INDIANOLA — Johnny Heskett's eyes are always scanning for tracks. One hand on the wheel of his all-terrain vehicle, the other hand holding a cigarette, and eyes constantly checking the ground for hog tracks. Occasionally he stops and gets out.
“See, these tracks are more spread out, means it's a big one,” Heskett, owner of Heskett Hog Hunting in McAlester, says as he bends down. “Last weekend one of our dogs got torn up pretty bad by a big hog. They can be pretty nasty.”
Feral hogs can be found in all 77 Oklahoma counties, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
Feral hogs are domestic swine that mated with wild boars many years ago, and the population of wild hogs has risen since. The earliest records of feral hogs in Oklahoma are from the south-central and southeastern portions of the state. They have spread over the last 40 years.
It's difficult to estimate how many feral hogs inhabit the state because they reproduce so quickly, said Russell Stevens of the Noble Foundation.
“They can have up to two litters per year, with four to 10 young being born in each litter,” he said.
A 2007 statewide survey by the Noble Foundation estimated there were as many as 500,000 feral hogs in Oklahoma.
Source of problems
Feral hogs have become a problem for landowners because they tear up land and eat food intended for livestock. Hogs destroy crops by rooting or rolling around in and trampling crop land. The most extensive crop damage occurs at planting time or when the crop is nearly mature, Stevens said. Hogs also have been known to prey on livestock, usually young lambs or goats.
The Agriculture Department in June announced several rule changes affecting tracking and transporting of feral hogs that will go into effect Nov. 1. A system referred to as Judas pig tracking will allow hunters to capture a hog and put a tracking device around its neck. The hog then is released into a controlled area where it joins a herd of hogs. Hunters then will track, capture and remove the hogs.
“It's just another tool in the arsenal for hunters and tracking a large group of hogs,” Stevens said.
The amended Feral Swine Control Act prohibits importing feral swine for any reason except sending them to a slaughter facility in a sealed trailer. Also, livestock markets have been removed from the list of facilities where feral swine may be sold. Live feral swine may only be sold to licensed handling facilities, licensed sporting facilities and slaughter facilities.
Heskett said the provisions can only help hunters alleviate the feral hog problem for landowners.
“They don't care how it's done, they just want the hogs out of there,” Heskett said. “We get to do something we enjoy doing, and they get rid of a problem.”
On a recent Friday night, Heskett, 27, and his guide, Josh Kinsey, 22, hunt along the South Canadian River outside of Indianola.
A pair of hog tracks walks along the left side of Heskett's neck, a tattoo he got two years ago. He has hog bones in his yard and a hog head hanging in his house.
“Pretty much looks like a redneck's house,” he says with a grin as he packs a sack of corn, a jug of diesel and a bottle of syrup into the back of the four-wheeler.
The two are trying out a new trapping technique, and the ingredients are the bait. Heskett starts the motor. Kinsey, a Remington on his lap, drops into the passenger seat. The hunters drive down a hill onto the banks of the South Canadian River.
As they drive, they look to the dirt for clues of where to head next. Many sets of tracks they find are too old or lead nowhere.
About a mile down the bank, Heskett stops at a grove of trees to set up his first of five snares. He ties one end of the metal snare to a tree, leaving the looped end hanging a couple feet from the ground, high enough to catch a 150-pound hog. He pours a few cups of corn, a couple shots of diesel and a little syrup into a zipper-top bag, creating a treat only a hog could love.
“Hogs will eat anything,” Heskett says as he pours some syrup on the bag. “It's not Jack, but they like the taste.”
If all goes according to plan, a hog looking for a late night snack will grab on to the bag, pulling the snare around its snout, where it will be waiting when the hunters return the next morning. They set up four more traps in trees along the river before retiring for the night on a bed of red Oklahoma dirt.
Heskett has been hunting hogs for 15 years. He caught his first one using coyote bait and has been hooked ever since. Both hunters say hog hunting provides an adrenaline rush that is different from hunting any other animal.
“When you run up on that hog you don't know if it's going to be a 50-pound hog or a 300-pounder,” Kinsey says.
This hunt is the first time they have used snares. Heskett usually hunts with a pack of his own bay dogs, but this weekend is too hot to bring them.
Heskett trains more than 20 dogs at his home in McAlester. The dogs are trained to circle a hog and bark, signaling to Heskett to release a bulldog that will run in and grab the hog. Heskett then ties the hog's legs with rope or sticks it with a knife.
“The dogs do 90 percent of the work,” he says. “You just have to make sure you keep your dogs in good shape and kill the pig, then get your dogs home safe at the end of the hunt.”
They easily could kill seven hogs in one hunt, Heskett says.
If they catch a live hog, they will sell it to a sporting facility for guided hunts. If they kill a hog, they will clean it out for its meat or just leave it.
“A dead hog is better than a live hog,” he says.
The next day, the hunters wake at 6 a.m.
Kinsey grabs his gun, Heskett grabs a cigarette, and they head down the bank, hoping a snare has grabbed a hog. The first trap has no hog. Neither does the second. Checking all five snares, they find nothing. This hunt comes up empty, their new trapping technique in need of refining.
“Sometimes you come home with five and sometimes you don't get any,” Heskett says as he picks up the last of the snares. Next weekend they will load up the four-wheeler again and use the ground as their guide, in pursuit of feral hogs.