I almost came home from my pig hunt with Phillip empty-handed yesterday.
Almost. But even when nothing seems to be working out, things have a way of working out.
Phillip and I met each other Wednesday morning near Cholame, a speck of a town in the hot, dusty Central Coast region, where the hills are dotted with cattle ranches and golden barley fields (and closer to the coast, with vineyards).
Barley fields were what made this place great to hunt. Pigs love barley. Ranchers love people to kill barley-eating pigs. And coincidentally, pigs that have been feasting on barley taste terrific.
When we got to the ranch where we'd hunt, we found one other pair of hunters in camp - Viki and Alan. Turned out they happen to live about 30 minutes up the hill from me ("the hill" being the Sierra Nevada foothills). Viki is an avid huntress who, coincidentally, had emailed me earlier this year after she saw my turkey hunting story in the Sacramento Bee. Small world.
We chatted a while, then Phillip and I set up our own camp and headed out to do some midday scouting.
Now, this scouting was one of the most important parts of the trip for me, because my chief goal - aside from getting a pig - was to learn as much as I could. I've never done my own scouting, and I've never fully dressed a pig - I've helped, but there's always been someone there to do some of the trickier parts, like, uh, removing the asshole without contaminating meat. (Sorry to be blunt, but you pretty much can't sugarcoat that part, can you?)
So when we went out, I was constantly interrogating Phillip about what we were doing. When we found a spring and searched the area for tracks, I had to ask how you know the difference between pig tracks and deer tracks (pig tracks are rounder). When I came across a piece of pig poop that was dessicated, but still brown, I had to ask how old it was (potentially two or three weeks, but it's so dry here it's hard to tell). When we found a squeeze point pigs clearly traveled through regularly - a small drainage with a barbed-wire fence across it - I had to ask what our strategy would be if we chose to hunt there (set up on the hill above it before peak pig travel times - dawn and dusk - and wait).
We saw several deer during that scouting trip, and lots of dove and quail, but no pigs. We didn't really expect to see them, because they tend to bed down in the heat of the day, but of course we'd taken our guns, just in case.
We headed back to camp and took naps as the wind started whipping itself into a frenzy, then headed out again around 6 p.m. Viki and Alan headed out at the same time. We were all going to the same section of the ranch, though not close enough together to be any concern.
It turned out that squeeze point was the best prospect we'd found during scouting, so Phillip and I went back there, and, just like he'd said, set up on the hill above it.
We waited. The wind blew even harder, the gusts repeatedly ripping off Phillip's black Stetson and shoving me around, though I was seated firmly on the ground.
"Should I worry about the wind moving me when I take a shot?" I asked.
"Don't even think about it. Just shoot."
But there was nothing to shoot. Again, we saw some deer in the distance. But no pigs.
At one point, I heard a distant crack, and another. Gunfire. Upwind. Viki and Alan must have gotten pigs. If they were from a herd, the survivors might run our way. We looked upwind hopefully.
But they never came.
Close to sunset, we decided to move, first walking around our hillside, and ultimately jumping into Petunia - Phillip's Suzuki Samurai, a scrappy little battle vehicle that could've come out of Mad Max. We drove around, and saw nothing - nothing in shooting range, nothing in the distance. Just some domestic sheep and a random llama.
Damn. We headed back to camp and toasted the end of the hunt with the flask of tequila that comes out only when the guns are put away for the night.
We saw a light in the camp skinning shed, and saw Alan working on a carcass hanging from the ceiling.
"Guess they got one!"
Little did we know...
We went over to congratulate him, and when I walked in the door, my eyes were drawn immediately to the floor, where I saw two pigs.
Two very small pigs.
The one hanging from the ceiling was the same size.
Alan looked sheepish as he explained:
He and Viki had staked out a place where they were pretty sure pigs were bedded down. Finally, about a dozen pigs of similar size - maybe 100 pounds, they thought - got up. He and Viki each picked out a pig and shot.
When they went to retrieve them, their first shock was seeing how small they were - definitely weaned, but probably no more than three or four months old. (I get that. When I killed my first pig, he was with a group of like-sized pigs and I'd assumed he was 150-200 pounds, and he was more like 80 pounds.)
The second shock was that Alan had gotten a Scotch double: The bullet he fired into his pig went straight through and killed the pig behind it.
"Alan was embarrassed to even bring them back," Viki said.
Phillip assured her, though, that one, pigs this size are fantastic eating, and two, he wouldn't have hesitated to shoot this pig himself.
I chimed in too. "Man, Hank would be thrilled if I brought home a pig like that - perfect for the barbecue."
We congratulated them and left to wolf down some dinner, then hit the sack to prepare for Day Two.
In the morning, we returned to our squeeze point. The llama was still there. We saw tons of deer. And not a single pig showed its snout. After a couple hours, we pulled out. We were going to have to try our luck cruising the rest of the ranch in Petunia.
