Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pig hunting with a television entourage

Standing in a hot, dusty Monterey County cattle ranch Sunday evening, I counted the people who would be coming along on my pig hunt.

There was Hog Blogger Phillip, who had invited me. There were the two owners of the cattle ranch, who knew where the pigs would likely be found. There was Michael, who'd hooked us up with the ranchers. There was Sam, one of Michael's guides, who happened to have been with me on two successful pig hunts at Michael's ranch last summer. There were Sam's three dogs.

And then there were four people from KQED TV - a producer, an associate producer, a sound guy and a video guy. Read more...

Now of course it figures that my first televised hunt wouldn't be on Versus, or the Outdoor Channel, but rather on a San Francisco public television program. On the hostility-to-hunting scale, San Francisco probably ranks second in the nation, outshone only by Los Angeles. Great move, Holly!

But what the hell. Sometimes people listen to what I have to say because I'm not the hunter they expect. I'm sure a few vegans will regurgitate their tofu if this program comes on during dinner, but perhaps a few meat eaters - and believe me, there are plenty in the Bay Area - will nosh on my words between bites of grass-fed beef and see that hunting isn't all they've been led to believe.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. What the viewers will ultimately see depends on what the producers do with all that material. All I know is that this is for an episode of Quest, a science and environment series, about the feral pig problem in California, and my hunt with Phillip was going to be part of a segment about hunting as a piece of the solution to that problem.

With that already in their hands, all I had to worry about Sunday as I stood there with a mic shoved up my shirt was the same thing I always worry about: How would I do? Would I drop a pig instantly with a single glorious shot? Would I miss? Or would I maim some animal horribly, with the cameraman and sound guy there to catch every grisly detail, pig squealing and blood spurting out everywhere as it ran to some hideaway where we'd never find it?

See. Just a normal Holly hunt, with all my neuroses in tow. But the answer, it turned out, would be "none of the above."

* * *

Our entourage set out around 6:30 p.m., heading up a dusty road that paralleled a dry creek bed choked with tumbleweed. Up front it was me, Michael, Josiah the video guy and Bill the sound guy in a four-wheeler. Behind us, the ranch owners were in a Jeep, and Phillip and Sam were in their trucks with the producer and associate producer.

Michael and I surveyed the hillsides and creek beds, searching for dark spots that moved - and that weren't cows or tumbleweed.

Michael radioed back to the vehicle in the rear. He knew sometimes pigs would stay hidden in a creek bed and wait to bolt until all the vehicles had passed, so he was urging them to look back once in a while.

But it wasn't too long before some pigs popped out of a patch of tumbleweed in the creek maybe 40 yards ahead of us.

Game on!

My heart leapt out of my chest and I quickly followed it, jumping out of the four-wheeler, setting up my shooting stick and trying to get my cross hairs on a pig as they were scrambling up the hill.

Ah, but nothing would be that easy. One, they were moving pretty quickly, and I'm not nearly good enough to shoot a running pig. And two, those that were holding still seemed to be just over a small ridge line, where it was tough to get my sights on them.

There was one that held still. The only problem was that the pig was framed perfectly by a cow in the background. It was like a pig-cow eclipse. That meant if, God forbid, my aim was not true, I could maim a cow. An expensive cow. For millions of Bay Area television viewers.

"I can't do it - there's a cow there!" I told Michael.

Opportunity gone.

Michael radioed back to the ranch owners, then rushed me, Josiah and Bill back into the four-wheeler. Turns out there was an off-road way that we might be able to intercept them around the hill!

"Oh God," I groaned as Michael lurched into the field. Honestly, four-wheeling scares the crap out of me. I really, really don't like it.

But he floored it and got me to a position where we could see that herd of pigs making their way up a hill. Three hundred yards away.

Uh, I don't shoot that far. Remember me? The new shooter? Wobbly? Gimme a nice 100-yard shot?

Go go go! I set up again and tried to get my sights on a pig.

This time it was perfect. They were broadside. They stopped from time to time. But I could not hold the gun still. Here's how my cross hairs were moving on my chosen pig:

Uh, yeah. I hate, hate, hate bad shots.

