Hog Wild: Coming face-to-face with my future meal while hunting wild pig

when it comes to wild hogs. Deer are cute — and damn tasty — but wild hogs are a scourge on the Florida landscape, labelled as pests and vermin by local authorities and detested by farmers. Nationwide, the feral pig population is estimated at over 3 million. University of Florida researchers peg our state's population at over 500,000, second only to Texas. Thank Hernando de Soto, who brought the first pigs to the state in 1539.

Feral pigs prefer a diet rich in acorns, but they're flexible enough to eat dead animals, ground-nesting wildlife, farm crops and tree saplings, which can hinder pine forests from regenerating. When they root in the turf — and pigs love to root — they can destroy a massive area of vegetation, cause damaging erosion and tear down fencing and enclosures. Not enough to harden your heart? How about this: They've been known to dig up and consume sea turtle nests. For shame.

Along with trapping, building serious barriers and lacing feed with oral contraceptives (really), hunting is one way to control the population.These guys are nocturnal, which is why I find myself pulling into a big property off of State Road 64 in east Manatee County just after 5 p.m.

We start our night with manual labor, carrying 40 pound bags of corn into the scrub along a pitted car trail and through a trampled path to the first bait area. A gigantic metal tripod topped by a large plastic bin sits in a small clearing. The area is completely denuded of vegetation, the ground trampled down to soft sand mixed with the occasional speck of dried corn. We dump one bag of corn into the bin and scatter another into the dirt around the tripod. Then Scott crouches down to remove the SD memory card from a camera attached to a nearby post.

Yep, you heard me. My first lesson in the art of shooting wild hogs is that hunters like their toys. Like any hobby, the paraphenalia is part of fun. That bin? Attached to a timed dispenser that scatters corn in a defined pattern every hour, from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. The camera? Motion-activated, hi-res, waterproof, infrared and painted with a slashing camouflage pattern that I can't help but notice is much fancier than that on my low-end Wal-Mart sweats. But wait, there's more: Three infrared lamps point at the area to light it up like daylight, invisible unless seen through an IR scope in an otherwise pitch-black rural night.

[image-1]After a trip to the second bait area, we hike back to the car and Scott breaks out a laptop so we can see the results of this week's snapshots. Each camera took hundreds of shots, some casued by the wind blowing branches into the path of the lens, but many chronicling the migratory feeding patterns of racoons, birds, deer and, yes, hogs. Although Scott and his hunting mentor Shawn Crane, who we meet up with back at the car, have shot more than 90 hogs on the property since they started hunting here at the beginning of 2009, there are always more. Since creating their current system, they "almost always bag one when we head out," according to Scott.

Easy to see why. This type of hunting is more science than the backwoods art I expected. As we peruse the pictures, it's clear these hogs are either unaware of their danger, or the temptation of free corn is simply too strong. One especially gluttonous hog hits the bait area at the beginning and end of every night, staying long enough to eat every last kernel of corn in the area. Scott chuckles: "What a pig!"

Shawn has been a hunter since he was a kid and makes frequent trips throughout the year to hunt in other areas. The usual stuff: deer mostly, but hog and birds are on his kill list, too. His hunting dream? "I'd love to go out to Colorado and hunt moose," he explains, "but it would cost way too much. A good guide can run you $5,000, and then you may not even find what you're looking for."

Shawn perfected his hog hunting technique after several unsuccessful trips to this property when he first received his night-hunting permits in January. Now, he hunts as often as he finds a partner who's willing to take the meat — "my freezer is stuffed with more than I can eat" — since he won't kill an animal unless it's going to be used.

That's when I voice the concern I've been nursing since I first saw the serious technology he brings to bear just to bag a hog. Isn't it a little, um, unsportsmanlike? He chuckles. "I like being outside. I like being in the woods. I like setting everything up and figuring out the best way to do it," he says. "The actual shooting of the hog, well, that's the least satisfying part." His goal is to make the kill as quick, painless and easy as possible. He sneers at people who use archaic hunting weapons like bows or spears, quickly replying that "it's not a very moral way to hunt." In those methods, the animal will usually not go down quickly, which means terror, blood and running. Suffering. Neither Shawn nor Scott, and certainly not yours truly, are into that.

