PERRY — Sitting in a tree stand at the edge of a hardwood swamp, a rifle across my lap, I listened as a herd of pigs moved through the brush.
With only one hour of daylight left, I hoped the wild hogs would move close enough so I could get off a shot. I dared not breathe, afraid the pigs might hear me, and with each tense minute that passed, the herd moved closer and closer.
Then, a big boar stopped beneath me. From 15 above him, I could see the gleam of his fine white tusks. He looked around for a moment, then sniffed the ground. Then he grunted, and the entire herd turned tail and took off into the bush.
Smart and savage
The pigs never came back. Later, walking back to my friend's pickup truck, I wondered what I had done wrong.
"They probably smelled you," Larry Hoffman told me.
Wild pigs, he explained, can't see well, but they have excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell. Then I remembered that as I climbed into the tree stand, I had spilled Gatorade on the ground.
"That's it," Hoffman said. "That spot is shot for a week. Those pigs won't come back."
Florida's feral hog, Sus scrofa, is smarter than domestic swine. These animals, brought to the New World by the explorer Hernando de Soto in 1539, have learned to survive in every habitat.
Found in all of the state's 67 counties, they are a blessing to hunters but a bane to landowners. In some areas, they are considered such a nuisance and threat to native habitats that the state organizes special hunts just to control the population.
Florida has three types of wild pigs: the free-ranging descendants of domesticated pigs, the Eurasian wild boar and the hybrid offspring of the two.
There are no wild pigs native to the Americas, although a piglike animal, the collared peccary or javelina, is found in South and Central America, ranging as far north as Texas, where it is sometimes referred to as a skunk pig or ranch rat.
Up until the mid 1900s when the policy of "open range" ended in Florida, even domesticated pigs roamed freely and were only rounded up when needed for meat. The Eurasian boar was first brought to the United States in 1896 and eventually introduced to the South.
Male hogs (boars) are bigger than female hogs (sows). A big male can weigh more than 200 pounds and have tusks up to 3-inches long.
There are isolated cases of much larger pigs, such as a 1,000-pound beast shot last year by a boy in Alabama.
Nobody knows for sure how many wild pigs there are in Florida. The animals become sexually mature and can have two litters of one to 13 piglets every year.
"Since they are not a game animal, we do not keep track of how many pigs are taken by hunters each year," said Tony Young, a media relations coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But in some parts of Florida, particularly down near Lake Okeechobee, they are more popular than deer."
Hogs are poorly equipped to deal with Florida's heat, so the only way they can cool off is to wallow in mud and water. They feed primarily on hard mast (such as acorns), but these opportunistic omnivores will also root around for other food sources as well.
"You definitely know when hogs are in an area," said Young, who also writes a column called "Outta the Woods" that is distributed free to hunters each month. "I have seen some spots that look like a field that has just been plowed."
Wild hogs not only destroy native vegetation, but they also compete for the same food that sustains native species such as whitetail deer and wild turkey.
Livestock, not game
That is why pigs on private land may be taken year round by landowners. With the landowner's permission, there is no bag limit, size limit or closed season.
Some well-managed properties, such as the private lease that I hunted south of Perry, can produce dozens of hogs each year without putting a dent in the population.
Florida's Wildlife Management Area's also offer special opportunity hunts. For information, go to www.MyFWC.com.
Without hunting, Florida's wild hog population would quickly grow out of control. Sportsmen play an important role in helping to keep this invasive species in check.