"I can't do it. I can't hold still," I told Michael.

"That's OK," he said.

I got up, beat the dust and burrs from my hands and clothes and trudged back. Another Holly failure caught on film!

But Bill the sound guy was elated. "I could hear your heartbeat!" he said. "Really loud."

Yep, the mic was just inches from my heart. So now, millions of Bay Area TV viewers will know just how completely spazzed I get when I see game. Argh.

We rode around some more that night, searching for pigs until the last shootable light fell from the sky, but that would end up being my last chance for the evening. If I was going to deliver for this film crew, it would have to be in the morning.

* * *

The morning started badly. We needed to head out from our bunkhouse at Michael's Priest Valley ranch at 4:15 a.m. We awoke at 4:24 a.m. to the urgent sound of Phillip's voice:

"Everybody up! I had an alarm failure. We've gotta get out of here."

But we got to the ranch in plenty of time, got mics stuffed up our shirts again and headed down that dusty road for Round Two.

This time, I was in Sam's truck, again with Bill and Josiah in the back seat. We cruised creek beds and thin canyon roads slowly, with Sam stopping periodically to glass the hills and creek beds looking for the telltale signs.

It couldn't have been more than 15 minutes before Sam stopped. "There!" he said, pointing into a creek bed.

I couldn't see anything.


"Get out! Come on!"

I got out, but I'd left my shooting stick in the car. When I tried to head back, he grabbed me and said, "No time. Lie down here."

He pulled off his jacket and wadded it up as a prop for my gun. Sam's familiar with my wobbly thing. Meanwhile, Phillip set up beside me in the same position. There would be no chance of this opportunity sliding by today.

But I still couldn't see the pigs.

"There!" Sam whispered urgently, pointing into a patch of tumbleweed where I could make out some vague dusty oval shapes nearly the same color as the dusty tumbleweed. "Two of 'em."

I looked through my scope and made out two ears - it was like seeing the top of a hippo's head when it's mostly under water. It was facing straight toward me. I couldn't make out any features the other pig. But what I would see was that they were sleeping.

It was perfect! Pigs holding still. About 125 yards away. My best chance! I set up my shot, far steadier than I had been the day before with the heart-attack sightings. I put the cross hairs on the forehead.

"Put it right behind the ear," Sam whispered.

I was perplexed. "Behind the ear?" I whispered back. At this angle, I couldn't see how that would hit anything vital aiming there.

"Yeah, right behind the ear."

Sam knows way more than I do, so I put my faith in him, aimed right behind the ear and pulled the trigger. Phillip's shot on the second pig followed a fraction of a second later.

Half a dozen pigs exploded from the tumbleweed. None down. They were running up the hill.

Phillip chambered another round and pulled the trigger again. A pig squealed, then cartwheeled down the hill. Within seconds, it was twitching, the unmistakable twitch of death.

Another pig was running up the hill, then stopping. We waited to see if it'd been hit, but it kept going. I was getting ready to shoot when we saw the piglet behind it. There wasn't a one of us who'd knowingly orphan a piglet, so we let that one go. It was over.

Shit, shit, shit. How could I have missed? I was so steady and calm when I took that shot. Crushing disappointment began to sink in. It would've been devastating enough if it'd just been me there, but with a TV crew in tow, my failure would be immortalized.

We headed down the hill to check out Phillip's pig.

There was one bullet hole in the gut. Uh oh.

Someone rolled it over and we saw the other hole on the hip. For a gutshot pig, it had sure died quickly. (As it turned out, the shot had hit an artery - and not the stomach - so it really was perfect.)

Then we saw something else. A five-inch-long wound on the back where a bullet had ripped through skin and a little fat and not much more.

"That was my shot," I said.

The bullet had gone right where I aimed it. Right where I thought it would go if I aimed behind the ears.

I should've aimed for the head.

On the bright side, had Phillip not shot that pig, it would've survived my shot just fine. "They do worse than that to each other out here," Phillip said.

I would not have been responsible for a slow, painful, needless death.

