They’re as fast as lightning and when they charge, they sling a massive head, slashing wildly like a madman in a knife fight and woe-betide the brave or the foolhardy that happen to be in the way of a full grown boar hog. And in retrospect perhaps I should have mentioned to one guest new to hog hunting, before he came face to face with one… but you can’t remember everything!
Hogs or wild boar are found in forested areas throughout the Southern states of America. Now when I say forest, don’t think of rolling hills and rows of neatly planted pine trees stretching over the horizon. The forests here in Florida are a tangled mass of impenetrable vegetation atop a bottomless swamp.
The first order of the day is to find a good hog track. Mrs Beaton giving her recipe for jugged hare wrote: First catch your hare. The analogy, loosely applied might be “first, find you’re your hog” and finding a hog track on a dirt road can be a demoralising business, especially when there’s been a full moon or a half moon or no moon at all or it rained at half past whatever hour or the sun came up ten minutes early that morning. So we drove the roads for endless miles straining our eyes, it seemed more out of wishful thinking than practical reason… some days there just aren’t any tracks to be found. Periodically, I’d stop the truck so that David Cyr, Lyn Harber and I could look at some subtle impression in the dirt that might just be a hog.
On this cold, late October morning we’d found no sign. Mercifully we were hunting with a couple of seasoned hunters, and as I recollect, it was shortly after seven when the call came over the FM radio: “Hey Gary, we found a track, north of the camp on the old rock road”.
I thrust the truck into drive, floored the accelerator and was at the spot lickety-split. You see, there is a school of thought that says if a hog track is ten minutes old there’s no point in letting it mature to fifteen before you set a hound on the hog’s trail.
Rounding a corner we found Steve Self and Joey Gray, eyes down, walking in a ditch that parallels the road, following a good size track that had been made early the night before. Maybe the track was ten or twelve hours old – tracking is an inexact science that I have yet to master. The hog had crossed the road several times, walking here and there and then going back on itself, making it difficult to determine exactly where he had left the road and entered the forest.
In these circumstances, you need a seasoned hound, as an inexperienced hound won’t have the patience to grub out the trail, or the knowledge to circle the area until a trail is found. Some young hounds, out of frustration make the mistake of running something other than the intended quarry. No, it takes a hound with a modicum of savvy, so I pulled my nine year old female Plott hound, Heather, from the dog box. As always I checked that both her GPS and conventional transmitter collars were secure and turned on. All fine, I led her toward the ditch, and Heather knows the form, she became a bundle of excitement, standing on her back legs, walking homosapian fashion to the ditch.
There was no point in prolonging the moment. I showed her the track and released her into the forest. The old girl studied the scent like a professor with a complex equation, first making a decision then going back to double check her calculations. The GPS tracking system allowed me to watch her progress through the forest. Slowly, slowly, slowly she moved through the organic matter occasionally giving out a high pitched yip, which loosely translated from hound to human, meant she was still interested.
After a country half hour, Heather began to open up and the yip became a stream of intense cry. The GPS showed she had moved five hundred yards northwest into the forest. Suddenly Heather was seven, eight, nine hundred yards. It was time to follow. We jumped into the truck and drove a winding, rutted trail to a clearing where a hunter had planted a large food plot to attract deer.
The voice of Heather came echoing through the forest like a metronome, eighty barks to the minute. I grabbed my two year old hound, Gadget, from the box and held him facing the forest where Heather, only a hundred yards away, was running the hog. He strained on the collar in recognition but didn’t dive round frantically like some hounds do. Still, I held tight.
If Gadget has a fault, and tell me a hound that doesn’t, it’s that he makes an ungodly racket when he’s running to the aid of another hound – I prefer silence. However, he was at Heather’s side in a trice and the additional voice prompted the hog to turn south, back toward the road where we had originally put Heather on the track. It was a grand sound a hundred yards from the road – enough to make your blood boil. You see. a hound screaming at the back of a running hog sets the old adrenaline coursing through the veins, even in a grey beard like myself. You know well and good that when a hog says enough is enough and stops to fight, you have to go into the forest and physically catch hold of the hog, and I tell you straight – a boar hog with hounds baying him becomes unpredictably aggressive.