I quickly realize that Shawn is effortlessly comfortable with shooting these hogs in a way that cuts through all the intellectual bullshit. They're plentiful, a nuisance and tasty. He likes the outdoors, and the challenge of hunting. When he grills a chop he won't dwell on the pride of his kill, he'll just chew and swallow.

By the time it's fully dark, we head back out for a tour of the two bait areas. Shawn takes the lead, careful to carry his rifle pointed away from Scott and I, even though I make it difficult by meandering back and forth across the path. With an infrared scope, from about 10 yards back, I see him set up a long shooting stick on which he rests the rifle. I pan over to the bait area, but it's so far away all I can see is the outline of the tripod bathed in a red glow. Nothing. Next spot, same. Working our way back, as I try to follow a man in camouflage through a bottomless night on a trail pitted by holes and sudden steep drops, bisected at one point by an invisible stream, I realize that I couldn't care less if we bag a hog. It's just nice to be outside in the sort-of wild of Florida, the stars bright, the wind streaming through my mesh cap.

That lasts until our next trip out. Again, no pigs at the first spot, and I begin to realize that we could be out here for a long time. It's rare, but Scott and Shawn have been out here deep into the morning on occasion. Plus, I have a story to write. No pig, no dramatic climax. No sausage and wild hog ragout.

But when the climax does come, I almost miss it. Stopped at the second shooting spot, I'm fruitlessly panning my IR scope across the wilderness when I hear a quick crash in the underbrush. Very close, maybe 20 feet away. A few seconds later, I wince as a sharp crack explodes in the night. Shawn shot a pig.

We crash through the brush to the bait area, flashlights out, silence no longer necessary. Scott says that we startled a deer, which explains the noise I heard, and Shawn says, "It startled the hog and I took the shot." There's a brief moment of worry when we get to the clearing: no pig to be seen. Then we hear movement in the brush. The still-living pig lies on its side, one shoulder coated in black blood. Instead of piercing its throat and killing it instantly — which is always the plan — the bullet entered the startled pig through the shoulder, shattering it before skidding along the belly and breaking the back leg cleanly in half. Even after that damage, the little guy managed to flee 10 yards before collapsing.

Shawn draws his pistol and carefully takes aim from a few feet away, putting a bullet straight through the hog's head. I assumed the twitching and flailing would end, but it merely changes it's intensity. The pig is dead, but for an eternity measuring about 30 seconds its legs rhythmically pump up and down thanks to leftover electrical impulses, looking like a sleeping dog in the midst of a chase dream.

"Since it's your first time, you get to drag it back to the path," smiles Shawn. These guys are so laid-back I know it's not an order, but I man up and begin pulling the 170-pound carcass by the back legs, grunting every time I have to heave it over a stick or across a hole. For about 35 yards, at least, when I collapse and start considering how quickly I'll get medical attention out here in the sticks when I have a heart attack. With help, I get it back to the path, where we leave it so we can fetch the jeep.

After Shawn and Scott have a snack, that is, which I don't ask to share thanks to hands coated in blood, dirt and hog funk. By the time we truck the carcass back to the property's main building and load it into the aluminum bed of a golf cart, it's not even 10 p.m. Then comes the part I've been looking forward to — and dreading — since this outing started.

[image-2]Cleaning a hog in the field — or, in our case, in a concrete driveway illuminated by floodlights — takes a garden hose, gloves, a very sharp skinning knife, some shears, and a bone saw. First, you hose the hog down and wonder how you can possibly eat something that has that much dirt and blood pouring off of it. Once it's "clean", you make an incision down the pig's back and use the skinning knife to scrape the skin away from the flesh. It's a lot like cleaning a whole fish, except this beast has bristly hair that abrades your skin, smells like an elephant pen at the zoo, and has hide that resists the touch of your blade. Soon enough, though, all but the head and lower legs are stripped.

At this point, I feel like I could eat it raw, right here and now. It's gorgeous, the flesh a beautiful interplay of fat and muscle exactly like I always imagined. I find it easy to edit out the loose bristles clinging to the flesh, the still-dirty head, and the puddle of urine near the back end that Scott is washing away with the hose. Then, Shawn begins the evisceration.

