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YEAR OF THE PIG
By MARK J. HAINDS
The University of Alabama Press
Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One LONGLEAF
From southern Virginia, down through the coastal plains of the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and on into Texas, longleaf ruled. —Roger Reid, Longleaf, 2006
Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris): The longest-lived, prettiest, toughest pine tree in the southeastern United States. It produces the best saw-timber, greatest percentage of poles, best pine straw, most attractive landscapes, and more lightered wood (aka fat lighter). When tree geneticists spend their careers breeding loblolly or slash pine for better form and more disease resistance, they are attempting to replicate that which longleaf pine does naturally. To give it an anthropomorphic bent, longleaf is what the other southern pines wish they could be when they grow up.
On a Friday evening I drove two hours and forty-five minutes northeast from my home in Andalusia to Auburn, Alabama. Earlier, some friends and former coworkers (James and Stephen) had invited me along for a hog hunt they had arranged at Fort Benning, Georgia, and after a good meal and a few beers, I crashed on their couch with a smile on my face in anticipation of ringing ears and squealing pigs on the morrow.
We got up early, picking up Ben at another house in Auburn before starting the drive east. All three of these guys are forestry graduates from Auburn University who had previously worked with me on longleaf studies in south Alabama. We cruised through Columbus, Georgia, arriving at Fort Benning about one hour after departing Auburn.
At the Base Recreation Center, I secured a visitor pass and a weeklong nonresident hunting license. Because Fort Benning requires hunters to sign into open units before entering these areas, James called Range Control, signing the four of us into three areas simultaneously. At each new location, we lined up perpendicular to the long axis of the unit and pushed forward, covering acre after acre and mile after mile.
After another Benning employee (Joe Ranson) joined us, our party consisted of five hunters, each with a different caliber rifle. Ben had a Marlin .35 lever-action rifle that would have looked at home in the hands of John Wayne. This traditional gun uses a heavy, large-caliber bullet that is considered ideal for shooting through thick brush. Stephen carried a long-barreled, bolt-action .270. This modern rifle still shoots a good-sized bullet, but it is smaller in diameter, faster, and more prone to deflection. It is a good deer/pig gun in open country, where shots may be taken at longer ranges.
Joe would be hunting with a Mini-14 (.223). Since the Mini-14 does not require the shooter to work a lever or bolt between shots, its main advantages are a more rapid rate of fire and lower recoil. James was shooting a semiautomatic .22 Magnum. This was the only firearm utilizing rimfire ammunition. Most hunters consider the .22 Magnum way too small for feral pigs. However, the .22 Mag num does have advantages: virtually no recoil, rapid rate of fire, and cheap ammunition. Lastly, my firearm was a trusty ol' Model 788, .243 Remington bolt-action rifle. This bullet was squarely in the middle of the pack, smaller than Ben's .35 or Steven's .270, and bigger than Joe's .223 and James's .22 Magnum.
The hunt started on the edge of a swamp. As we entered the woods, frost and hog tracks covered the ground. Normally, wetter is better when you're talking about hog habitat, but the temperature had dropped into the low twenties the night before and the pigs had avoided the icy-cold mud.
James was the first to see a pig. I was on the bottom of the line, up against a swamp, while James was positioned on the opposite end, near the top of a hill. Brush kept visibility to about fifty yards, and the adjacent hunter in the line would appear and reappear as our line tracked the contour. Reaching the end of the swamp, the four of us on the bottom grouped up, waiting for James to reappear before setting off in a new direction. James emerged from the brush, joined the group, and asked, "Did you see the boar?" None us had seen anything remotely resembling a pig.
James informed us, "There was a good boar up on the hill, and it headed downslope as soon it saw me. I didn't shoot because I hoped you all would get a chance to kill it." The boar had passed behind us, unseen.
Pigs: 1; hunters: 0.
One of the more interesting things about walking on a military base is the possibility of encountering unexploded ordnance. In fact, it is unusual to be out of sight of military detritus. Among the most prevalent relics are aluminum fins protruding from the soil or pine litter. Scores of .223-caliber blanks (M-16 ammo) are visible on any patch of exposed soil or sand. More ominously, rusty objects resembling grenades or RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) rounds occasionally protrude from the soil surface. It is likely they are dummies. Or else these munitions could be decades' old duds with the potential to take life or limb.
Ben and James had reminded me at the start of the hunt, "Don't kick shiny stuff!" before relating the story of a young boy who bought it a few years back while hunting on Fort Benning. No one noticed the explosion because he was hunting by himself. The poor kid may or may not have seen the round that killed him.
The hunt progressed, our group hopping from unit to unit as we worked our way around the base. After a few hours, we stopped to chow down on Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). With more than a decade between this hunt and my last active-duty service, I was reminded that the MREs aren't that bad. Joe had just gotten back from Iraq, so he was less enthusiastic about his MRE. To be sure, MREs have plenty of calories. Eating three full MREs a day, you'd better be humping some long distances. Our method of hog hunting fit the bill, so I consumed my MRE plus the other guys' unwanted portions.