Unlike a fox running over open ground, a hog running through dense undergrowth leaves a cacophony of scent. As the hog’s scent changes from one of flight to one of fight, so the hounds seem to sense the change and their cry alters, becoming more frantic – notification, battle is about to commence.
Though distant, the hound cries increased and changed in tone… no error, they were bayed. The GPS showed nine hundred yards and that is too far to walk in the forest unless there is absolutely no alternative. So we drove dead end tracks, walked trails and made fruitless attempts to push our way through the brush. We settled on walking down a waterlogged trail underneath a power line for five hundred yards then find a good spot and head east for what we hoped would be three hundred and fifty yards.
The trip was exhausting and wet… in some places, up to our thigh and the mud was thick and glutinous and there is the ever present danger of alligators and poisonous water snakes. Each footfall became harder than the last but the sound of the hounds’ music has an irresistible pull. When we judged ourselves to be opposite the hounds I slipped another Plott hound to the bay, Gadget’s half sister, Tiny. She’s silent while running to the bay, so when we did hear her high pitched chop-chop bark, we knew she too was bayed solid. Another problem often encountered is when adding hounds to a bay. The hog can sense the pressure increasing and make a run for it. So I try to add hounds one at a time increasing the pressure gradually. I waited a short while before I slipped Preacher.
With four hounds bayed solid it was a raucous bay. We continued through the forest tearing at every form of vegetation known to man, ducking wait-a-while vines, wading through water. At this distance I could make out the voice of individual hounds. Heather, her voice like rapid machine gun fire; Tiny, woof, woof, woof; Preacher, deep and measured and Gadget, with a bark like fifty lunatics let out of the asylum for the night. There was a high pitched yelp and I knew Heather got too close… then the grunt of a charging hog and a veritable scream as the hog rolled Tiny. All this happened in a heart beat and Steve, reading the situation like the good hunter he is, knew he had to get there with the bulldog. Along with Dave and Lyn, they raced toward the chaotic sounds of the fight.
Joey and I weren’t too far behind them. I gestured to Steve to hold on to the bulldog, as I assessed my hounds. I saw heather bleeding heavily with a double gash in her flank; Preacher with his leg pumping blood and Tiny with her throat bleeding and rear leg muscles sliced in half. All the hounds were fighting hard – then to my absolute horror I saw the back-end of a Welshman on all fours poking out of the undergrowth where the mêlée was taking place.
A braver man than I might have crawled closer, grabbed his legs and yanked him the hell out of there, but I didn’t. I yelled at the top of my voice: “let the bulldog go!” And the bulldog ran in and hit with a tremendous thud. In that instant all hell broke loose as the hounds dived in and grabbed and shook, and the hog grunted and the bulldog gripped even as it was being cut and rolled on the ground. There was blood and mud everywhere as Steve Self and David Cyr grabbed a back leg each and I screamed (and I paraphrase) “Lyn get out of there!”
The report of single shot from a .22 pistol rang out. Silence fell. Hounds that only a moment ago were fighting now stood or nosed over the carcass of the two hundred and seventy five pound boar hog. The bulldog held his grip while Steve grabbed and twisted his collar and repeated, “Dead hog, dead hog”. In these parts, where bulldogs work, you don’t see macho studded dog collars – that’s for the posers. A collar is a tool to control the bulldog so the last thing you want is to grab a handful of studs.
As a Nation, the Welsh are known for their bravery, and with Lyn, that characteristic came shining through with a total indifference for personal safety. It must be so, for when Lyn stood up covered from head to foot in mud, grinning like a Cheshire cat, “that was exiting boys”, was all he said. So if you see Lyn Harber at a dig, or a hunt or at a show, don’t look at his face, take a good hard look at his backside – for it’s the last thing anyone might have seen of him.