But I had blown my chance.

After Phillip gutted his pig, we drove around looking for more, but I knew that would be it. It was over.

Back in the truck with Sam, I went over the shot.

"I shot right behind the ear," I said.

"Right behind the ear," he replied, tucking his index finger behind his right earlobe.

Apparently, he was either looking at a different pig - which could've happened, given that there were a LOT of pigs in there - or he had a really different angle on the pig I aimed at.

"I didn't have that shot," I said. "It was facing straight at me."

We drove back to the ranch gate, where Chris the producer interviewed me and Phillip, asking us about why we hunt, why we hunt pigs, hunting's role in conservation, the emotional element of hunting - the kind of stuff we write about all the time. Then they stripped us of our mics and headed up the road to their next interview.

On the way back to our bunkhouse, I went over the shot with Phillip.

"When Sam told me to aim behind the ear, it didn't seem right. I was thinking I should aim at the head. Should I have trusted my instincts and done that?"

"No," Phillip said. "Always do what your guide says."

Phillip's not a fan of head shots. They are not guaranteed kills, and a bad head shot can result in a grisly non-fatal maiming.

"So I should've spoken up and said, 'I don't have that shot.' "

"Yeah," he said. "In retrospect, we had time. They were asleep. We could've moved into a better position."

Coulda woulda shoulda.

I'm sure the public television viewers couldn't care less. And I know the TV crew was ecstatic that they'd caught the whole thing on film - and caught it well.

But for me, it was a huge disappointment - another demon that would sit on my shoulder and torment me for Lord knows how many hunts to come. One that I now get to share with a really, really big audience.

Postscript: And for Phillip's take on this hunt, click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Great story telling, you had me on the edge of my seat. and it's not even 7.30 am yet!

I'm delighted that you didn't take a shot you regarded as unethical - while the TV crew was watching.

If ethics are what we do when no one is watching, marketing is what we do when they are. Meat hunting couldn't have a better ambassador.

PS I'd just like to take a moment to gloat - my prediction about your TV show seems ever more likely to come true. Holly 'n' Hank - she kills 'n' he grills.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, no, Hank's gonna hate that! The first pig hunt of the year was supposed to be his because I did all the big game hunting last year. But then this opportunity came along...

Well, at least he'll bring home the first pig. The first whole one, anyway - Phillip gave me the liver, heart and both shoulders.


Honestly, I don't think I care about a TV hunting career. Happy to be a guest, no desire to be a star. (And good thing, as old ladies like me aren't what they're looking for.)

The one thing I do expect is that this show won't whitewash anything. There were zero fake set-up shots. The antis will hate it, and if KQED portrays it fairly, the station will catch endless crap for it. Hat's off to them for being willing to show hunting in anything less than a negative light.

Hubert Hubert said...

I can't really imagine a hunting film that anti-hunters would like. If someone's prejudiced, they're prejudiced.

But speaking as the European Head of the NRA (the Neurotic Riflepersons Association) I have to say, yep, it's funny how, in my case at least, the regard of the imaginary observers seems to be so highly polarised between two types: the awe-struck and adoring gaze that comes from the admirers of my startling prowess and the baleful glare of those I imagine will hate me on sight. My imagination certainly doesn't seem to have much of an undecided middle ground.

But I'm sure most actual people will simply be struck by your concern for the animal you were hunting. That's what comes across most clearly here, at any rate.


Hubert Hubert said...

PS: By the way, I think that SBW is absolutely right about the merits of the hunting/cooking TV show. You really should pitch that to someone!

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, wonderful story and hopefully we will be able to see the hunt online.

As for old ladies, I bet you'd find more interested in the hunt rather than how well you fit in that outfit.

Phillip said...

Great post, Holly...

I don't know what to say to exorcise those demons for you. You seem to be about 50-50 on good shots vs poor ones, and you've been in more shooting situations than most big game hunters in their first year of hunting.

I would say look at me... hunting for my whole life, and almost totally screwed up my shot on that hog. It happens to us all.

It's good to be concerned about a good shot and to make every effort to maximize the odds in your favor, but you can't beat yourself up too much when those odds break down and it doesn't work as well as you'd like.