Policing up our trash, we moved to a unit that was primarily bottomland hardwoods. Walking in, Ben told us about a big pig he had killed on this unit. Ben worked on a feral hog project that Auburn University was conducting at Fort Benning. Through that study he and several colleagues had trapped, tagged, released, and tracked hundreds of pigs. They were attempting to determine the extent to which hog populations could be reduced by using all means necessary. Ben said, "I was walking in to check my hog trap. I came around this bend and saw a boar lying stretched out in the middle of the road. It looked like it was dead; then I realized it was just sleeping. When I shot it, the boar let out a short surprised squeal and ran into the woods. It didn't go far."
I asked, "Did you carry it out?"
Ben shook his head. "I didn't want the stinky bastard."
The five of us worked into a creek bottom covered with fresh sign. Based on tracks, wallows, rubs, and rooting, it seemed the resident hog population was more concentrated here than on any of the other tracts we had walked. Our hunting party followed a long loop out and back, occasionally walking through or around standing water. Somewhere on the loop, James disappeared. When the rest of us reached the vehicles again, we sat or lay down, resting our aching legs; at least my legs were aching. About ten minutes later, the sound of a shot came from the woods, followed by a pause, and then another shot.
Jumping up, I said, "It sounds like James is the first to draw blood." Taking a bearing on the shots, we went to look for him. Although the shots had sounded fairly close, James wasn't in the immediate vicinity. After a few minutes, we walked back and found him waiting at the trucks.
James shook his head in response to our unasked question. "I heard them in some blue palm and went in after them. They were staying in front of me and I got off a couple of shots, then my gun jammed. While I was trying to get it unjammed, one stepped out in the open and looked at me for a few seconds. Then they all ran off. That was the first time this gun has jammed on me."
Pigs: 2; hunters: 0.
There was time to hit one more unit before dark. Ben suggested a very large food plot on an adjacent unit. The others dropped me off at the bottom of the plot with fifteen minutes of shooting light remaining.
The food plot was long and narrow, snaking through the woods. Deer tracks were everywhere, but there weren't any hog tracks. I was about two hundred yards in, hugging the tree line on the left side, when Joe emerged from the woods on the right. Joe and I moved forward on opposite sides of the food plot.
Ben hadn't been kidding—this food plot went on forever. As we reached the end, there was a good half mile of food plot behind us, with sawtooth oak planted the entire length of the field. Unfortunately, the mast crop (acorns) had been consumed a long time ago. Loblolly pine is the most overplanted pine tree in the United States, but at least it is a native tree species. Sawtooth oak, on the other hand, is an Asian species that's probably the most overplanted hardwood in the Southeast.
It was dark as Stephen and James picked us up at the end of the plot. Despite a heroic effort, the first day had been a bust.
The temperature dropped during the drive to our rented cabin on Fort Benning. There were a couple of dozen white-tailed deer in the wooded area near the cabins. Several were grazing within easy bow range.
Unpacking and settling in, we felt the cold. This was whisky-drinking weather, and I was proud to see a half gallon of George Dickel on the kitchen counter. I have a friend in Brewton, Alabama, named Shon. He has quit drinking but otherwise has pretty good judgment. Shon once told me, "Dickel makes Jim Beam want to slap his momma."
The heater warmed the cabin while the Dickel worked from the inside out. Tired out from a full day of walking over rough ground, we watched a television show on tropical diseases and called it a night.
Waking to temperatures in the teens, we had a frosty start, but we were hoping that the day's hunt would, with a little luck, yield more than a couple of futile shots in the palmetto.
James and Stephen were looking for a place to park on the first unit when Mark Byrd pulled up. Mark was the forester who had given me my first tour around Fort Benning ten years back when the Longleaf Alliance was working with a big Department of Defense (DOD) grant. Mark didn't have any interest in pigs. Turkey season opened in a few weeks, and he was listening for gobblers in the early morning hours.
Parking on a sandy ridge overlooking a deep drain, we noticed that the area had just been replanted in longleaf pine. James said they had kicked up pigs several times while planting this tract. As we got out of the truck, we saw fresh pig tracks crisscrossing the sandy road.
The five of us started down the slope. Reaching the stream at the bottom of the valley, Stephen and Joe took the far side. I stayed on the near side while Ben and James followed behind. The far side of the drain was an uncut, intact mixed-pine hardwood forest, trending toward mature hardwoods along the stream. To minimize erosion and deposition of sediment, a streamside management zone (SMZ) had been left. In this case, the SMZ was a strip of uncut hardwoods along the stream. To the right, above the SMZ, was a recently planted clear-cut.
Still waiting for Ben and James to get into position, Joe shouted from across the stream, "Pigs!"
