When I got home from my first-ever big game hunt Sunday night, I was exhausted - baked by the sun, whipped by the wind, dehydrated and sleep deprived. I unloaded the car bit by bit: first the gun, binoculars and camera, which I wiped down to eliminate the same coating of dust that had clogged my eyes and nose all weekend. Then my gear bag, still infested with foxtails in every pocket. Finally the ice chest.
With the necessary work done, I then popped open a bottle of beer - blessed, cold beer -and started telling Boyfriend about the incredible adventure.
My not-so-secret goal was to bag a pig that afternoon, before Jim and John arrived. I'm notoriously insecure in general, and a bit freaked out in particular about my first attempt at hunting with a rifle when my target shooting had been so spotty. Doing this hunt without my loyal hunting partner - Boyfriend - was weird enough. But being filmed doing it? Yikes.
But as I expected, there would be no such luck. Phillip and I saw nothing but deer and ground squirrels as we scouted the crumpled golden velvet hills and their steep ravines. When shoot time ended half an hour after sunset, we hopped into Phillip's Samurai (a.k.a. Petunia) and headed back to camp.
Jim and John arrived in the middle of the night, somewhere around 1 a.m., I think. I'd already retreated to my tent, but the clank of the camp gate, the glare of headlights on my tent wall, and best of all, the accidental tap of the horn on Jim's Subaru ensured that I - and a dozen other hunters in camp - knew they were here.
Introductions could wait. I rolled over to claim my remaining three hours of sleep.
We hit the road at 4:30 a.m., Phillip and I in Petunia and Jim and John in the Subaru, and stopped atop the highest hill on the piece of property we were hunting. I eased out of Petunia, Boyfriend's gun in hand, and there was John with his big old freakin' camera asking me what I was shooting. Hmm, good question. I looked down, read the print on the gun, then said to the camera, "Remington 700."
What's it like going on your first big game hunt?
"It's like losing your virginity," I said. "You know you're probably not going to do a very good job, but you've got to get it over with so you can get down to the business of getting better at it."
OK, it wasn't actually that articulate. I was cold and sleepy and the words spilled out of my mouth sloppily, like when you dump out your coffee grounds first thing in the morning and miss the trash can, sending that muddy grit flying all over your kitchen floor.
No worries, though, because I'd be warming up soon. After glassing a 360-degree view from our perch, we set off down the road and before too long Phillip had spotted us a big boar a couple hills ahead of us.
As soon as the boar dropped out of sight across one of the hills, Phillip whispered, "Run!"
So we ran - three hunters and a cameraman - up and down the hills, and each time we came to a crest, we could see that boar getting further and further away from us until finally we saw he'd crossed a property line that we couldn't cross. He hadn't spotted us. He just moved fast.
So we headed back the way we came, stopping periodically to look for signs of life, scrutinizing specks in the distance and trying to distinguish rocks and bushes and cows from our quarry: pigs.
"There's a pig!" I said. I'd spotted him on a hillside across a ravine about 400 yards away - unmistakable, no doubt in my mind. We trained our binoculars on him and watched him drop first to his knees, then all the way down, in a clump brownish plants amidst the wild oats. Instantly, he became invisible. Amazing.
Phillip laid out the plan: It would be a stakeout. We'd hike up to our side of the edge of the ravine closest to him, set up, then wait for the sun to hit his bed and make him want to get up and get something to eat. Everyone agreed that since this was my first big game hunt ever, I would get the shot, and Phillip and Jim would shoot backup if needed.
This was so much better than running after a pig. They're very fast. All we had to do was wait him out. My heart would be calm, my hands steady. I sat down, set up a shooting stick in front of me, braced my feet apart at a good 40-degree angle with my knees up, perfect for resting my elbows to ensure the best shot.
Then we waited. And waited and waited and waited. And talked and talked and talked. And waited. Finally, after 45 minutes, the pig stood up.
"Pig's up!" I said. I put my cheek down to the stock of my gun and looked through the scope and saw...
Grass. Rocks. Fencepost. I couldn't find the damn pig!
By the time I did, he was dropping to his knees again and I couldn't see clearly enough what I was aiming for, so the opportunity was over.
"What happened?" Phillip said. "I kept waiting for the boom."
"I couldn't find him in the scope!" I said.
"What's your magnification?" he said.
OK, so it turns out it was cranked up all the way, and it needed to be dialed way back to make it easier to find the target. See what I mean? Just like losing your virginity. Sooooo inexpert.
But that was OK - the pig was still there. It was warming up. He wouldn't stay there all day. And sure enough, 45 minutes later, he got up again.
This time I was ready. I found him quickly, then cranked the scope's magnification back up to get the shot, and watched as he simply turned around, and dropped back into his bed.
"Dammit!" I said. It happened so fast, I couldn't acquire the target before the pig dropped under cover again. But Phillip reassured me that I shouldn't have shot under those circumstances, so at least I didn't feel like an idiot this time. I mean, if I were more experienced, I could've gotten it. But I'm not.
So we waited again. Forty-five minutes later, I looked at my watch and said, "It's about time for him to get up again..." and 30 seconds later he did. But it was the same thing. Up. Turn around. Down.
We were all getting a bit sunburned at this point, the sun beating against the right sides of our faces for hours now while we staked out this pig. We all stood up and stretched, knowing we'd have another long wait. I glanced back at the hill every few minutes, and I'll be darned if he didn't get up again, way before he was scheduled to.
"Pig's up!" I whispered urgently. We all dropped to the ground and boom!
The pick kicked and started running up the hill, his butt bouncing, legs flying. Crap! He was almost over the hill.
He disappeared over the horizon.
"I think you hit him," I told Jim. Phillip agreed.
As much as I wanted that pig, we'd agreed after his third appearance that Jim would take the shot. He's a better shot and would be able to take advantage of the short window of opportunity that was beyond my skill level. And besides, while this was my first big game hunt ever, it was Jim's first pig hunt, and we all really wanted him to get something on this trip too.
We stared down the ravine, plotted our crossing and headed over to see if the pig had dropped. When we got to the spot, we found the kidney-shaped depression in the ground where the pig had been sleeping, but we couldn't find any blood. Not a good sign. We fanned out across the hillside, heading the same direction we'd last seen him running.
I walked along the edge of another little ravine and saw something promising - a trail of crushed grass leading straight down the hill, as if something had slid.
"Hey, there's a trail of crushed grass here!" I yelled.
"Any blood?" Phillip yelled back.
But I wanted to see more, so I got to the other side of that crease in the hill and got a good look at the trail. It really looked like something big had slid down there, trying but failing to control the fall.
I peeked over the edge and couldn't see a pig.
Just then, Jim was heading back my way. I pointed to the trail. His eyes widened.
"Have you looked in the ravine?" he asked.
Jim jumped in and in seconds he yelled, "Here he is!"
And I looked down at the pig with a mixture of pride (I was the one who spotted him, and found the trail that led to him) and envy. He could've been mine.
Oh well. We still had one more evening to hunt Cholame, and then we'd head up the road to Monterey County, where Native Hunt owner T. Michael Riddle had invited us to his 1,000-acre game ranch to hunt feral and Eurasian wild boar on Sunday morning.
The hunt wasn't over yet.
To be continued...
© Holly A. Heyser 2008