Ossabaw Island, Georgia — Codey Elrod has a job most Southern hunters would kill for. Literally.
My job,” Elrod said, “is to kill hogs.”
And he gets paid for it.
Elrod lives alone on this 40-square mile barrier island below Savannah. He works when he wants — daybreak, late afternoon, middle of the night. His office is the salt marshes, sandy beaches, maritime forests and cypress swamps that make up one of Georgia’s most beautiful sea islands.
“I never would’ve imagined that this would be my job,” Elrod says, trundling through Ossabaw’s swampy midsection in a scruffy Chevy truck with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle riding shotgun. “But I sure do enjoy doing it.”
He is, officially, a “hog control technician” for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources — the only full-time, government-paid wild boar hunter in the South. The specialness of his job owes to the rapaciousness of the hogs. They’re a nasty, eat-everything, invasive species that are alien to Ossabaw and run roughshod over flora and fauna.
While shooting pigs is cool, Elrod embraces the program’s main goal: saving endangered loggerhead sea turtles. Feral pigs stalk Ossabaw’s 13 miles of unspoiled beaches from May to September scrounging for newly laid turtle eggs.
Georgia, like all Southern states, seeks to eradicate nearly all wild boars. Nearly. Georgia, Florida and other states manage a limited number of hog hunts that coincide with deer season. Hunters generally praise the Ossabaw hunts, as much for the challenge as for the island’s unique beauty. They also help keep the pig population down.
But not everybody supports the hunts. An appetite for hog hunting encourages the illegal capture and transport of hogs to other public lands thereby spreading the invasive scourge to nearby farms and fields. And the boars spread diseases like brucellosis and pseudorabies.
“Hogs are a huge, huge issue because they impact vegetation, forests and wildlife,” says Michael Stroeh, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge manager in Arkansas who says the boars should be eradicated. “They’re an invasive species first and foremost.”
Eight shots, five kills
Elrod twists a silencer onto the barrel of the state-issued AR-15, grabs an extra clip and heads off into the live oak and palmetto frond forest. A light rain falls. Thunder thumps in the distance. Elrod, eyes scanning the ground for tell-tale signs, espies a deer’s antler.
“That’s good luck,” he says grabbing the horns. Elrod leaves the maritime forest for the marsh and follows muddy trails worn through the spartina grass by hogs, deer, raccoons and rabbits. Each leaves paw prints in the mud; the hogs’ are the biggest — and most recent. “There he is,” Elrod whispers followed by three quick shots. A 50-lb. sow, full of milk, squeals one last time. Five minutes later, he fires again. And again. And again. And again. And again, the muffled shots nonetheless ricocheting around the tree-lined marsh. In all, eight shots fired. Five hogs dead. “Taking a sow’s life is no small matter to me,” Elrod says. “But it’s just like a mouse in your house. They’re not native to the habitat. And they’re out-competing the other wildlife. I feel like I’m doing my job.”
Christopher Columbus is believed to have started the porcine invasion. He supposedly brought smallish hogs from the Canary Islands to Cuba. Spanish missionaries ferried them to Georgia to serve as a renewable food source in the 1500s. Lore has it that a hunt club imported the hogs to Ossabaw in the early 1900s.
Over the centuries the hogs bred and bred, beginning at six months old and producing two litters a year. Eleanor Torrey “Sandy” West loved them.
West’s parents bought Ossabaw in 1924 for $150,000. They were Northern swells who inherited the Pittsburgh Plate Glass fortune and built a 15-bedroom, pink-stuccoed, Spanish colonial revival mansion with great lawn leading to Ossabaw Sound. Their soirees were attended by robber barons named Carnegie, Reynolds and Ford who’d purchased nearby barrier islands or plantations as winter retreats.
West’s life of leisure, though, metamorphosed into a deep love for Ossabaw. She and her brother would ditch their tutors and explore the island. Sandy, eventually, lived year-round on Ossabaw. She and her husband created The Ossabaw Foundation, a writer’s and artist’s colony, in 1961. A back-to-nature retreat for college students was formed a decade later.
West, though, had run through her parents’ inheritance keeping Ossabaw afloat. Developers circled, envisioning another Hilton Head. Aristotle Onassis offered to buy it sight unseen.
West and President Jimmy Carter, an Ossabaw aficionado, cut a deal in 1978. She got $8 million, 30 acres, the mansion and a state guarantee that Ossabaw would remain forever “in its natural state.” Georgia turned the rest of the island into a wildlife management area.
A few years later, though, the state declared the hogs an invasive menace in need of culling. Fish and Wildlife says feral pigs “can change entire ecological systems.” They compete with native animals — deer, squirrels, ducks and turkeys — for food and devour ground-nesting birds, reptiles and amphibians. Their incessant rooting destroys vegetation, creates wallows and furthers erosion.
West, with two pet pigs named Lucky and Mrs. Musgrove, was furious. Her plot of land became a hog sanctuary devoid of hunting. Elsewhere, the state began actively managing the boar population with managed hunts and, eventually, full-time marksmen.
West left Ossabaw two years ago, unable to afford the around-the-clock care that her then 103-year-old body and mind needed. She lives in a Savannah nursing home and hasn’t returned to her beloved island.
