October 2014
Outdoor Life

Going “Hog Wild” in South Alabama

 
For Joey Flowers, hog dog hunting is more than just a family sport or a means of controlling the exploding hog population. He sees it as part of his heritage and a way of life that should be revered and preserved. Above, hog dog hunting is a family affair where fathers pass on traditions to their children. (Credit: Joey Flowers)  

Some hog dog hunters see their hunting as both a recreational sport and a way to help landowners rid their property of destructive pests.

Joey Flowers hunts with his dogs along the rivers in Baldwin and Mobile counties on private property, hunting clubs and farmland just like his daddy and his granddaddy before him. For Flowers, a hog dog hunter from Bay Minette, hunting is a way of life.

"If I’m not hunting," laughed Flowers, "I’m thinking about it!"

In South Alabama, hunters have always used dogs to hunt deer, raccoons, fox, rabbits and squirrels. But now, with the influx of destructive feral hogs, farmers and landowners have turned to dog owners for help.

Hogs have become more than just nuisances. Chris Jaworowski, wildlife biologist with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, said that from 1982 to 2014 the number of states reporting problems with hog populations more than tripled. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates over $1.5 billion dollars annually in damages to agriculture and the environment. Wild hog populations have grown so rapidly that locals jokingly refer to them as "four-legged fire ants."

Hogs root and wallow, tearing up farm land, hunting preserves and forestland in just a few days. Hogs also compete with whitetail deer and other game animals for acorns and native plants, thereby reducing game populations. They damage and destroy deer feeders. Once feral hogs frequent the feeders, deer and other wildlife will avoid the area. They will also feed on the young such as fawns, ground nesting birds, reptiles and even young livestock – anything they can catch. Wild hogs eat the eggs of turkeys and quail, reducing the number of birds in many areas.

 
  Don Bradford hunts in Syrene (Clarke County) and along the Alabama River. He hunts with his children and grandchildren. In his logging business, he sees firsthand the damage done by feral hogs. (Credit: Don Bradford)

With the large numbers of hogs now in this area, management and control have become top priorities for dealing with the pests.

"Only a multi-faceted control program will decrease hog populations due to their extremely high reproductive rates and lack of natural predators," explained Jaworowski. "Studies suggest that 80 percent of a population must be removed just to keep the populations from continuing to grow."

Since hunters can legally hunt hogs every day of the year with no harvest restrictions on private land, many owners have turned to hog dog hunters to try to manage the increasing numbers of feral hogs.

For Flowers, hog dog hunting is more than just a family sport or a means of controlling the exploding hog population. He sees it as part of his heritage and a way of life that should be revered and preserved. Recently, Flowers and other hunters organized the Alabama Hog Dog Hunters Association. Flowers was elected president of the statewide organization, working to preserve the traditions and heritage of hunting wild feral hogs with dogs in Alabama. The group wants to improve laws and regulations regarding this type of hunting while bringing a more positive light to hunting hogs with dogs. They want to show the public how well dog hunters help to control the feral hog population. The members do not condone nor will they tolerate bad dog-hunting ethics within their association. AHDHA members must also abide by all local, state and federal hunting laws, rules and regulations at all times. The organization is rapidly gaining members and now has its own Facebook page. They recently met to elect officers and appoint representatives from each district. One of their upcoming events will be a two-day hunt with the Wounded Warrior Project.

Hog dog hunting often follows in the traditions of the once-popular foxhunts in South Alabama. Often, families gather to enjoy the festive atmosphere of the hunt with food and fun for the children. Those who hunt the river areas may bring campers or tents for a weekend of camping, swimming and boating with the whole family. Flowers pointed out that hog dog hunters are preserving an American way of life as both parents and grandparents join together to pass on traditions and stories of past hunts.

Hog dog hunting also has a major impact on the area’s economy. Hunters spend thousands of dollars on dogs, GPS equipment, ATVs, four-wheel drive vehicles, trailers and other supplies. At a recent hunt in Clarke County, Don Bradford of Syrene estimated the hunters attending that hunt had pumped over $600,000 into the economy.

 
Brandon Allen, right, and John Puckett with the 470-pound wild hog they hunted with their dogs. (Credit: Brandon Allen)  

"That’s not counting gas, dog food, snacks, Ranger repairs, vet bills and the list goes on," Bradford added.

The relationship between a dog hunter and his dogs is very special. Often, a hunter will own generations of dogs, carefully bred for either baying or catching. They may run many different breeds of dogs on one hunt such as curs for baying and bulldogs for catching. Plotts, catahoulas, boxers and walkers are other breeds favored by hoggers. These dogs sell for thousands of dollars, and owners invest heavily in keeping them healthy.

The thrill of the chase and the excitement of the catch are only part of the hunt. The safety of both the hunter and his dog is always a major concern.

"There are a lot of risks when hog hunting with dogs," Flowers explained. "Snakes, spiders, alligators and, of course, a wild hog charging at you are some of the dangers. We, as hog hunters, know and understand the risks each time we go, but, from experience, we know how to deal with each one thrown at us."

New technologies have added another level of safety for both hoggers and their dogs. ATVs have replaced horses as the preferred means of travelling into dense, thicker areas, making it much safer for both the hunter and his dog. Using their smartphones to follow GPS tracking devices on the dogs’ collars, owners are able to know where their dogs are located at all times. Flowers believes that all sports harbor some danger, but he is convinced he and his fellow hog dog hunters make safety their number one priority.

 
  Bubba McCandless congratulates his son, Zach McCandless, after sticking a pig.

Hog dog hunting does have its critics, however. Many think the sport is both cruel and dangerous. These critics believe that trapping, sterilization and other more high-tech methods would not only be more humane, but also more effective. Some experts say that hunters who capture and transport hogs increase the problems. Trappers believe that using dogs makes the pigs much wilder and therefore harder to trap. They also point out that many more hogs are caught with baited traps.

Flowers counters his critics by pointing out that he and his fellow hoggers kill 100 percent of the hogs they catch. He estimated that about 90 percent of the hogs he has killed were donated to churches and charity food banks. The other 10 percent were given to family members or friends who prize the meat. He explained that using dogs is the only means of reaching hogs in some of the dense, swampy areas where he hunts. Flowers believes that hunting with dogs is ethical, cost effective and successful in controlling feral hogs.

The debate over the best control methods will undoubtedly go on. But one thing is clear: hog dog hunting continues to grow and gain popularity, especially with younger hunters. The exhilaration of the chase, the surge of adrenalin at the catch, the camaraderie and fellowship of the hunt, and the passing of family traditions beckon young and old, male and female to join the hunt.

"It can be addictive," Flowers laughed. "If you try it one time, you’ll come back. I love it! I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing."

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville.