|Bones Henderson and a feral hog|
James “Bones” Henderson is a hired killer, a bounty hunter to be exact. He has a normal day job at TxDOT, but after hours is when he gets down to serious business. Bones has agreed let me tag along while he goes hunting for feral hogs. A rifle equipped with silencer and telescopic sight is racked on the front windshield of his Polaris Ranger. Between the seats is a box of .308 Winchester cartridges, sniper bullets famous for long range accuracy. As we barrel through the brush, switchgrass taller than the vehicle whips through the open sides against my shoulder. While scanning the horizon for his prey, Bones chats congenially about his past, sharing details that most people wouldn’t share with a new acquaintance, especially not one that writes for a newspaper. He’s got nothing to hide, and he’s happy when he’s hunting.
Feral hogs are the same species as domestic pigs, Sus scrofa. Both are descended from the Eurasian wild boar brought to the New World by explorers as early as the 1500s. They are not the same as the native javelinas, found in south Texas. Feral hogs are a growing agricultural nuisance, causing $52 million worth of damage every year. They also carry diseases such as brucellosis and tularemia, which can be spread to domestic swine or, rarely, even to humans.
Bones has been hunting feral hogs professionally in Milam and Williamson Counties ever since he left home at age 16, killing or catching an average of 250 to 300 hogs a month. In a good month he gets over 400 hogs, using any means possible. He shoots them from helicopters, chases them with dogs, and captures them live in baited traps. All methods are legal, except poison. But 22 years of diligent hunting has not decreased the population; there are more hogs now than when he started. Texas is the epicenter of the hog boom with an estimated 2.6 million head. Without enough mountain lions and coyotes to keep the numbers down, people are the only significant predator for the hogs. To keep the population stable would require the removal of 66% of all hogs every year. Sport hunting is not getting the job done.
Rolling up a hill we spook a family group of several sows and more than a dozen babies, some of them no bigger than puppies. We jump out of the Ranger and about 30 hogs run panicked in all directions. The biggest sows outweigh me by 30 or 40 pounds. Luckily for the hogs, Bones is trying to help us get a good picture and the gun stays in the car. This group escapes. Within eight months some of those babies will have litters of their own. Some sows have two litters a year, averaging five or six piglets per litter.
(It would be ethically inconsistent not to point out that there are ten human beings for every feral hog in Texas, and we are guilty of some significant environmental damage of our own, but that is not the subject of this narrative.)
We spot another group grazing on a nearby hill. Bones gets out of the Ranger, this time with his rifle. He walks a little closer, but the hogs see him and take off. From 175 yards, with the hogs at a dead run, Bones shoots three times and hits three hogs. I saw this with my own eyes. The first one was shot through the head. The second hog dropped, but is not dead. Normally Bones would finish it off with his knife, but he decides that might be too graphic for a lady journalist. He shoots it again, and then takes a picture with his phone. His client will pay him $5.00 for proof of this dead hog, but he just used $4.00 worth of ammunition to kill it. The third hog, wounded, has disappeared into the tall grass without a confirmatory photograph. I ask how his client knows that he doesn’t just take several photos of one hog. Bones says he would never do that; he doesn’t want any bad karma coming back at him.
Back in the Ranger, Bones shows me his custom-made knife with a deer antler handle. The 12 inch blade was fashioned from the leaf spring of a pickup truck. The handle and shank have a patina of old hog blood, but the tip is sharp and clean. For a quick kill Bones shoves it through the armpit right into the heart.
It is far more profitable to catch the hogs alive. He can sell live hogs to a buyer who will pay $25 for a 100 pound, undamaged hog. A big boar with tusks is worth $100. Bones shows us a large circular trap where he caught 22 hogs at one time, but this evening it is empty. The grass is so lush this spring that the hogs are not tempted by the sour corn bait.
Trapping requires patience. Bones’s preferred method of capturing live hogs is hunting with dogs. He outfits his five Catahoula Leopard dogs with Kevlar vests and thick collars that protect their necks from razor sharp tusks. Also attached to the collars are GPS tracking devices. When the dogs find a hog they surround it; one dog grabs hold of each ear, while a third goes for a hind leg. They hold the hog down until Bones arrives and ties the hog up rodeo-style. Bones has a pen at his house in Thorndale where he keeps hogs for a week after a dog hunt so any wounds can heal up. He can’t sell them to the buyer until it’s clear that they have survived the dog bites.
The hogs aren’t the only ones who can get bitten. In February Bones was trying to hog-tie a 300 pound boar. He lost his grip on the hind leg for a split second, giving the boar just enough time to turn and plunge his 3 inch tusk deep into Bones’s right knee joint, tearing the meniscus. Even the dogs were stunned, and watched in amazement as the boar inflicted a few more wounds before escaping.
The sixth trap we check finally has a young female in it, about 65 pounds. She hurls herself at the bars of the cage so fiercely that cuts appear on her snout. Bones takes a small lasso of rope and dangles it through the top of the cage until her neck and one foreleg are caught. He pulls her up tight to the wire, still thrashing wildly, hands the rope to my husband Bill and says, “Hold on to this and don’t let go.” Opening the trap he crawls in to grab the hog’s hind leg. He drags her out and kneels on her neck. Still fighting, she lets out a blood-curdling squeal while Bones ties her legs together and puts another loop around her lower jaw. Bones is 6’5” and this is just a small hog so he picks her up and tosses her in the back of the Ranger, tying her snout to the frame right behind my seat. She is trembling and breathing very fast. I touch a bit of her coarse fur, far from the sharp end, and she jumps. She will get some nice corn in Bones’s pen, but eventually she will end up as bacon in a meat market in Europe or China, where the demand for wild game is high.
Feral hogs make delicious pork, at least the sows do. The big boars have a gamy scent. The meat is so lean that Bones says you have to add fat just to make gravy. He doesn’t eat it anymore, though. Years of killing them have blunted his appetite for hog meat. He admits it’s a shame, but the hogs he shoots just lie in the field. Butchering is too much work and people would rather eat the fat, lazy hogs raised and slaughtered in factory farms. I am mostly vegetarian, but I would rather eat a hog that had a nice pig life in this beautiful countryside, and then ended up with one really bad day.
I have heard that sport hunters will pay hundreds of dollars for the chance to kill a trophy boar, so I ask Bones if he ever takes those clients. He says he has, but he really doesn’t like “babysitting,” as he calls it. He would rather just get his work done efficiently and go home. He seemed to enjoy giving us a tour of his territory, but acknowledges that if we hadn’t tagged along he would have shot at least 25 more hogs. It is dark when he drops us off at our car, but Bones gets out and checks the knots on his lone captive. He can get caught up on his quota tomorrow; there are lots more where she came from.