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 work day, 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 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 Desoto, 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 of hunting 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. In a small clearing sits a gigantic metal tripod topped by a large plastic bin. 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.
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 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.