Jason James of Bolivia and his hunting partner, Sam Smith of Wilmington, climbed out of their vehicles and felt the sting of sleet against their cheeks. Deer season had recently ended, but they still had a strong desire to hunt, so despite the wintry January weather, they decided to take a shot at hunting wild pigs. They had been sitting in stands all morning, but had no luck.

"Last year, I hunted pigs here and saw two sows with seven piglets," Smith said. "I didn't get to shoot one, but the year before, I shot a nice pig."

While the hunters warmed themselves inside a cabin that serves as the headquarters for David Knox's Roans Branch Hunting Preserve, Knox and Trey Padgett, one of his guides, decided which stands would be the best for seeing pigs that afternoon, taking into consideration the passage of the cold front. Unlike Smith, who was a pig-hunting veteran, James was new to the sport, and his trigger finger was itching to give it a try.

"I deer hunt, and I'm in a deer-hunting club with Sam, so we've hunted together a lot," James said. "This morning, I sat in a tower stand overlooking a hole baited with corn that pigs had been wallowing in, but I didn't hear or see anything."

"That's the way it goes," Knox said. "You might see dozens of pigs or hear the grunts and squeals of an entire herd. But you can also hunt all day and not see or hear anything. Pigs are smart and have a keen sense of smell. If they smell you, they aren't going to come out into the open where you can see them."

The hunters fortified themselves against the cold with a hot lunch, and once they had warmed up, they headed for a 1,600-acre clearcut that didn't appear to have much in the way of cover to hide a pig - until Knox pointed out several places where they were bedding.

"They lay in those little bay heads and come out to eat," he said. "But, if the wind is blowing toward them, you won't get a shot."

With the timber removed from the landscape, it was easy to see the densely vegetated, low-lying areas - once they were pointed out. Knox said pigs prefer wet areas because they like to roll in the mud. Making wallows keeps insects and sunlight off their skin. After they wallow, they rub against trees, bushes and fence post, leaving good indications as to their preferred direction of travel, showing hunters good locations for placing stands.

While Knox checked a hole where he had poured corn that had been soaked in water, Padgett helped James get his gear and his rifle into an elevated box stand. It was cold enough that James had brought along a propane heater, but there was no ice covering the bait hole. It had either been broken by pigs or melted by the heat of fermenting corn.

"Our pigs are used to people driving along the roads," Padgett said. "We just drive up to the stands, drop the hunters off and drive away. The pigs know it's feeding time and should show up at dawn or dusk to eat the corn. Once they find it, they just keep coming back, wallowing out the hole wider and deeper. If the wind is right, they will smell any corn we've dumped into the feeding holes and come out to eat it."

While the coastal plain's feral pigs are nuisance animals that cause extensive damage to wildlife habitats, Knox also considers them big-game animals; pig hunts bring hunters to his preserve after deer season ends. He said he was fortunate to find a tract for lease that held so many wild pigs and also had some good access roads. Pigs prefer some of the denser, swampier areas of the coastal plain, where roads are few and far between. A big pig can easily top 200 pounds, so a pickup or ATV is a necessity for hauling it out of the swamp.

"We don't shoot any sows unless less there is more than one nursing a group of piglets, and we also don't shoot the little ones," Knox said. "I had been looking for property with lots of pigs for some time for guiding hunters and because I like hunting them, too."

Smith climbed into a ladder stand that had a skirt around its perimeter to block the wind. Pigs' hooves had dug out a trail a foot deep between a bay head behind the stand and the baited wallow in front of it. For hunters who prefer not to climb into a stand, Knox said he also uses tent-style ground blinds with equal success.

Knox and Padgett left the hunters, then returned to pick them up after darkness fell. While neither hunter saw a pig, they were treated to wild-hog barbecue back at the cabin.

"I shot a 200-pound sow in that same place earlier in the week," Knox said. "Hunting pigs is just like hunting deer. Even if there are lots of pigs in the area, you're not always going to see them. If you want a trophy boar with long tusks, you will have to put in the same amount of time it takes to kill a trophy buck. You just have to keep going, and eventually you will shoot a pig."

Travis Hewitt has also hunted pigs at Roan's Branch Hunting Preserve, but by using a different method. Rather than still-hunt for them from elevated stands overlooking bait, he uses dogs to move and hopefully to catch them and hold them until he can arrive to shoot them.

"Some landowners want to remove any pigs on their property, while others like David would rather hunt them for sport," Hewitt said. "There are lots of places to hunt pigs in Columbus and Brunswick counties, including some game lands."

The Waccamaw River begins at the Lake Waccamaw dam and flows into South Carolina. Along its length in Brunswick and Columbus counties, the river's swamp-forest floodplain harbors plenty of feral pigs. Travis said the Columbus County Game Land holds pigs on tracts in both Columbus and Brunswick counties.

"Access isn't all that good for the tracts that have pigs along the Waccamaw River," he said. "I've hunted the tract at Pireway. But when you can't get to your dogs with a vehicle, it makes for some tough going. There are lots of pigs in there, but the cover is very thick."

Using a boat is a possibility, depending upon the river's water level. A jonboat launched at the Commission's Pireway Boating Access Area gives access to one tract of Columbus County Game Land. There are also a couple of access roads to that particular tract that cross private property to get to the game land. The access roads have closed gates and parking areas on the southern edge of the tract.

"I had a dog get hit by a vehicle and killed while it was chasing a pig across Highway 904," Hewitt said. "I don't hunt pigs with dogs on that particular tract anymore for that reason. But if you ask around you can probably find some places to hunt pigs, especially after deer season goes out."

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

WHERE TO GO - Brunswick County has feral swine in most of its rural areas. The best places to look for them are thickets, regenerating clearcuts, Carolina bays and swamps. They are abundant along the Waccamaw River. The Columbus County Game Land has several tracts inhabited by feral swine along the Waccamaw River in Columbus and Brunswick counties. To get to Pireway BAA, from Raleigh, travel I-40 east to Wilmington, then take US 17 south approximately 31 miles and turn right onto NC 904. Travel 10 miles to the access area. Two unimproved roads on the north side of NC 904 provide access to one tract of Columbus County Game Land at approximately one and two miles before arriving at Pireway BAA.

WHEN TO GO - There is no a closed season for feral swine. However, most hunters take them during deer season and after deer season in the cool weather of January, February and March. Since baiting turkeys is illegal, most hunters stop placing bait for pigs in March.

GUNS AND LOADS - Most hunters who still-hunt pigs shoot use their favorite deer rifles. On game lands, pigs may be hunted whenever there is an open season for game animals, including small game. Game land caliber and shot-size restrictions of have been liberalized over the past few years to give hunters the opportunity to hunt pigs and coyotes. However, there are still some restrictions, including a provision that only shotguns may be carried on game lands during the turkey season. Hunters should carefully study the Game Lands, Weapons section of N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission regulations before hunting pigs.   GUIDES - David Knox, Roan's Branch Hunting Preserve, 910- 520-3485. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS - Sleep Inn, 5225 Market St., Wilmington, 910-313-6665 www.pleasureislandchambernc.org.

MAPS - DeLorme North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer, (800) 452-5931 or www.delorme.com.