It was late February in the Sandhills, and Mother Nature could have shown more compassion by pelting the hunters with sleet and snow.

Instead, the dark clouds continued to pour a steady rain that was only slightly warmer than ice. Troy Akers, owner of Buck and Boar Lodge, was guiding a hunt for wild hogs.

"They're most likely laid up in the pine straw on the high ground - up under the trees," he said. "They won't be moving this time of day. We'll just have to keep glassing."

After two hours of slipping through scrub oak and longleaf pines, Akers (866-799-5585) spotted two dark grey lumps in the red brown straw.

"They're asleep," he whispered excitedly. "The one on the left is huge! Can you see him?"

The Jarrett .280 cracked, and one hog sprinted from its bed. The other kicked its back legs briefly, then lay still.

Normally, when you think of hog hunting in South Carolina, an image of Lowcountry marshes thick with palmettos and Spanish moss comes to mind. But these days, hogs are popping up all over the state. From the mountains to the sea, the proliferating pigs have expanded their range, primarily following the river basins. According to Charles Ruth, deer project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, hogs have shown up in 42 of the state's 46 counties.

"While some of their expansion is natural," Ruth said, "most of it's due to people trapping and releasing the animals."

Buck and Boar Lodge is near Swansea, southeast of Columbia and not far from the Broad River, an area heavily populated by hogs. But unlike the typical black ferals found across the state, Akers' pigs are mostly imported European varieties, with long, thick hair, high shoulders, long snouts and generally dark grey, brown or silver in color.

"European hogs don't get as big as a lot of feral pigs. The feral pigs come from domestic stock that was originally bred for meat production. The European hogs are a wild strain and usually top out around 250 pounds," said Akers, who points to a 550-pounder taken at the lodge in 2009 as evidence that they do get bigger.

Hog-hunting methods are as varied as those for deer. Akers likes stand-hunting for sheer success, but he enjoys the challenge of the spot-and-stalk.

"We have stands that overlook food plots and corn feeders," said Akers. "Some accommodate up to four people - others are simple one-man bow stands or ground blinds. But my favorite way to hunt is spot and stalk."

Akers said the weather has to be just right. Rainy or wet conditions, even gusty winds, he said, helps cover your noise as you move through the woods. But even under the right conditions, you don't always have time to size up the hog once you've found him.

"If someone wants to kill nothing less than a 300-pound hog, he should sit on a stand where things move a little slower," Akers said. "On a spot-and-stalk, things get 'fast and furious, and not for the curious,' we like to say. It can happen in a matter of seconds, and you don't always have time to size him up. You pretty much shoot him, then go see exactly what you have."

Akers prefers hunting early mornings.

"I like to go first thing, because even if you don't have wet weather or wind, there's dew on the ground to quiet your steps," he said. "The other reason is, hogs tend to be asleep then. If you spot one or two lying down, there's a good chance that 10 or 15 more are nearby that you can't see. If they're not asleep, chances are somebody's looking at you. And the whole trick to killing a hog is, you've got to see him first. If he sees you first, it's a 90-percent chance you're not going to get that hog."

Akers abides four words - all you need to remember about hunting on the move.

"Two steps and glass. Two steps and glass," he said. Don't be in a hurry and don't expect to see whole hogs standing up or walking around.

A lot of hunters who've never done spot-and-stalk for hogs don't realize what they're looking for, Akers said. Being primarily nocturnal, most porkers spend a good portion of the day bedded down. Like deer, they'll get up occasionally, nibble, and then lie back in a thicket or a burrow into leaves or pine straw.

"We just do a lot of glassing and move real slow and try to methodically pick the woods to death," said Akers. "And because you're hunting a bedded animal, you're trying to find an ear, or a dark spot way down through the woods that has hair on it. You're not going to find a whole hog generally. You're looking for pieces and parts.

"If you locate him without waking him up, and you can keep the wind in your face, you can usually plan a way to kill that hog."

Wind direction is critical, Akers said. If you're not walking into the wind, he said emphatically, you're wasting your time.

"A hog's nose is superior to any other animal I've ever hunted," he said, "including whitetail deer. His hearing is good, not great, and his eyes aren't as bad as people think. Some hunters have the perception that anything outside of 50 yards is a blur to a hog, but that's just not so. I've had them pick me up at 100 yards in full camouflage. They pick up movement very well. They're not as blind as some believe."

Akers said the breeding season for wild hogs is spread out enough that it doesn't influence hunting like the deer rut.

"With hogs," he said, "you're going to have some breeding activity throughout the year, but November and December are definitely the heaviest time.

"The biggest difference between hogs and deer is that, if anything happens to the hog's litter, then the sow comes back into season seven days after she dries up. It's what you call a 'trickle-rut' year-round."

Akers said a European sow bears fewer and smaller litters than a feral pig, but she's generally more protective, resulting in a higher survival rate.

And what about true trophy hog-hunting? Akers believes there's a lot of similarity between that and the pursuit of a mature whitetail buck.

"You can talk about hunting the meat hogs," said Akers, "and then you can talk about a mature boar hog, and it's two completely different things. Just like deer.

"With some luck, you can usually go out and pop you a doe or a little 4-point, but if you're going to hunt a big mature buck that's withstood years of hunting pressure, you've got to hunt a whole different way. And it's the same with a boar hog. A big old boar is going to travel by himself. You won't see him in a herd of females and young ones, or what we call a 'sounder.' The big boars are usually going to move later in the evening. He's the last one into the field or to the bait site, and the first one to run if something goes wrong."

Because of the "shield" - thick hide and cartilage covering and encircling the boar's chest - bullet selection is important. Because the shield has been known to stop arrows, musket balls and small-caliber bullets, Akers is picky about firepower for hogs.

"Regardless of what you shoot," he said, "bullet placement is everything. You can kill a hog with a .22 rifle if you put it in the right place, but I don't advise it.

"Before you hunt with any rifle, go to the range and practice. I personally like big, slow bullets. Any 30-caliber deer rifle will work. I would stay away from highly-expandable bullets and lighter loads if you're shooting a big boar hog.

"With a meat hog, it's really no different from shooting a deer, but you shoot a big hog with a tough shield on him, that's another story. I've had them stop .300 magnums before they entered the vitals. One particular one was a ballistic-tip expandable that came apart before it made it to the vitals. The hunter hit the shoulder blade with what was left of the bullet after passing through the shield, and the bullet basically disintegrated.

"I like the 180- to 200-grain bullets, and core-bonded are great. A .35 Whelen is an awesome hog round. So is a 45.70; that's one of my favorites. Shotgun slugs are also good for shooting through the heavy cover they like to lie up in."

Even with the big, heavier loads, you rarely have an exit wound, and that means little or no blood trail. The fat and hair can plug up the hole and soak up the blood, and with 80 percent of the hogs shot in the evening, tracking becomes a challenging and potentially dangerous nighttime chore.

"Get a good quartering away shot," Akers said, "or, if you're very proficient, pop him behind the ear. Then you don't have to go looking."

Akers says that February is a great time to hunt hogs. For one thing, deer season's over, so you can extend your big-game hunting a bit longer. And with the leaves off the trees, the mast and row crops depleted, and the weather colder, the pigs are on the move in search of food.