Some hunters enjoy wild hogs because they offer a change of pace from deer or other hunting sports. Some take part as a means of keeping their woodsmanship and shooting skills "sharp." A final group does it simply because it's their personal passion.
There are outdoorsmen that are simply wild hog hunters. Obsessed with the sport, they hunt the tusked, wild pigs year-round. They go "hog wild" about the sport on its own merits.
Bruce Ayers and Josh Airey fit firmly in this group.
"We simply love to hunt hogs," Ayers said. "I got into the sport about 15 years ago, and I got hooked on hogs from the beginning. Granted, it does help hone hunting skills for other game. Certainly, Josh and I both love to hunt deer. But hogs offer a year-round hunting opportunity and enable us to spend unlimited time in the woods. We do the reverse from most hunters; we'll take a break from hog hunting to occasionally hunt deer."
These guys are pig hunters of the highest magnitude, and they spare no effort to be successful. They'll hunt hogs anywhere, but they specialize in the soggy terrain deep in the swamps along the Congaree River in Orangeburg County.
"I'm the first to admit that I'm a wild hog addict," Ayers said. "Make no mistake about it; I'm a hog hunter first and foremost. I simply enjoy the sport because of the challenge and the fact that I can do it year round."
Airey has been hog-hunting seriously for six years. He agrees with Ayers and said his kinship with the sport also embraces the use of specialized hunting equipment in the pursuit of wild pigs.
"I've discovered that hog hunting embraces many of the skills, and just as importantly, the high-tech equipment needed, to excel at deer and turkey hunting," Airey said. "Plus, I know it keeps my woodsmanship skills honed for turkey and deer hunting too."
While they hunt wild pigs in the traditional way, sitting in stands, they take the sport much more seriously than most. Their favored way to hunt is to literally stalk the pigs in the low-lying swamps across the state.
Especially in the Congaree Swamp.
"In the swamps, especially areas where you have a lot of acreage of prime, wild-hog territory, stalking is an exciting way to hunt hogs," Ayers said. "Josh and I will literally slip through the woods, looking for hog sign such as tracks, rootings and wallows. When we see a lot of fresh sign, we know we're in the right area."
"At that point, instead of generically searching for hogs, we slow down and literally slip along at a snail's pace," Ayers said. "We use the thicker cover to hide our movement, and we look and listen for pigs. When not alerted, wild pigs are quite noisy as they rumble through a swamp. They grunt, squeal and walk noisily. Of course, their sense of smell is their prime defense. Keeping that in mind is always a key to stalking hogs successfully."
"Their vision is a weak point that we exploit; they can't see all that well," Airey said. "They can hear okay, but not that great. The focal point for success is to keep the wind to the hunters advantage."
"A lot of times, we'll listen and will hear them a long way off," Airey said. "We'll use hearing amplifiers such as the Woodland Whisper hearing aids. This can gives us a distinct edge by knowing where they are, long before they could possibly see or scent us. Plus, that gives us the opportunity to get the wind totally in our favor before we make the final stalk for the shot."
"Of course, we'll sometimes see the hog or hogs first, before we hear anything," Ayers said. "That's where slow movement and using trees and thick cover to mask movement is essential. I use Steiner optics for my binoculars and spotting scope. Quality equipment is key to our success."
The desired result is to see the hog or hogs firsts, get the wind right and make a good stalk to within 50 to 70 yards as they sneak through the woods.
"You've got to calculate the direction the pigs are going when planning your stalk," Ayers said. "Usually, you can get a good bearing on the direction they're headed. If you are familiar with the woods, you'll be able to predict accurately where they will and won't go most of the time. Of course, as they wander through a swamp, they'll sometimes change directions without warning, and we'll have to make adjustments. But once we get within range, which will vary with the terrain and vegetation, I set up and take the shot."
A lot of times, the two hog commandos will discuss strategy with military lingo, such as flanking the target.
"Many times, we'll be able to figure a good pattern on how they are maneuvering through the woods through long-distance observation, and we'll flank them." Ayers said. "Essentially, while keeping the wind to our advantage, we'll cut through the swamp and get where they're going before they get there. This is often crucial to success if there is only sparse cover in open bottom areas. Many times, we're set up and ready, and the pigs walk right into our ambush setup."
Ayers said that if he makes a good, killing head shot where the hog doesn't squeal when shot, he can often get an easy second shot at another pig.
"But if the first hog squeals, the rest will break and be gone on a dead run," Ayers said. "If a person hasn't hunted hogs, it will amaze them at how fast they can move when spooked."
"There are so many different ways the hunt can go," Airey said. "That's certainly part of the fun, the diversity of challenges and the opportunities for figuring out a unique gameplan and having it all come together."
Ayers and Airey will use different weapons for different times and situations. During the morning and mid-day when there's ample light, Ayers will often use a gun he calls a "Drilling." This gun has three barrels: two 16-gauge shotgun chambers filled with buckshot, and the remaining chamber a 7mm centerfire rifle.
