By Luke Clayton
There's an adage that has become popular in the past decade that states: “There are two types of ranches in Texas — those that have wild hogs and those that are about to get them.” Although Texas has the largest number of wild hogs in the country, there are definitely “hot spots” where hog numbers are concentrated and where the porkers cause considerable damage.
But to say the entire state has a “hog problem,” would be an exaggeration.
Swine were first introduced to the southeastern United States in the 1500s. Hogs were extremely hardy and easy to transport in the ships of the day, and the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto thought it a good idea to bring his pork with him and release hogs along the Florida coastline so that a ready supply of meat would be available on subsequent explorations.
Ol’ Hernando must have known something about the survival and reproductive capabilities of hogs. He obviously knew that once released, even that first stocking of domestic hogs could fend for themselves.
De Soto was not only a brilliant navigator for his day but a pretty smart hog farmer as well. From that original stocking along the Florida coast, the once-domestic hogs did what hogs do everywhere: they reproduced quickly. Eventually, their numbers spilled over to what are now neighboring states, and the offspring became wilder with each generation.
DOMESTIC TO WILD
In the early 1800s, Texas had an influx of An- glo settlers, as well as Mexican families that had lived for many years on the frontier that would become Texas. Like De Soto had done 300 years before in Florida, many of them brought their pork with them and for the same reasons.
Domestic hogs were present in Texas in respectable numbers on isolated homesteads early in that century, and by the time of the battle of the Alamo in 1836, the seed stock for the feral population we have today was well established.
Thanks to raiding Comanches and the Mexican Army, many Texas settlers in remote areas abandoned their farmsteads, often in a hurry, leaving their livestock, which usually consisted of a full pen of hogs, to fend for themselves. These “Texas” porkers, just like De Soto’s hogs, quickly adapted to the wild and established self- sustaining populations.
By the Civil War, wild hogs were present along the drainages of most major rivers in the central and eastern regions, and, because of the disruptions caused by the war, farmers once again abandoned many of their domestic porkers. Wild hogs had gained a strong foothold in the Lone Star State, and their numbers held steady as more and more settlers moved into the remote regions of Texas.
Releasing domestic hogs to live off the land was a common practice with farmers well into the twentieth century. During the summer and fall, hogs were allowed to roam the countryside around farms, living off the land and obviously saving the farmers the cost of feed. In the summer, they ate well on wild fruit and tubers, and once wild pecans, acorns, and hickory nuts be- gan hitting the ground in the fall, the hogs were supplied with an abundance of highly nutritious food.
OLD-TIME HOG FARMING
Farmers back then built sturdy catch pens, usually constructed of native logs, and once the nuts were gone, it was time to round up their hogs and feed them corn for a couple of months before selling or butchering them. I recall stum- bling across some of these old catch pens in rural Red River County, where I was raised back in the late-1950s.
The pens were built with a wide gate, and stock dogs, such as the Catahoula, were used to find and pen the hogs. When I was a boy, I’d listened to old-timers talk about how they baited these catch pens with corn for a couple of weeks before they planned to pen the hogs. From all accounts, it was pretty easy for a farmer to lo- cate his hogs using this baiting method.
To determine ownership of these domestic, free-ranging swine, farmers would cut marks into the hog’s ear during the summer, often while they were small pigs and easy to handle. Each farmer in a particular region had his own mark, and woe be it unto anyone who didn’t re- spect these ownership marks.
I’ve heard tales of serious confrontations that occurred when farmers kept hogs that did not have their mark. After all, back in those days, hogs were a valuable commodity that, because of their hardy nature, were well suited to living on frontier homesteads.
Each year, a few hogs escaped a farmer’s round up and, true to their nature, they quickly established sounders (groups of 10 to 20 hogs). These first-generation wild hogs would con- tinue mixing with domestic hogs, but through the years, they moved deeper into the creek and river bottoms and eventually lost all contact with man. They became truly wild animals that depended on their adaptability and cunning to survive.
