Many a hunting day begins with a group of anxious, bleary-eyed “dudes” eagerly shifting from side-to-side in their seats, eagerly awaiting the possibility to catch a glimpse of a wayward buck. Such was the case on the morning of February 15th as Ben, Matt and I fidgeted in our seats. It was the dead of night on Milwaukee’s near north side, and we too are waiting for a Buck.
As my eyes scanned the empty nightscape, a public bus lazily rounded a corner and rolls down Booth Street. The analog clock in my BMW sedan read 4:33 AM. This was not an average day of hunting – a fact over which I mused briefly. Indeed, gunshots fired here tend to be of an entirely different sort – another fact of which I am well aware.
Of course, the modern hunting outing has become an exercise in juxtaposition. Thirty years ago it would have been unheard of to throw a handful of firearms into the trunk of an import sedan and head out for a weekend of sport on the woebegone gravel roads of rural Wisconsin. Maybe such an idea is as bizarre now as it was then. But for a couple of farm-town Wisconsin boys living in the urban bustle of metro Chicago, these outings are as necessary as they are absurd. When you grow up in a town where school takes a back seat to the gun-deer season, hunting is as necessary as eating. In fact one often facilitates the other.
Our foray began with a 3:00 AM departure from Chicago’s west side and ended in Crawford County, Wisconsin, an isolated block of southwest Wisconsin known as the Driftless region, overlooked by the glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. But our present stop is to meet the fourth member of the hunting party—Buck. Although I had organized the hog hunt and conducted the behind-the-scenes legwork, it was Buck who brought the bulk of the expertise and requisite equipment.
A tall broad-shouldered woodsman with a beard that would make an Amish man blush, Buck had made the drive from northeast Wisconsin, bringing with him a snowmobile, a beagle and enough rifles and other hunting sundries to outfit an emergency militia. More importantly, Buck also carried with him a wealth of hunting and outdoor expertise, the breadth and depth of which was vast and encyclopedic. While my friends and I had moved to Chicago in search of gainful employment and a change of scenery, Buck had remained in the Wisconsin Northwoods in pursuit of everything from early season crappies to mid-winter coyotes—a more than adept hunter whose prey rarely evaded him.
Whereas the Chicago trio had essentially tossed duffel bags and guns in the trunk of the car and headed to the rendezvous point, Buck had prepared rigorously for the hunt, hanging his clothes out for days to eliminate any trace of human scent, meticulously cataloging the gear needed, packing and repacking to make sure every foreseeable challenge was met with the proper equipment. I had fielded no less than half a dozen phone calls from Buck in the previous week, all of which were inquiries as to whether we would need maps, a sighting scope, dogs, and a wide range of things I had neglected to consider. It had quickly become clear that Buck was a chess master among checker players when it came to the hunt, and there was little doubt that if we were going to shoot a wild hog, it would be a result of Buck’s aptitude and preparedness.
The man of the hour soon emerged in the half-light, his burly bearded frame making for an odd scene in the urban backdrop. At his side was a diminutive beagle, happy to stretch his legs one last time before the long drive. Matt, Ben and I helped Buck to double-check the snowmobile and trailer before running through a mental checklist to make sure we had everything we needed. In a matter of moments, our unlikely caravan set out in search of the illusive wild hogs of Crawford County.
Our endeavor had been and would continue to be as much a fact-finding mission as a hunting expedition. After initially learning of the growing feral pig epidemic from a fellow outdoor writer and friend, I had run a quick Internet search to see whether Wisconsin was home to any viable populations. In the previous weeks, I had spent a good deal of time phoning various DNR offices and residents of Crawford County in an attempt to determine where we should commence our hunt. Reliable first-hand information was spotty, but all leads seemed to end in Crawford County where, in 2002, a wayward Texas entrepreneur had allegedly released a number of pigs in a misguided attempt to create a recreational hunting population. In the years since, a number of hunters had tried their luck stalking the pigs, some with more success than others. A number had been harvested during the gun-deer season, but efforts to target the hogs directly had proven so daunting a task that it seemed most of the local outdoors folk had washed there hands of the practice. To illustrate just how elusive these creatures can be, we heard from a number of local residents that they had never in their entire lives seen one.
Adding to the list of challenges, I had read accounts in which local residents were reluctant to cooperate with hunters. It had been widely reported that in the years following the pigs’ initial release, the area had been flooded with droves of sportsmen eager for a new kind of hunt. In a classic case of a few ruining it for the rest, a number of overzealous hunters had reportedly cut fences, trespassed and left pig carcasses to rot in the fields. Following these unfortunate instances, the local residents had understandably had enough.
Furthermore, I had encountered stories of contentious town-hall meetings colored by unpleasant exchanges between local hunters and state officials regarding the management of the feral pigs. As a result of the pigs’ destructive effect on local species and agriculture (and especially in light of the region’s economic reliance on its renowned apple crop as well as its pristine trout streams) the DNR and others argued that the pigs should be eradicated. Conversely, some residents felt the population posed little threat, representing a hunting opportunity unique in Wisconsin’s northern clime. As details surfaced, a picture of a community divided became increasingly clear, casting further doubt on how our efforts might be received.
