ARKANSAS Forty-five years have passed, but I remember vividly the first real razorback I ever saw.
The wicked-looking animal, which weighed more than 500 pounds, had been killed in the Ozarks by an old hunter named Jayhu Todd who brought the animal to town in the bed of his pickup to show his fellow huntsmen. I had seen many big domestic hogs, but Jayhu’s wild boar lacked a familial resemblance. Unlike its flabby barnyard cousins, this beast was muscular and lean despite its huge size. Its body was weirdly asymmetric — low at the flanks and higher at the shoulders. Its head was as big as a whiskey keg, its long snout dirty from rooting. It was covered from head to hocks with dense, wiry, black hair, which was longest and thickest along the spine.
Looking upon that sharp, thin mane, one could easily understand how the razorback name originated.
The hog’s most impressive features were its tusks. The two largest pushed back the lips and swept up and around to a point above the snout. Each tusk was as big around as a man’s thumb and 6 or 8 inches long. The outer edges were sharp as knives. Two smaller tusks grew above these, their purpose being to safeguard and sharpen the lower set, those honed bottom tusks being the instruments a boar employs to deal with the world. With one quick swipe, the boar can disembowel a dog, and enough hunters have received severe lacerations in hog attacks to prove the razorback’s danger to humans as well.
Seeing this incredible animal, one could have no doubt why the fierce razorback was chosen to be the mascot of the University of Arkansas. And it was obvious, as well, why hunters in our state have considered wild hogs to be sporty hunting adversaries for almost two centuries.
One estimate from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission indicates there are at least 50,000 to 70,000 feral hogs in the state today. Most are descendants of domestic hogs that escaped or were turned out to range freely generations ago. In decades past, folks often released pigs to feed off the forest. The razorbacks had the run of the woods most of the year and got fat on acorns and other foods. In autumn, they were penned and fed corn to sweeten the meat. When winter came, they were butchered to furnish an ample supply of ham, shoulders, middlings, sausage and lard to run the family until the next hog-killing time.
This was a good system for many years, but with changing farm practices, fence laws were enacted, forcing owners to keep their livestock under control. There was no way to capture all the free-ranging hogs, however, and many adapted to life in the wild.
Feral hogs now inhabit more than 50 of the state’s 75 counties, and these thousands of rooting hogs cause many problems. They destroy vegetation, ruin water holes used by other wildlife and destroy nests of ground-nesting birds. Acorns, an important food for many species of native wildlife, comprise a significant portion of their diet. Feral hogs often damage row crops and frequently carry diseases, such as brucellosis and trichinosis, which can be transmitted to domestic stock and even humans.
Despite the many problems caused by feral hogs, it was against Arkansas law to hunt stray or free-roaming hogs until recent years. The state formed the Feral Hog Task Force in the late 1990s, a group consisting of 23 government organizations and private corporations. As a result of their efforts, a law was enacted by the Legislature in 1999 that makes it easier to hunt feral hogs. The law eliminated the presumption that a wild hog has an owner and defines a feral hog as one roaming on property without the landowner’s permission.
The law didn’t create a hog-hunting season but allows hunting year-round on private property (with legal access and the landowner’s permission) and allows hunting on public lands with some restrictions. Before hunting, check regulations on the Game and Fish Commission website, www.agfc.com.
Someone once said hunting bears with a willow switch is a lot like hunting razorbacks, regardless of the method. “Only a darn fool without a lick of sense would do either.” But if you’re still determined to bag a wild hog, here are tips to help you.
• Good hog-hunting locales can be difficult to pinpoint. A classified newspaper ad and phone calls to state and county officials often will lead to landowners eager to rid their property of destructive hogs. Visiting with managers of wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges may produce similar results.
• Scouting also helps. Turned earth and leaves where hogs have been rooting for food are the most obvious signs of activity. Look, too, for tracks and trails. Hog tracks are similar to deer tracks but more rounded. The hogs’ trails often form tunnels in thick underbrush. Bedding areas range from elaborate grass nests built by sows to raise their young to simple depressions dug in the ground, usually surrounded by brush or a fallen tree. During cold weather, beds are usually on south-facing slopes.
• Wallowing areas also may be found on scouting forays. Hogs wallow in mud to cool themselves and rid their bodies of insects. Their wallows usually are by seeps and springs or around lakes, ponds and sloughs.
• Listening for hogs just before daylight can help, too. Hogs are noisy when feeding, and you can often hear their squealing and grunting.
• Wild hogs are tough, and a high-powered gun, .270 or larger, is recommended for killing them. Adults average 100 to 200 pounds and have been known to exceed 500 pounds, so sheer size dictates a big firearm. Also, under the hide of older boars is an inch-thick “shield” of keratin, the stuff of hooves and horns. It extends on either side of him, from his shoulders to his last ribs, and shields his vital organs from the tusks of other boars when he fights. It is said that this shield is strong enough to stop not only tusks, but light bullets and arrows as well. Try plugging a boar with the wrong firearm, and you may do nothing more than anger him, winding up ground to sausage in the process.
• Hogs have a keen sense of smell. Hearing is their next defense, but they have poor eyesight. By staying downwind and moving slowly, you sometimes can stalk within close range when pursuing them on foot.
• Among the best hunting locales are densely vegetated wet areas. Hogs move out of bedding areas in thickets during late afternoon or at night to feed. Stand-hunting in feeding areas near dawn and dusk is often effective if hogs haven’t been overly disturbed.
• Never forget that razorbacks can be unpredictable and dangerous if cornered or crowded. They’re incredibly quick and can be on you with amazing speed. In a fracas, they’re living buzz saws, slashing man or beast with their meat-hook tusks. As one hunter put it, when you hunt hogs, “You better wear your tree-climbing britches.” Always keep your distance, and if you believe you’ve killed a razorback, make sure by putting an “insurance round” through the head.
In many respects, Arkansas’ wild hogs live up to the razorback’s legendary status. They’re intelligent, hardy, ferocious animals, and there’s something about hunting them that draws out the daredevil in hunters. The hogs are, certainly, a fitting symbol for The Natural State.
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