-- Thomas McGuane
For years, Northern California and the Bay Area have proudly flown the flag of epicurean hedonism, leading the nation in wine production and nouveau cuisine. Even in this merlot-soaked, fresh-organic-ingredients milieu, where great chefs are treated like celebrities, it is seldom noted that the region boasts another little-known gastronomic piece de resistance -- the feral pig.
According to the California Department of Fish and Game, wild pigs (Sus scrofa) are a nonnative species. Our wild pigs are, in fact, one of the happier accidents of animal husbandry. Settlers introduced domestic swine to California in the 1700s, some of which wandered into the wild. Then, in the 1920s, a landowner imported the European wild boar to Monterey County. The boars mated with the local feral pig population, creating a wild boar/feral domestic hybrid. Today, at least 45 California counties are up to the elbows in Sus scrofa. These wild pigs are covered in hair, have tusks, and multiply very quickly. One of their few natural predators is the mountain lion. Another is the human being.
Last year, California hunters bagged approximately 30,000 wild pigs, with the heaviest concentrations being found in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Monterey counties. Unlike other game animals, pigs come with almost no restrictions. You can hunt them every day of the year, with no daily limit. You can use any size bow and arrow, rifle, or pistol. And hunting a wild pig is dirt cheap -- five pigs will cost only $7.90 in Fish and Game tags. Some say it's the best bargain in the state -- of any kind. Whether that claim is fact or exaggeration, California's wild boars attract hunters from all over the world.
Many big-game hunters place importance on bagging a trophy for the wall of the den or the rug on the floor. Pig hunters are a different, oddly self-actualized breed. They hunt wild boars because they eat them. The meat is delicious and free of preservatives or hormones.
This article will show you exactly how to stalk, take, prepare, and dine upon your own wild pig. To help compile this guide, SF Weekly retained the services of two Bay Area swinologists, who requested that their identities be concealed for fear of retaliation by Northern California's large population of animal rights activists. For purposes of identification, we'll call our pig consultants the Philosopher and the Pragmatist.
The Philosopher runs his own South of Market business; the Pragmatist is a successful practitioner of the culinary arts. They have hunted pigs together for five years, averaging five or six expeditions per year. In exchange for anonymity, the two agreed to share their boar-hunting expertise -- including a tour of a secret pig-heavy location in rural Sonoma County.
I. What You Need
A logical first step in hunting pigs is to obtain a copy of the Fish and Game Department's Hunting Guide for Wild Pigs in California, which covers the basics and includes maps of public hunting areas. You will also need a state hunting license, which costs $27.55 for adult residents, and a tag for each pig you take ($7.90 for five).
If you have never gone before, it's advisable to bring along somebody familiar with wild boar hunting. Ask the Central Coast Fish and Game office in Napa for a list of local pig outfitters. These guides typically take people on one- or two-day expeditions. On these excursions, most supplies are included, but fees can exceed $500 for a weekend. If you don't use an outfitter, your bare minimum of supplies should include binoculars, knives, a knife sharpener, plenty of rope, rubber gloves, a strong hacksaw, a bucket, and a source of fresh water.
In California, pig hunting is allowed on any public land managed by federal, state, or local government agencies, with minor restrictions. Experts, however, say these areas have been hunted so frequently that the pigs have learned to avoid them. Results are best on private land, where hunters strike deals with landowners for access to pig-friendly property. Hunting is most successful during early spring or early fall, when seasons are changing, but people have good luck just about any month of the year. The ideal time is either dawn or dusk, when the pigs feed.
(Despite the small cost and few restrictions -- the only significant regulation on boar hunting requires that they be taken during daylight hours -- some people still find it necessary to poach wild pigs. Poachers often use dogs to bring down the pig, then finish it off with a knife. As protection against the pigs' sharp tusks, the dogs are dressed in suits of armor. This technique, supposedly, is less noisy than shooting. Fish and Game staff regularly patrol the twilight pastures with infrared equipment, and sometimes set up pig decoys to draw out illicit hunters.)
As far as weaponry goes, both the Pragmatist and the Philosopher swear by the Remington .308 rifle with scope, but almost any caliber gun will do. If you're really serious about pig hunting, the bow and arrow apparently is the ultimate way to go. But remember: Creeping within 30 yards of a wild pig requires camouflage, and silent clothing. And a healthy reserve of courage.
II. The Hunt
Pig hunters speak of their craft as having two basic methods. The first -- "spot and stalk" -- means that you walk through the countryside until you see a pig, then stalk it until you're close enough for a good shot. The second method -- "fair chase" -- involves a pack of dogs, whose presence can turn a hunt into a complicated, noisy circus.
Outfitters often bring dogs, one hunter says, because it gives the impression of a real safari, an atmosphere that allows them to charge novice hunters more money. Unfortunately, dogs also will chase the pigs up and down the hills. According to John Waithman, author of the Hunting Guide for Wild Pigs in California, running builds up lactic acid in the muscles, which can diminish the flavor of the meat and make it tough. The true wild boar aficionado, therefore, hunts alone or with one other person. No guides. No dogs.