But we remained cautiously optimistic. Our hope was that the recent 12 inches of February snowfall would provide tracking opportunities while simultaneously limiting the pigs’ movement. With the help of DNR wildlife biologist Dave Matheys, we had narrowed the search to a circular area with a diameter of five miles, the heart of which was the village of Gays Mills. In addition, I had spoken with a local resident who had successfully hunted the pigs with the help of hounds. Bob offered several suggestions and tips, encouraging us to begin our search in a valley just east of Gays Mills.
The majority of the first day was spent glassing hillsides, searching for pig tracks in the fresh snow along area roads, and visiting the sparse peppering of local gas stations, shops and taverns in an attempt to gather intel regarding the pigs’ whereabouts. Somewhat to our surprise, the stories about cold receptions received by other hunters seemed unfounded. We were generally greeted warmly, and residents were friendly and forthcoming, if a bit amused by our rag-tag operation.
Most locals informed us that the pig population had dwindled in recent years, which was consistent with Dave Matheys’ estimate that the known number hovered around a dozen, although he also hinted that unsighted pockets of pigs likely remained. To our delight the area watering holes were brimming with information and as the day went on, stories surfaced of a 350+ pound hog that had been spotted days earlier descending a ridge in the very valley we had been scouring. Satisfied that we were on the right track, and emboldened by more than a few pints of draught, we retreated to our hotel room to prognosticate and plan what was sure to be a brilliant success.
After spending the following morning canvassing the area roads and investigating a number of potential hotspots, we were ready to take leave of the vehicles and organize a drive on foot. Based on a number of reports, we had narrowed the search area down to a trio of ridges that plunged dramatically into a dense creek bottom. The ridges were crowned by a large apple orchard, the owner of which had generously given us permission to walk the property. Not only were we in the area where the large hog had been spotted days earlier, but we had also discovered fresh pig tracks leading from the dense valley into the orchard. It was clear that the pigs had been feeding on frozen apples during the night.
As we prepared to walk from ridge to creek, we readied our menagerie of firearms. Anticipating long field shots, I had selected a Remington 30-06 rifle with a Bushnell scope. A .35 Remington and Browning 12 gauge fitted for slugs were also among the lot. Buck’s firearm of choice, illustrating his continued seriousness, was a WWII era M1 carbine that had belonged to his grandfather. Buck informed us that the weapon had 18 registered kills.
The drive proved problematic. Of all the considerations we had made, we failed to plan for walking in deep snow. Snowshoes would have easily remedied this problem, but we had failed to pack any. The difficulty of the walk made heavy winter clothing cumbersome and hot. The drive ended in a collective airing of grievances, a deluge of profanities echoing through the valley as four sweat-drenched, belligerent, gun-toting hunters emerged from the forest angry and exhausted. As the sun dipped behind the ridge-line, the harsh realization that we were sorely underprepared began to set in.
But all was not yet lost. Not only had several of the guys found fresh pig tracks, but Buck had found fresh feces, the hard evidence of which he procured from his pocket, waving the frozen log in front of the group for all to see. At least Buck’s enthusiasm had escaped the drive unscathed. The numerous tracks coupled with the fresh droppings meant we were no doubt getting closer. But we were running out of time with only one day left. As had become our custom, we retreated to the hotel bar to rehydrate, peer at one another through the bottoms of pint glasses, and plan our final push.
On the third and final day, we headed back to the ridge-line for one last drive, this time planning to employ the snowmobile to deposit each hunter at a certain point before beginning the drive. By doing this, we could eliminate several hundred yards of preemptive trudging per man, and conserve our energy for the actual drive. I was to be the first one dropped off, so I climbed aboard behind Buck and we set out.
The snow was powdery and light, and the machine labored to plow a fresh track. Just as we reached the drop-point, the right snowmobile ski caught the side of a large drift and the entire machine lurched abruptly to the right, sending Buck and I barreling into the aforementioned snowbank. We were both unscathed, but the snowmobile had sustained major damage. A deluge of profanity drifted over the orchard, a stark contrast to the otherwise idyllic winter scene. Buck wrestled to free the snowmobile, and finally the two of us dragged it to a flat area where we could run a full diagnostic. The news was bad. The snowmobile was had blown a piston and was immobile. Even with the help of another snowmobile or two we could not drag it out; the snow was simply too deep.
The hunt was over.
Two hours later, with the help of a trail-groomer and two generous snowmobilers, the sled was back on the trailer, surrounded by a moping group of disappointed hunters. Knowing there would not be enough daylight for another drive we resigned ourselves to defeat. We solemnly packed the vehicles as a bitter wind whipped across the top of the ridge.
“Damn-it, we were close fellas,” I offered in consolation. “Another day and we might have at least spotted one and got on a track.
Maybe we should consider coming back after most of the snow has thawed. Maybe wait for a March snowfall so we could get on a trail.”
The guys nodded silently. Finally, as had so often been the case through the course of our pig odyssey, Buck offered a few wise words.:
“We learned a lot guys. Hell, we came here with nothing more than a circle on a map. We were close. Now we know what we need to do next time.” Even in defeat, Buck was magnanimous. Matt, Ben and I shook his hand as we climbed into our respective vehicles to head back to our two very different worlds, he to the sprawling forests of northeast Wisconsin and we to the urban sprawl of the Windy City. As we pulled off the gravel road and onto the highway, I couldn’t help but smile to myself.