NEW PORT RICHEY — Two hundred yards off the trail, in a swampy thicket of bare trees and shoulder-high weeds, a chorus of dog barks echoed into the pinkish-gray twilight. The camo-clad men craning their necks from the tops of their trucks in a remote pocket of Starkey Wilderness Preserve went silent. Listening.
Then it came.
The long, guttural shriek of an embattled hog.
Armed with hand guns and daggers, they leapt from their trucks and crunched through the wall of brush, hollering while they ran.
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The hogs brought this siege upon themselves, some might say. They are a non-native species and carry 24 kinds of diseases that can spread to humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They compete with other wildlife for food. They are territorial and, in rare cases, violent. And they root, overturning football-field-sized plots of earth, disrupting natural systems and contaminating the water supply. When they breed, it gets worse.
To cut back on the population of these invasive creatures, the Southwest Florida Water Management District holds 11 hog hunts at preserves in counties it controls. The district closed Starkey Wilderness Preserve on Tuesday for the three-day feral hog hunts lasting through tonight. It handed out 55 permits to hunt 12,000 acres of the 20,000-acre preserve. Hunters had from one hour after sunset until 2 a.m. to get as many of the nocturnal hogs as they could.
Hunters use dogs to catch their game. "Bay dogs" run down the hogs and corner them. Then a "catch dog" grabs the hog by the ear and holds the squealing animal until the hunter comes to kill it.
The hunters put at least two collars on their dogs. One has a GPS honing beacon so hunters can track their dogs in the dark. The other is a thick protective collar that keeps the dog from catching a tusk to the throat.
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The men dodged hanging moss and cypress knees while they followed the hog's squeals. They found the hog in the middle of a palmetto bush, surrounded by dogs. One held the hog's ear, waiting for its master to deliver the fatal blow.
Hunters normally don't shoot the hogs because the dogs are too close. Instead, hunters use daggers. The blade goes in between the ribs to puncture the heart. They bleed out in a few minutes.
The squealing subsided. The hog's heaving came to a stop. Blood stained the palmetto. Ricky Bahatka, 23, knelt on the hog's body and called off the dogs. "Hog caught," he told them.
Bahatka looped a chain around the hog's hind hooves and dragged the hog about 200 yards back to his pickup truck.
The hog was a sow, around 80 pounds, Bahatka guessed as he hoisted it into the truck. It would make good meat, hams, rib racks or sausage. With only three days left in the season, most of the group either had freezers full of the meat or well-fed family and friends.
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The rest of the men called their dogs and loaded them into cages in their truck beds. Twilight wasted into dark. Man and dog rode down the trail in a diesel-engine convoy, deeper into the preserve.
About a mile later, barks, chirps and howls erupted from the cages. There was a scent. The convoy stopped and several of the men hustled to the back of their trucks to release the dogs, who scampered down another trail.
The men followed, but the pitted terrain slowed their running. The ground looked like a crew with pick axes had spent a day tilling the ground, a sure sign that hogs had been there.
"Oh yeah, there's wet footprints down in the damn thing," said Daryl Harmon, the group's leader, to no one in particular. "This is why they (Swiftmud) want us out here."
There were barks, then the familiar squeal.
Splashes and grunts and barks came from somewhere close. Maybe a few hundred feet away.
"Catch him up, Critter! Catch him, son!" Harmon shouted blindly in the direction of his dog. "Hear that grunting? That's a good one."
The convoy rounded the swampy area. Some of the dogs were cornering the hog, but they needed a catch dog to pin it. If the hog came out on the other side, they could head it off and release Jelly, one of the catch dogs.
But the hog didn't come out. Harmon said he got within 23 feet of it. It looked to be 250 pounds, he said. No dog could catch it.
He and his men would bag three more hogs that night. But that 250-pounder was the one that got away.