People who have been around swine, domes- tic or wild, know how smart they are. Some ani- mal behaviorists rate them third in intelligence in the animal kingdom; others rate them fourth. Regardless, their intelligence always comes in just below primates, dolphins, and dogs.
No doubt, the longer these escapee porkers stayed in the wild, the better adept they became at avoiding man and making a living off the land.
EURASIAN BOARS ARRIVE
Pure Eurasian or Russian boars were intro- duced to the United States in 1912 on a preserve in Hooper Bald, North Carolina, and possibly as early as the late 1800s in Connecticut, although details on this earlier stocking are sketchy. Around 1930, sportsmen began stocking them on ranches in the Texas Hill Country.
With their long, powerful snouts, boars have a way of going under or through most fences. So, these pure strains of Eurasians were des- tined to occasionally escape their enclosures and breed with the local feral or free-ranging hogs.
Seasoned hunters have been known to say, “That boar I shot down in Texas last winter was pure Russian.” Or, “There was this big old Russian that put me up a tree while I was deer hunting in Florida.” But the truth is that free-ranging hogs are not of pure Eurasian lineage. The exception would be an escapee from a stocked preserve of pure Eurasian boars in an area without any feral hogs, which is an unlikely scenario.
Studies have tried to differentiate pure Eurasian boars from feral hogs and hybrids. The most accurate identification method is taking seven skull measurements. Eurasian boars have a longer skull and other subtle differences from feral hogs and hybrids. It takes a trained biologist to make the determination and even they sometimes are unsure.
In many sounders of wild hogs, pigs are born with longitudinal stripes down their bodies. This was once believed to be the acid test for Eurasian hogs, but biologists have since proved that feral hogs and hybrids also can have these stripes. It’s a mystery, even to biologists, why these stripes appear on some hogs only after several generations of living in the wild. Even some domestic hogs that run free for generations develop this striped appearance at birth, which is just another fascinating thing about this great game animal.
One trait difference between Eurasian hogs and domestic swine is their bristles. Eurasian’s bristles are light colored at the base over most of its body with dark brown to black solid-colored tips. The Eurasian also has a lighter colored outline around its mouth and snout and appears to be more “woolly” than feral hogs.
It is amazing to see pigs, often from the same litter, with vastly different physical characteristics. Some look identical to domestic hogs, others have long snouts, long guard hairs on their backs, and the rangy look of the razorback.
Pure Eurasian boars that are stocked on big high-fenced preserves in East Texas look and act differently from feral hogs. They appear to stand taller in the front end and have a great deal more hair. Rather than running up to a corn feeder to eat, as most feral hogs do, the boars skirt the brush around the feeder, giving the entire area a thorough look with their eyes and nose before coming in to feed. Hunters wanting to hunt true Eurasian boar in the United States will have to find a preserve that is stocked with the pure strain. Those wishing to hunt free-ranging Eurasians will have to plan a trip to Europe or Russia and hunt them in their native surroundings.
WILD HOGS TODAY
Texas now has an estimated population of about three million wild hogs but, given their high reproductive rate, the actual number could be much higher, and it probably is. Consider that a gilt (a young sow) can breed at six months of age with a gestation period of 114 days, or around four months. Most litters are from four to ten piglets, but mature sows often have litters with up to twelve piglets.
If a sow has a litter of eight piglets, probably half (four) are female. At six months, these gilts breed, and, in another four months, these young sows give birth to litters that average eight pig- lets. It’s easy to see how wild hog numbers have increased dramatically.
Hunters themselves are somewhat responsible for the increase in wild hog numbers during the past three decades. Years ago, before laws were passed governing such things, a few of my hunting buddies and I introduced wild pigs onto a lease we were hunting. To this day, the hogs roaming the creek bottoms in this remote area reflect the predominately red coloration of that original stock. They may even have a little “Russian” blood mixed into the gene pool from stockings of other hunters with the same idea 30 years ago.
Pods of wild hogs are showing up in many states that previously had none, and controlling their numbers or eradicating them — which is highly unlikely — is the goal of state wildlife departments. With all of the wild pork roaming the Lone Star State, out-of-state hunters are often grossly misled by what they see on television or in outdoors magazines.