Snip, snip, snip with shears down near the deceased pig's manly parts, a careful cut the length of the belly, and suddenly the internal organs are spilling free like when Han Solo sliced open a Taunton to warm up Luke. "My first trip here," says Scott, "it was pretty cold. Shawn stuck his hands inside the pig we shot and said, 'Ohhhhh, it's so warm. Put your hands in here.'" He laughs. "I didn't."

[image-3]Soon enough, the head and legs are lying on the floor next to the innards and skin. After a final shower from the hose, I heave the pig into a jumbo cooler and close the lid. We toss the leftover parts into the woods, where they'll be stripped within days, according to Shawn.

Flinging entrails into the dark, I'm struck by the fact that I never once felt the need to retch. I never wanted to look away. I also wasn't fascinated, like an arsonist at the scene of the crime. Apart from some concern over the cleanliness of my future meat, I hardly felt anything at all.

I scrub my hands and, after promising my benefactors that I'll return some day with bags of corn to feed their habit, I'm in the car, headed to the same gas station we started at. It's 11 p.m.

Iced down, the pig chills till the next day, when I make a trip to the Palmetto Meat Market. Out back, the market's stooped but spry owner Roger Talbot — patriarch of a family business now 28 years old and that employs his son and two daughters — helps me unload the cooler. There are already four identical white coolers stacked outside the door. "Busy day already, huh?" I ask.

"Eh, during season we might have 30 to 40 coolers stacked out here," he shrugs.

The Meat Market butchers clean hog carcasses for $55, cutting the meat however you want it. Their most popular service is turning the pork into sausage, from Italian links to rolled breakfast patties, but I refuse. I want to do that myself, and make sure that I'll get all the extra meat, along with the chops, ribs and roasts. Roger scribbles my order in a stained notebook, takes my number and presses a container of his son's hot barbecued pork into my hands as he ushers me out the door.

Less than a week later I'm in my kitchen, looking at a little over 40 pounds of pork, wrapped in clean white paper, snowflakes of frozen blood melting onto the counter from the bottom of the waxed cardboard box. I may not have fired the shot that put this meat on my table, or even butchered the carcass, but I now feel I understand it, and I'm surprised to realize that nothing's changed. Holding a cooling body in my hands, seeing it sliced open and handling its entrails elicited neither pride nor disgust, and hasn't affected my attitude towards meat in any way.

But will my experience make it taste better? I doubt I'll even consider it as I chew and swallow.

The story doesn't end here: Check out my guide to making homemade sausages with wild hog meat, and a recipe for pasta with a wild hog country rib ragù.

Walking into a brand-new gas station/convenience store off of State Road 70 in Manatee County near the entrance to the chic suburban community of Lakewood Ranch, just as most folks are stopping for a fill-up and snack after a workday, I feel self-conscious. I'm decked from head to — almost — toe in mottled brown and green camouflage. Plastic mesh cap. Wallet in my front pocket. What will people think?

Apparently, they think I'm a hunter. Before we make it to the counter with our drinks and snacks, one person asks whether we'd been after deer — "Nah, not quite season yet, is it?" replies my companion Scott Hair — while another mentions that she wouldn't mind us stopping by and dropping off some meat after we get done for the day. We (I mean Scott) shoot the shit about where we're headed, and where others have been having luck. Now, instead of fearing that I'd be pegged as a rural bumpkin by my white collar peeps, I feel like a poseur. I am not a hunter. At least, that is, until tonight.

Recently, when local food blogger and cookbook author Jaden Hair offered me some wild pig meat shot by her husband, I realized I was suffering from a disconnect that needed to be remedied. I can quote chapter and verse about the maladies of our dysfunctional food supply system, the horrors of factory farming and the joys of local foods, but I know more about the interior of a chicken factory than I do about how Florida hunters ply their trade. Easy solution: Go hunting for wild hog in the Florida badlands with two seasoned hunters.

Plus, I eat meat, but I've never been around for the visceral experience of the kill. That seems like cheating.

If you are against hunting, but still eat meat, you'll need to reassess your logical consistency, especially

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