"This gun gives me two distinct weapons in one," Ayers said. "The 7-millimeter is used for the distance shots after a good stalk. The twin 16-gauge buckshot shells are for those times when I'm slipping through a thicket and literally run into a big hog only a few steps away. I think the sense that there is a bit of danger in this sport is one of the attractions. I know I've been mighty glad to have that buckshot on many occasions."
Airey will usually opt for a short carbine with a high-quality scope.
"The short carbine is a great gun for a stalk," Airey said. "In the .44-magnum caliber, it's a great brush gun, but it is quite accurate out to a long distance. Plus, it packs the wallop needed for bring a big boar down. However, most any good deer rifle will work if someone wants to check the sport out."
Airey and Ayers will both employ scoped rifles late in the afternoon or if hunting from a stand at first light or in the evening.
"Hogs are notorious about moving and feeding when it's dark," Airey said. "That's why I believe in top-quality scopes for hunting early and late and when on a stand. We've learned that sometimes hogs won't move into an area, even if bait is used, until long after the deer have started moving."
"Advancements in technology that hunters are beginning to employ is the lighted reticle in scopes," Airey said. "We've found this can be essential when hunting hogs in low light situations. I am a staunch believer in the Burris Lighted Reticle Scope. I've tested a lot of scopes, and this tool enables me to accurately make shots long after I cannot take a shot in other scopes I've tried. I've learned you get what you pay for, and if you take hog and deer hunting seriously, you need to get quality tools."
While Ayers and Airey literally stalk hunt hogs in the deep swamps, they hunt them from stands as well. Sometimes the two styles of hunting will blend nicely, according to Ayers.
"A lot of times, we'll be stalking hogs and begin to see a lot of sign in a small area," Ayers said. "Typically, that means we're close to the hogs, but we don't always find them immediately. On some occasions, the terrain is just not right for a stalk but ideal for a hunt from a tree stand. On occasions like this, I'll go get a climbing stand, or even a lean-up stand, and quickly and quietly get it in position. I'll climb up a couple hours before dark and watch and wait. Many times, I've been able to take a really nice hog or two that same evening. Hogs will tend to use the same areas when they find food and are not alarmed by humans."
On some occasions, Airey and Ayers will use corn for bait, which is legal for hog hunting.
"We sometimes use corn to bait them in to a specific area," Ayers said. "If we know hogs are using the area, it's a great way to get them to funnel into a specific spot. We'll often use this for friends we take hunting who don't get to hunt a lot."
When they hunt from a stand, they still have a detailed game plan. They will identify areas where hogs are using and focus on finding the funnels and routes the animals are using. They try to place a stand where hogs will come within range with or without bait. Ayers said they will often put up climbing stands in a hot location based on fresh sign, much as hunters do for deer hunting.
"There are a lot of similarities between deer and hog hunting from a stand," Ayers said. "You can have a stand in an area, use bait which is legal in many places in the state for deer, and hunt hogs or deer when they are in season. You can also find such hot sign and natural food sources where you can hang a climber on a tree and get in it right then."
"Bruce and I have found that if anything, hogs will come to bait or work through an area in the evening even later than deer," Airey said. "Sometimes, it's well after dark when the hogs move in. You can hear them coming from a long distance. Often I've been counting the minutes and even seconds that I have ample light to shoot. This is where even a couple minutes will spell the difference between success and failure. Plus, the lighted-reticle scope will enable a hunter to take a hog well past the time you can see the unlit crosshairs. But it will still be within the legal shooting time.
"A big hog is often totally black, and you're hunting in a pitch black, dark swamp," Airey said. "It's hard to see the crosshairs anyway, much less in this type of extreme situation. Quality optics and a lighted reticle will give you a huge advantage. It gets real dark real fast in the bottom of some of those thick swamps."
Ayers said part of the adventure of hunting hogs is the time spent finding them. He said it is a most satisfying way to hunt and be outdoors.
"It sounds too simple, but pigs are where they are," Ayers said. "In a big swamp bottom, they may be anywhere. Look for rooting, wallows, tracks, food sources and water. When it's hot, they use the water to cool off with too. If you have an area that was flooded and the water just receded, that's a great place to find fresh hog sign. Pigs like that type of area."
Ayers and Airey have taken a lot of hogs over the past several years. Ayers' top hog weighed in at a whopping 425 pounds. It may not be Hogzilla, but he had to use a front-end loader to get it out the woods. Airey has taken hogs up to 275 pounds.
"In addition to being great sport to hunt, the sows that aren't too big make great eating," Ayers said. "A 150-pound sow will make wonderful barbeque. Sometimes there's not much you can do with a big old boar. But if there's deer on the property you're hunting, it's a good idea to keep the hog population under control."
"Hunting hogs the way we do is just simply a great adventure," Airey said. "We love being outdoors and enjoying nature. We see a lot of other game animals when nothing else is in season. Plus, hogs offer a real challenge of woodsmanship skills when stalked."
For Ayers and Airey, hunting hogs is much more than just making the kill. It's the whole hog.