They think they can come to Texas, and ranchers and farmers will welcome them onto their land to remove hogs for free. Land in Texas is about 95-percent privately owned, and there is limited hog hunting available on public land. So, most visiting hunters find outfitters that offer hunts on preserves and big low-fenced ranches.
Mark Balette, a good friend who owns B&C Outfitters in Trinity County in East Texas, says he frequently gets calls from hunters from up north or back east who offer to come to his ranch and help him reduce his hog numbers.
“I tell them that, yes, we do have an abun- dance of wild hogs in Texas,” said Balette, “and I keep my place well stocked, but that there is a limit of hogs included in the price of the hunt on my place or any other preserve I know of.” Most free-range ranches also limit the number of hogs taken, he said.
When it comes to hunting, wild hogs are a valuable commodity that preserve owners purchase from trappers. Granted, some wild hogs actually live and reproduce within the confines of a fenced preserve, but most of the hogs are wild trapped and stocked.
The Texas Hog Hunters Association is devoted to everything related to wild hogs and is a great place to learn about controlling wild hog numbers through hunting, trapping, and aerial gunning; www.texashha.com.
Countless hunters consider the wild hog the state’s number one hunting challenge and excellent table fare. But we also know their numbers must be kept in check.
In February 2017, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller approved of the use of Warfarin, a drug taken by heart patients to reduce the risk of stroke, to poison hogs. The commissioner’s plan stirred up a hornet’s nest among hunters and outdoors types. Many viable questions were brought to light, such as what would be the impact on the environment and on predators, such as eagles and buzzards, that eat the carcasses of poisoned hogs?
Through a combined effort of the Texas Hog Hunters Association, Wild Boar Meat Com- pany (a company licensed to buy and process wild hogs), and thousands of hunters and environmentalists, a bill was introduced in the 85th Texas Legislature requiring more study on the impact of this drug to our ecosystem. Although the bill did not become law, it led to the tabling of this measure, so Warfarin is not being used in Texas on the feral hog population.
Game meat is healthful because of its low fat content and lack of chemicals, but it does require different cooking techniques than those used on more tender and usually fattier cuts of domestic meats. For example, venison is very lean and what fat there is should be removed. It’s the fat that sometimes contributes to the “gamey” taste some folks don’t like. I am often asked questions such as “are wild hogs good to eat” or “doesn’t venison have that ‘gamey’ taste.” My reply: “If you were going to a hog farm to purchase your pork chops, would you choose the oldest boar?” Likewise, you wouldn’t choose an older bull for steak. Younger game animals in good condition obviously make better table fare than older ones. But if prepared properly, venison from older bucks can be good. I use center ham cuts, tenderloins, and back- straps for steaks, and grind the rest for sausage or add beef fat to make venison burgers.
Because of its dry nature, larger cuts of venison must be cooked with moisture. Slow cooking at low temperature is the key to preparing roasts from game animals. The meat falls off the bone and is well received at the dinner table.
- 1. Season the roast well with any favorite dry seasonings and a couple of bay leaves.
- 2. Using a sharp knife, make incisions into the roast and insert pieces of bacon and slivers of garlic, onion, and/or jalapeno pepper.
- 3. Cover with slices of fatty bacon and a little butter.
- 4. Place in a covered cast iron kettle and bake slowly for about 10 hours at 200 degrees.
- 5. Add carrots, potatoes, and onions a couple hours before serving.
Making barbecue from larger cuts is another great way to please a crowd at hunting camp or home. I use a Smokin’ Tex electric smoker, which is an easy, carefree method for tenderizing larger, tougher cuts of meat. It makes some of the best tasting, most tender barbecue. I often smoke cuts of wild hog, which have flavorful fat, with venison and blend the two for chopped barbecue.
- 1. Place the roast in a double layer of heavy duty aluminum foil.
- 2. Add barbecue sauce.
- 3. Smoke uncovered a couple hours using hickory, plum, peach, or pecan wood.
- 4. Wrap in the foil and smoke at 200 de- grees up to 12 hours or overnight.
