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Hog Huntin'

Without a word, blue-eyed, leather-skinned Mark Clemons steers a camouflage electric golf cart down a lonesome, bumpy dirt road about 25 miles south of Lake Okeechobee. The only sound for miles is wind whistling through saw grass and spiky palmettos. A weak winter sun has barely been up 15 minutes when Clemons kills the motor and rests a mud-stained hand on a faded, brown pistol case. Raising his eyebrows, he gives passenger Mark Schneider a look that says, You ready for this?

The front of the cart forecasts the day's plan; a 10-pound bow, equipped with sharp arrows, rests on the cold steel. Leaning forward, Clemons whispers instructions to Schneider, a broad-shouldered real estate agent with the posture of a soldier: "After you shoot him, let him run away. Won't get far before he'll lay down and die."

About 100 yards away, in the grassy distance, a bristly black dog-size hog wanders toward the men. They wait silently out of sight. The blurred figure nears.

"That a sow?" Schneider whispers.

Clemons responds with an affirmative grunt as a puppy-size baby hog stumbles into view.

This is no good. When cornered, a wild sow with her babies is one of the most aggressive animals on Earth. Hunters have been maimed by them. Just this past October, a 72-year-old German hunter was killed by one outside Frankfurt.

The men silently size up the animal and decide to move on. Mama pig happily trots off into some shrubs.

Schneider nevertheless prepares himself. He takes a deep breath, grabs his bow, and gathers a quiver full of green-and-yellow arrows. Clemons shoves a shiny silver .45-caliber pistol into his back pocket, and they head into a woodsy stretch that backs up to a field of grass. There's no path, so Clemons ducks under pine branches and steps over logs, leading Schneider deep into the wild.

Soon they spot four feral boars — all twice the size of the sow — rooting for acorns 10 yards away in a dry, open clearing. A swirl of dirt rises around their moist gray snouts. Crouching behind a tree, the men look as if they've been plucked from a scene in Lord of the Flies. Schneider's face grows hot with adrenaline, and something primal glistens in his gator-green eyes. He pulls out a thin arrow and loads it on the bow. With a shaking hand, he draws the string.

He aims, but hesitates; there are branches in the way. After Schneider takes a few slow steps forward, the four-foot-long pig turns broadside, offering a clear view of his hairy, bulbous belly.

Schneider steadies himself. There's a pause. Just then, two boars look up at him, as if to say, Oh, fuck.

Too late. The arrow flies and makes a popping sound as is it pierces a midsize one's gut. The boar lets out an unholy snort and then grunts and hobbles into the woods. Blood trickles like water from a broken shower head onto the ground.

But it's not over. The beast could still charge them, sharp tusks exposed. Or it could escape to fight another day.

Wild hogs like the one wounded by Schneider have been hunted with bow and arrow, spears, guns, and even knives in the United States for almost half a millennium. Florida, where the Spanish first delivered the intelligent monsters, has the second-largest wild pig population in the nation, after Texas. Hunting season here typically lasts November to January. But as the state moves closer to closing a $1.3 billion deal to buy 181,000 acres of private land — mostly hog habitat — the ancient art seems poised to disappear.

The creatures aren't cute. Unlike their pink, curly-tailed barnyard relatives, they have fanglike tusks that jet outward like cream-colored swords from their lower jaws. Thick, wiry tufts of dark hair sprout along their backs, and they possess an armor of thick hide. An average hog weighs 200 pounds, but some grow to six times that — almost equal to four Shaquille O'Neals — all in one ornery package. Persians hunted them thousands of years ago. Later, European gentry made a sport of it. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto first brought domestic hogs to a settlement near present-day Bradenton in 1539 after stopping in Cuba. Some escaped and were raised by Native Americans in semi-wild conditions. "Florida is pig central," says Scott Hardin, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission exotic species specialist. "They just radiated out of the Southeast."

As hogs spread north during the 16th Century, they didn't need much help with survival. They are the teenage boys of the wild; they'll eat almost anything and constantly mate. "They are little breeding machines," says University of Florida professor Bill Giuliano, who teaches wildlife ecology and conservation. "People who want to eradicate them will have a heck of a time doing it."

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Natalie O'Neill

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