A line of pigs was running between Joe and Stephen. Joe couldn't shoot because Stephen was in his line of fire. The pigs ran within a few feet of Stephen, and he swung his scoped rifle with the herd but never pulled the trigger. It's very difficult to make a good shot with a scope at close, fast-moving game.
The line of black and brown pigs passed Stephen, and I yelled, "Pigs coming!" to let Ben and James know the herd was headed their way. Shortly, Ben's .35 sounded: Bang! Bang! Bang! This was followed by loud squealing and a final Bang!
Converging on Ben and James, I asked, "How many did you get?"
Ben answered, "I've got one down in the ditch over there. They came down the stream, and I started shooting at the black boar in the brush to my front. I hit it good, but it was still dragging its hind legs and headed for the stream. So I shot the boar again, but it still rolled into the stream."
Following the blood trail to the ditch, we discovered a small-to medium-sized black boar with nice tusks dead in the stream. The spine shot had caused the boar to release some exceptionally pungent urine. Congratulating Ben on his shooting, we offered to help him drag the boar back to the truck. Ben declined. He had a high-wheeled cart designed especially for big-game retrieval, which in the South means pigs or deer. James stayed to help Ben with the pig while Stephen, Joe, and I walked out the surrounding draws.
Crossing a newly planted clearing, we found fresh pig sign. The pigs had uprooted recently planted longleaf seedlings. The seedlings, or "plugs," were lying on the ground, uneaten.
Farther down the drain, I found a nice lower jawbone from a hog that had met its end a year or two before. The three of us walked rapidly, covering about a mile before circling back to our starting point. Nearing the trucks, Joe picked up an old military compass, also recently uncovered by a prescribed fire. It was no longer functioning and Joe didn't want it, so I carried the compass and hog jaw out as souvenirs.
Back at the trucks, we found Ben and James with the boar. After snapping a few photos, it was off to the next spot.
Pigs: 2; hunters: 1.
The "skunk" was off our hunting party and there was new optimism. But over the course of the day, we walked several hours and covered many miles of ground. By late afternoon on this, the final day of the hunt, my enthusiasm was flagging again. With two hours of shooting light left, we held a powwow. Ben, James, and Stephen decided it was time for Shamanski Road. They had played all their other cards, and now it was time for their ace in the hole.
James signed us into a unit with a large firing range. A road passed through the range, into a big area of sand ridges covered with scrub oaks, longleaf pine, and sparkleberry, a classic "sandhill" longleaf community. Rounding a bend, we saw two large gut piles just off the road shoulder. Someone had recently killed large pigs here. Not a bad sign.
As we left the sand ridges behind, the "site index" improved. There was more groundcover. The longleaf pines were taller and there were fewer hardwoods. Annually, the Fort Benning forestry staff burns tens of thousands of acres. This frequent, low-intensity fire maintains beautiful, open, parklike stands of longleaf pine with a diverse herbaceous understory. Fort Benning has some of the healthiest woods I've seen on DOD landholdings.
As we moved down a long straight road, Ben said sharply from behind me, "There they are!" pointing to the right. I jumped up a high bank into a stand of longleaf with oaks and hickories scattered throughout. Stephen and James were on my left, and Ben was coming in behind me. The pigs were moving at a good clip from left to right, perhaps 150 yards out. The group consisted of two solid black pigs and a black pig with a white Hampshire stripe.
I leaned against a tree to help steady my aim as I picked the pigs up in the scope. They were moving fast and the woods were getting thicker. I took a hurried first shot. The pigs picked up speed as I fired a second, long, going-away shot just before they disappeared over a ridge. The first shot was questionable. The second shot hopeless.
The guys came up behind me, asking, "Did you hit one?"
Shaking my head, I answered, "I don't know."
It didn't take long to locate the pigs' tracks and follow their trails over the ridge. There was no blood, nor any sign of a hit pig.
Joe had been elsewhere during out afternoon hunt. When he rejoined us and heard the story of my missed shots, he gave some friendly advice. "Rather than squeezing the trigger, squeeze your whole hand."
While it was nice of him to offer the advice, I had always considered myself an above-average shot with a rifle. The pigs had been moving quickly, 150 yards out, in a wooded environment. Nevertheless, all three pigs should not have escaped. Still, it just didn't sit right, receiving shooting lessons from someone I'd just met.
Ben said, "Let's keep going. We'll find some more."
Pigs: 3; hunters: 1; Mark: 0.
The hunt continued, but a sinking feeling in my gut said, "You've blown your best and final opportunity."
With just over an hour of shooting light remaining, there was ground to cover. Having completed a circle through the unit, our party of four (Joe had called it a day) was working down a road in an open, fire-maintained longleaf stand when Stephen and James pointed at the same time and called out, "Pig!" They could have shot it themselves, but they wanted me to get my hog.
Excerpted from YEAR OF THE PIG by MARK J. HAINDS Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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