CHICKEN FRIED STEAK
Chicken fried venison steak is better tasting than the best beef round steak.
- 1. Pound steaks with a tenderizing mallet, adding dry seasonings during the pro- cess (salt, pepper, garlic powder, or commercial spice mix).
- 2. Cover steaks with milk and refrigerate several hours.
- 3. Remove from milk and dust with the flour.
- 4. Fry in hot oil in a cast iron skillet for 3 or 4 minutes on each side. Drain.
- 5. Chop and sauté an onion in a little of the remaining oil.
- For smothered steak:
- 6. Add a large can of mushroom soup to the pan and add a can of water.
- 7. Return steaks to the pan and cover with a lid.
- 8. Bake in oven or cook on stove top over low heat for an hour or so to tenderize.
- 9. Serve with hot rice and hot dinner rolls.
If you’ve ever had a duck dinner that tasted like “liver,” chances are the cook didn’t know how to prepare and cook ducks and geese. It’s the blood in the meat of waterfowl that can give it the strong, liver-like flavor. Years ago, an elderly lady who was a superb game good instructed me in the proper way to prepare duck and goose breasts.
- 1. Remove and butterfly the breast halves.
- 2. Place in cold water and, using your hands, squeeze the meat, which helps remove the blood.
- Or, use a mallet to tenderize the breast halves, and then place in cold water.
- 3. Wrap in fatty bacon and grill, bake, or prepare like chicken fried steak.
- 4. Baste with barbecue sauce, if desired.
- 5. Serve with hot biscuits and cream gravy.
Quail and dove can be prepared and fried like chicken. My late friend, outdoors writer Bob Hood, used this method, which is the best I’ve found. The Ritz cracker coating is crunchy and adds a flavor to game birds.
- 1. Place Ritz crackers (as many as needed) in a plastic bag and crush into fine meal.
- 2. In a Dutch oven, melt a stick of butter and coat the quail pieces (or chicken wings).
- 3. Coat quail pieces with the Ritz meal.
- 4. Bake for about 1 hour until the quail turn golden brown.
I grew up on a farm in Northeast Texas and, from a very young age, watched my dad cure hams and bacon from domestic hogs that we raised. He also devoted a day to “sausage making,” and cranked out not only breakfast sausage but smoked links, as well. Thanks to what I recall from my dad and from studying “how-to” books, I’ve made breakfast sausage and smoked links for many years.
Breakfast or “pan” sausage is the easiest sausages to make. All that’s needed is ground meat and seasonings, either pre-mixed seasonings or your own blend. Some mixes contain more hot pepper, and others, more sage. Experiment to discover what you like. “Test” fry a sausage patty after adding some seasoning. You can always make your sausage spicier, but once added, you can’t take it out.
Exact rations of pork to venison also can vary. For a very lean sausage, use a blend of 75 percent venison to 25 percent pork. Quality cuts of wild pork can be used.
Grind the meat at home or have a game processor do it and package the meat in one- or two-pound portions.
- 1. In a large mixing bowl, blend seasonings or a prepared spice packet with the ground meat.
- 2. Wrap in one-pound packages and freeze until needed.
You will need a sausage stuffer (funnel) for the meat grinder when stuffing smaller links into casings and some way to slow smoke the meat in the casings. When slow smoking at low temperatures, use a cure with your seasonings. The cure may be included with the seasoning packets. Mix the seasonings and cure with the ground meat a day before stuffing into casings and place in the refrigerator. This gives the meat time to absorb the cure and the seasonings.
I use a Smokin’ Tex electric smoker to make sausage. Wood-fired smokers work well but require more attention than electric models to maintain the right temperature.
- 1. Put wood pieces in the smoke box.
- 2. Set the thermostat at 140 degrees to slow smoke.
- 3. Increase the heat slowly until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degree.
- 4. After five or six hours, increase the heat to 180 degrees for an hour to make sure the meat is at or just above 160 degrees.
- 5. Remove sausage from the smoker and spray with cold water to “bloom.” This keeps air bubbles from forming between the sausage and the casing.