We all miss. Animals are not stationary targets, and even when they are sitting still, the fact that they are living, breathing things adds a whole new level of challenge for most of us.

But anyway, all that aside I think you did great. You made the right call on Sunday evening by not taking a marginal shot, especially with the cattle in the background. And your shot on Monday morning was only off a shade. Two inches lower, and that pig would have died instantly right where it lay.

Hopefully we'll get a chance to get back out this summer and give you another opportunity. It's all about gaining experience at this point. Remember, you've only been at this big game thing for a year or so. Lots to learn and see.

Thanks for joining us on the hunt. I do think you were the perfect person for the show, and I believe Chris thought so as well. You represented hunters as we needed to be represented... and that's a LOT right there.

Holly Heyser said...

The demons, Phillip, are my cruel gift. They usually drive me to excellence in everything I do, but at a high price - beating myself up endlessly over every failure in the pursuit of perfection.

My mother could tell you. Probably my childhood neighbor friends could tell you. I've always been this way. With age, I've been able to subdue the demons a bit because I know they're unreasonable. Like when I learned tae kwon do - I'm not athletically talented, and I knew I would never be great, that "pretty good" was probably the best I could do.

But hunting brings out the high expectations because the price of failure can involve crippling an animal.

One thing, though: I am almost always proud of the shots I don't take. I was well aware that probably three-fourths of that entourage was going nuts when I didn't take those shots on the first day, but no way would I ever take a risky shot just to make people around me happy.

native said...

You did exactly the right thing by "not" taking a shot that you were uncomfortable with.
I will admit that the tension in the air was about as thick as a Sacramento Tule Fog, but discretion is always the better part of valor.

I would say that your actions Holly were quite Valiant!

Albert A Rasch said...


Let me add to the chorus, that a shot not taken for good reason, is the right call. There are far worse fates than coming home empty handed. And Phillip is right, 99% you do what the guide says. The other 1% is you don't shoot because you're not comfortable with the shot.

Now SBW and HH think you should have a TV show. I'm starting to think that way myself. A lot of those food shows are out of California, or at least it seems that way. You guys are already there, so... seems like a winner idea!

Just so long as that French guy doesn't come around...

Great job and a better spokesman than you for us all isn't to be found anywhere!

Your Friend,
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles.
The Range Reviews: Tactical.
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit.

Holly Heyser said...

Well, guys, let's wait and see how this show looks first before we launch my TV career.

As for the shot I did take, the lesson I learned is if I think the guide's advice seems crazy, there's obviously a disconnect and I need to speak up.

Phillip said...

I think that lesson learned is worth feeding the demons one more time, Holly.

NEVER TRY TO GUIDE THE GUIDE... but if what he is saying doesn't sound right, there's nothing wrong with airing it out. Sometimes it may be the simplest thing, or it may be a whole different point of view (literally) on the target.

Jon Roth said...

Holly, your sketches crack me up - LOL! The demons of self-confidence are cruel. I know that when I was in sports we had a sports psychologist that would work with us on mental visioning, which helped tremendously. Basically putting yourself through a mental scenario where you imagine the goal (or hunt) going exactly as you imagine with a perfect outcome. We would literally go through the motions of a play without a ball in our hands an envision it going in the basket. Sounds kind of psycho-babblish, but it was really effective. Anyway, good stuff.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Love your drawings! It sounds to me like a case of pig fever-induced tunnel vision -- you were so focused on the one animal.

Ah, I would like to spend some time in the land of vineyards and feral pigs...

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, LTH and Chas, about the drawings. It cracks me up that people like them. My kitty Giblet likes them too - likes chewing on them, anyway.

Chas, next time you get yourself to California, just let me know. I'm pretty sure we could get you to some farm somewhere plagued with yummy vermin...

Blessed said...

I've had the same problem - different perspective, different angle on an animal I was supposed to shoot. Once I learned to speak up Hubby was better able to help me get to the right shot! I hope the segment was done well, I'm familiar with that San Francisco crowd.