemn then to probable starvation but would create a messy field dressing situation.
|One tasty item on the Pig menu- rattlesnake grass.
|Scouting for pigs.
Suddenly we spotted a large group of pigs browsing within range in a small open meadow between stands of oak. We stopped and waited, as we assessed the situation. Several pigs were in range, but we needed to get our shot (or more than one if we were very lucky) set up, which meant picking out an appropriate pig, then getting into position for a clear shot. I had brought a barrel mounted pair of shooting sticks to provide stability for my rifle-these were very good but were also designed to be used sitting down. I tried to sit and to move into position, scooting on my butt, trying to be quiet and get set up, but it wasn’t working. Roy and David were also trying to get a clear shot, and we wanted David to have the first shot, but he wasn’t quite ready to commit to a shot yet. Several times I would site in on a pig, only to have it wander behind a tree or boulder, or turn out to be a wet sow. It was a difficult, tense situation as we tried to stay quiet and set up a shot. At one point, one pig to our left stopped munching, lifted his head and stared right at us, sensing something. We all became statues, barely daring to breath, until he went back to grazing.
After perhaps 20 minutes of our trying to set up shots on several different pigs, our guide finally pointed out a young non-wet sow and whispered to me “you can shoot that pig.” I agreed and was just barely able to get her in my scope- I think her head was behind a tree, but I had a clear shot at the point just behind the right shoulder that is the ideal spot for the bullet to enter. I got up on my knees, and aimed without any extra support on my gun. My aim was steady, and as I have learned to do, just felt the connection with the target somehow- I knew when the moment to pull the trigger was right. My gun flashed fire in the twilight, the pigs all started running, and as the smoke cleared I saw my pig sprint for about 20 feet and then roll over dead. A near perfect shot, clean kill.
|Pigs constantly root for food, regularly tearing up
large swaths of the landscape.
We met up with David and Roy, who weren’t able to get another shot at pigs. We hiked along the stream at the bottom of the canyon in the soft darkness of early evening. As we came to a bend in the stream, Kerry suddenly stopped and pointed with his flashlight to a large group of pigs across the stream in a flat meadow- there must have been 40 or 50 of them, boars, sows and piglets, happily feeding. They moved off slowly from our flashlights but didn’t seem overly concerned. Our guide began talking to them in pig talk, and they gradually approached us again, grunting and chattering away. We stood in the darkness there for 20 minutes or so, chattering away with them before moving on and hiking back to camp.
|Hanging the carcass.
The next day, after tagging along with Roy and David in the morning hunt, we quartered my pig and packed it in ice and plastic bags, helpfully provided by Roy and his friend Bruce. I thanked my friends and the guides, and drove home with a cooler full of top quality pig meat. Along the way I stopped to pick a few large handfuls of fragrant wild fennel that I knew I would use to cook up the first taste of boar over the barbecue.
|Roy and David scouting for pigs.
I did not do a perfect job of butchering, far from it, but when I was finished I ended up with quite a respectable pile of excellent meat. I did not use any of the head or skin, for obvious reasons- too difficult to deal with in the field. I had originally intended to take everything to a butcher, but I’m glad now I jumped right in and did it all myself. I will definitely study butchering more thoroughly before I shoot another pig and break it down, but it wasn’t that hard really, and I really enjoyed learning about the pig anatomy and about breaking down carcasses. Grilling up the first cuts of pig produced a tasty preview of many fine feasts to come.
|Morning light in the canyon.
The entire experience of the hunt involved very much thinking and learning about what the pigs are eating, understanding their habitat, movements, behavior, and even language, and gave me a much deeper appreciation for how we connect with animals in an environment where we don’t intervene much- how they find and consume food, and how we find and consume both similar food and the animals who do this work for us. The Mendocino mountains in late spring are an exquisite landscape that is filled with things to eat for opportunistic, highly adaptable, wily species like pigs, who are a prime example of what I call a “revolving door” species- they go in and out of domestication repeatedly, and have for thousands of years. We have co-evolved with them and many other species in a deeply interconnected way. Tasting the wild oats and rattlesnake grass, I could understand why the pigs gorge on it. Sometimes when I’m fly fishing on a river I eat the bugs that the trout are feeding on to get a more complete idea of what they’re going after.
|Mr. David Howell with his trophy boar, one of two he shot.
As my friends and family know, I dearly love to cook, and hunting and fishing have a deeper meaning for me than simply sport- since I do it so often, I’m basically filling my freezer as appropriate with hormone-free high quality meat and fish. Michael Pollan certainly has influenced me in my thinking about food in general, but the guy who has really turned me on to wild game cooking is Hank Shaw. I met his girlfriend Holly Heitzer last winter duck hunting at Delevan, but at the time I didn’t realize it was she who has been Hank’s partner in crime for so many years. Hank’s book Hunt Gather Cook came out in the last year- I highly recommend it. His website Hunter Gardner Angler Cook is an awesome achievement and something I refer to frequently for some of my favorite recipes. Although I’ve never met him, he’s like my soul brother in his passion for hunting fishing and cooking, and he has done it all and taken it to a completely new level.
The more I learn about hunting and foraging the more I realize that there’s food everywhere for the taking, all you have to do is keep your eyes open. When it comes to certain species like deer, turkeys, and pigs, hunting is actually a crucial part of the ecological management. These species are all experiencing population booms, and controlled harvesting of this wild game can only be a good thing in my mind. Hunting is not an atavistic artifact of pre-industrial society, it’s a vital way for us to be in touch and in balance with our environment. Unfortunately because of the prevalence of the industrial food supply chain and the increasing urbanization of society, we’ve lost touch with it as a way of life-overly politicizing gun issues isn’t helping either.
For me harvesting wild food has become much more than a hobby or purely sporting or recreational pursuit, it’s kind of a holistic practice because it involves ensuring that I collect and process by myself the highest quality food I can find. I love nothing better than to share my game with friends and family in a big feast, where some may be tasting wild game for the first time, ideally complimented with some foraged greens or other treats. To those who don’t understand our connection with wild animals and wild food, this is the best way to begin an explanation.