And oh yes, speaking of Petunia: After I hunted Cholame with Phillip and some friends last summer, it was so hot and dry that I realized I needed to be able to haul a lot of water out in the field with me. My solution was a CamelBak - a backpack that carries two liters of water and has a long "straw" with a valve ending that allows you to easily turn the water on and off.
I'd left the CamelBak in Petunia overnight, and when I went to take my first drink of the day, the mouthpiece felt funny. Water wasn't flowing normally. And the surface felt rough. I pulled it out of my mouth and examined it.
A mouse had gotten to it. In land this dry, animals will exploit any source of water they can get. And since Petunia isn't exactly a sealed vehicle, the mouse had no problem getting in and looking around.
Great! Yuck. I hope it wasn't a diseased little mouse. Either way, too late now. I took another swig and moved on.
On our way out of that section of the ranch, we came across another group of hunters - Steve, Lee and Bob. They hadn't seen any pigs either. We were all going to head out to other parts of the ranch to try our luck elsewhere.
Phillip and I drove all over that ranch as the sun climbed higher and the heat grew by the minute, sharply decreasing our chances of seeing any pigs. We spotted a million more deer, but no pigs.
Our last-ditch effort was a gully torn out of a field, a good 12 feet deep with steep, crumbly edges. The bottom was lined with tamarisk trees, providing the perfect shaded bedding for pigs.
"Get ready," he said as we walked toward the tear in the valley floor. "If there are pigs here, they're going to pop out fast."
I am normally a nervous shooter, a slowpoke who wants quarry that holds perfectly still.
But at this moment, I was strangely confident. I'd been to the shooting range the day before this trip, and for my last three shots in the day, I'd decided to do a rapidfire challenge, chambering new rounds as quickly as possible to simulate taking a second and third shot on an animal.
My first shot (at 100 yards) was a bulls eye. The second and third - which I fired probably within 20 seconds - were an inch above the first, one slightly left, the other slightly right.
I know that was a stationary object, not a moving pig, but it was important nonetheless. Why? It reminded me that I actually do better when I let instincts take over and stop overthinking.
So I wasn't worried as we crept along the top of the gully. I was serene. I knew I could do it.
Phillip tossed a rock into the tamarisks below.
We walked further along and he tossed more rocks into the trees.
Still nothing came out.
After coming to the end of the gully - or rather, its beginning - we turned back toward our car, and a cottontail exploded from a trash heap. Cottontail season would start in six days. Bunny was safe today.
We walked the edge all the way back to Petunia, but we knew that was it. Pigs aren't as patient as rabbits. They don't hide like pheasants. They bolt at the first sign of trouble. The hunt was over.
On the drive back to camp, of course we stopped and glassed a few times. But it was getting hot. Our time was up.
Back at camp, Viki was preparing a feast: she going to cook one of the little pigs whole on the grill. She'd named him Volunteer. It was the second pig taken out by Alan's lone bullet. Did we want to join her? Of course!
The other guys who'd been out that morning rolled in a little later, empty-handed like me and Phillip. I went over and talked to them for a while. When they asked me about my previous pig hunts, I started telling them about my first hunt at Cholame. Then one of them - Lee - stopped me.
"I think I've read this!"
"Uh, yeah, that's me. I have a blog. Guess you know the ending already..."
"But we don't!" Bob said. So I kept going. Then Viki wandered over and invited them to the feast too, so we all converged on Viki and Alan's camp, drinking Corona and wine and water and eating the kind of feast you don't get in camp very often: really fresh pork marinated in hoisin and soy sauces, and an Asian salad.
It was delicious.
"Don't hesitate to get seconds," Viki told us.
Uh, I already had. Guess I should've waited until I was invited! Oopsie.
Most of the folks in camp were ready for naps after that, but Phillip and I had to break down camp and head out. But I couldn't leave before Viki had given me a gift.
"We've decided to give you one of the pigs!" she'd told me earlier. I was thrilled!
Obviously, I'd rather be going home with a pig I shot myself, but that's hunting - sometimes you don't get anything. Sometimes you don't even see anything. But when you see other hunters, you'll often find them to be the most generous people around.
Besides, Volunteer had tasted divine, and I knew Boyfriend would be thrilled to have a pig he could grill whole, so I gratefully accepted their offer. Viki threw in a bottle of zinfandel from her daughter-in-law's vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, and I was on my way, ready to start the 4-hour journey home.
Once I got on the road where my cell phone would work again, I called Boyfriend to tell him the story, and that was when I came up with the pig's name.
A couple weeks earlier, he'd been the one doing pig hunting, and he'd named his pig Maximus because it'd been a really durable critter, as durable as Russell Crowe had been in the movie Gladiator.
"This pig's name," I declared, "is Minimus."
© Holly A. Heyser 2009