“She’s a real special person,” says Elrod, who admires the fierce determination it took to keep Ossabaw from being developed.
Saving loggerhead turtles
He grew up in Taylorsville, Ga., an hour outside of Atlanta. His father was a welder; his mom worked at a bank. Elrod started hunting and fishing with his great-grandfather, Papa J, when he was 4 years old.
“I just always loved being outside,” he says.
Elrod, 29, earned an associate’s degree in wildlife management from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in South Georgia. He first came to Ossabaw as an hourly hog hunter in May 2010. A year later he was hired full-time and told to kill as many pigs as possible.
“Our goal on the island is to preserve, as best we can, the sea turtle nests,” says Kara Day, a Georgia DNR wildlife biologist who helps run the public hunts on Ossabaw. “Seven years ago, when I first started coming out to the island, hogs were everywhere – on the roads, beside the trucks – and they weren’t scared of anything.
“Now you have to hunt like Codey does: in the middle of the island; hunkered down,” she continues. “It must be working because you just don’t see those hogs hanging out on the side of the road anymore.”
Elrod hustles, particularly during turtle nesting season when he speedwalk-hunts the island every day. He kills, on average, 1,117 hogs a year. (Another 400 or so pigs are taken annually by other DNR officials or during managed hunts.) In 2016, he killed 1,561 hogs – an Ossabaw record for the 12-year-old program.
In the five years before Georgia hired a marksman (Elrod was the third sniper), 31 percent of loggerhead turtle nests were partially destroyed by hogs and other predators. In the last five years, only one of every 10 nests has been partially destroyed.
“Predation has been low and hatching success relatively high since Codey’s been around,” says Mark Dodd, a senior DNR wildlife biologist. “Having a skilled predator control person around is very important on our remote islands.”
Elrod uses every hunting tool in his bag to kill pigs: dried corn bait; thermal-imaging scopes; dogs Bobo (pit bull) and Rudy (black mouth cur); and traps. Trapping garners the highest yield, but takes a lot of time. He won’t hunt the dogs in hot weather; cool-down ponds also attract alligators.
Mostly, though, Elrod shoots hogs one at a time with non-lead bullets that won’t harm bald eagles and other scavengers. High tides, he says, push hogs onto higher ground making them easier to spot. Wind swooshes everything around, masking his movements. Rain silences his footsteps.
There are dangers of course: rattlesnakes; alligators; ticks; and, of course, hogs. Once, in South Carolina, Elrod was hunting with dogs when he came in for the kill with a pocketknife. Momentarily distracted, the hog gored him with his tusks. Fourteen stitches in the arm, another 12 on the wrist.
“I’ve had some dreams about hogs, more like nightmares of being attacked by hogs,” Elrod says. “It’s like being in your house when a burglar breaks in and all you’ve got is a pillow to hit him in the head with.”
Eradicate? Or manage?
Not everybody appreciates Elrod’s hard work. The hunter, for example, leaves virtually every dead hog where it lays, dismaying some animal-lovers and food enthusiasts who decry the wasted meat. Harvesting the kill, though, “is not feasible,” Elrod says, “because if you start dragging out every hog you shoot, you’d only get one a day.”
Day, the DNR biologist, said Ossabaw’s remoteness makes harvesting near-impossible.
“A lot of times on the mainland when we put a deer down we’ll donate it to [the nonprofit]Hunters for the Hungry or food banks,” she says. “And sometimes these boars are not palatable. They also carry diseases that can spread to livestock and other animals.”
Which begs a larger question bedeviling Southern wildlife officials: Should the goal be to exterminate all wild hogs? Or should they be “managed” to allow hunting?
“They are not considered a game animal in Arkansas; they are an invasive species. We do not have a hunting season for hogs,” said Stroeh, the Services’ refuge manager. “The sport has actually encouraged the capturing and moving of hogs to areas that have never had hogs. Somebody who loves to hog hunt no longer has to drive to Texas or somewhere to hunt.”
Arkansas allows the incidental “take” of hogs during deer season, as do Georgia and most Southern states. Arkansas, like Louisiana and South Carolina, also deploys snipers on helicopters to kill hogs. Most states have organized hogs hunts too and they allow year-round hunting on private lands.
“Wild hog hunting remains a tradition here and provides recreational opportunities, food and revenue for stakeholders,” says the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Georgia runs two hog-only hunts on Ossabaw each year. They’re quite popular. A lottery system winnows down hunters. It typically takes three tries before a hunter is chosen. Forty-five hunters killed 27 hogs during the four-day hunt in February.
Every little bit helps, but Georgia – statewide – is home to unknown thousands of wild hogs. South Carolina counts nearly 140,000 boar. Louisiana estimates at least 700,000. USDA says 5 million hogs roam 39 states causing $1.5 billion in damage to crops and infrastructure each year.
Elrod does his share to keep hogs in check. A plug of ever-present Grizzly tobacco in his mouth, Classic rock playing low on the radio, Elrod patrols South End Beach Road at 10 mph. It’s getting late, the sun hidden behind distant pines.
Suddenly, the Chevy brakes. Elrod grabs his rifle, opens the door, assumes the position and fires one shot into the marsh.
“He thought he was hid good enough, didn’t he?” Elrod says. “I usually get ‘em.