February is without a doubt a depressing month for hunters. Deer season is over, and turkey season still seems decades away.
Now before you spend the entire month glued to your favorite chair watching re-runs on the Outdoor Channel and eating Cheetos, have you considered topping that ol’ deep freezer off with some delicious pork?
I’m talking hogs—public-land hogs at that—and a whole lot of them.
To point us in the right direction to find some public-land pigs, I enlisted the help of Ryan Lee, of Waycross.
Ryan knows public-land hogs in the Peach State. He’s spent more than 25 years pursuing hogs on our state’s WMAs, and he consistently brings home the bacon—or sausage or pork backstraps for that matter.
“February has to be my favorite month to hunt hogs on south Georgia WMAs,” Ryan said. “It’s almost too easy. There are hundreds of hogs that are active and only a handful of other hunters to contend with.”
Ryan said that a few adjustments to your typical hunting tactics are needed in order to be successful. Start with knowing the hunting rules and regulations for hogs on state lands. A quick turn to page 34 of the 2016-2017 Georgia Hunting Regulations (available online at www.georgiawildlife.com/hunting/regulations) will familiarize you with WMA hog-hunting rules.
While you need to double check the details, to sum up the general way feral pigs are regulated, hogs are considered an incidental take on WMAs. That basically means whatever season a WMA is open for, you must use firearms that correspond with that season.
For the month of February, that means small-game weapons only. A full list of acceptable weapons can be found in the regulations manual. Now for you folks who hunt primitive style, there is good news. Bows and muzzleloaders are allowed during small-game seasons. Just like on private property, there is no harvest limit on hogs killed on state WMAs.
A final word of caution, however, is that you need to always stay up-to-date on WMA regulations, as they are subject to change.
Ryan’s weapon of choice for small-game season wild hogs is a .22 magnum. He feels that within 50 yards he can drop a hog in his tracks most every time.
“The key is to spend lots of time at the range until you feel extremely confident in your shot placement.”
Most of the time, a well-placed shot between the hog’s eye and ear will result in a quick kill.
Ryan was quick to point out a piece of equipment even more important than your weapon.
“Never go in the woods without an orange vest on,” Ryan said.
Though it’s not required during small-game seasons, a hunter-orange vest is absolutely necessary for stalking hogs on state management lands.
“Too many accidents in the woods could be prevented by wearing a vest,” Ryan added.
The only other piece of hog-hunting gear that’s really a must is some good rubber boots.
Top-3 South Georgia WMAs For Wild Hogs
I asked Ryan to pick his three favorite WMAs for February hog hunting. He was more than happy to share his top locations and strategies for filling the freezer in February.
Ryan’s first pick is situated deep in the swamps of south Georgia. Dixon Memorial WMA sprawls across a vast 35,000 acres of public land that is primarily a mixture of planted pines and swamp land.
“What makes Dixon so great to hunt is its overall layout,” Ryan said.
He said that by simply riding the dirt roads and looking for fresh hog sign, you can quickly locate areas with high concentrations of hogs. Wild hogs, much like their domesticated cousins, aren’t going to leave a good source of food or work any harder than they have to for it. If you find fresh hog sign, it’s likely the hogs are in the general area as long as they haven’t been pressured.
Ryan uses a map of Dixon (printed off the DNR website at www.georgiawildlife.com/maps/hunting). On the map he will mark areas with hog sign as he rides around the WMA. It is also very important on public land to familiarize yourself with the map to avoid accidental trespassing.
After a short while of observing, Ryan can easily identify where he has the best chance to take a good hog.
“A handheld GPS unit is great for hunting hogs on a WMA. You can also use it to mark deer and turkey sign,” Ryan said.
He frequently has a bird or two on the ground opening weekend of turkey season just by making notes of where the birds are during his February hog hunts. Also look for deer sheds, rubs and scrapes. Just mark where you find deer sign, and then come deer season you will be ahead on your scouting.
Ryan did say that at times it can be hard to find fresh sign along the roads, especially when heavy rains wash away tracks. When finding fresh hog sign is tough, Ryan recommends starting your Dixon Memorial search near the Okefenokee Swamp Park.
Then, use your map to locate roads that are closed for vehicular access where you can move deeper into the swamp by foot. Google Earth is great for locating firebreaks and other trails that can provide good foot-travel access.
“The biggest mistake hog hunters make is not covering a big enough area,” Ryan said.
Ryan does 99 percent of his hog stalking by walking logging roads or other areas where he can move quickly and quietly. As Ryan walks these old logging paths, he aims to move about a hundred yards at a time, and then he stops and listens for 20 to 30 seconds.
“If you’re keeping up your pace, you should be able to cover a couple of miles in an hour. It’s simple—more miles, more hogs,” Ryan said.
When you stop, listen for hogs.
“A group of hogs can get so loud at times I believe you could bang a drum and they wouldn’t look up,” Ryan said.
Once you hear the hogs, you can usually sneak to within 25 yards for an easy shot as long as you don’t let the hogs smell you.
On a cold, clear morning in late January, Ryan and I went after some hogs at Dixon Memorial. We located a hog wallow the size of a small car with a rank smell my nose still hasn’t forgotten.
“You can tell they were using the hole to cool down on the warm afternoons we’ve been having,” Ryan said. “If we have another warm spell, it would pay to come sit on this spot.”
In situations where the sign is overly abundant, a good tactic is to simply find a tree to prop up against and wait on the hogs to show, instead of trying to still-hunt the area. This is a good tactic for hunters who may not be able to do a lot of strenuous walking.
Be sure when riding around Dixon Memorial WMA that you are looking carefully out across any clearcuts, especially fresh ones. Ryan noted that over the years he has killed at least 25 hogs by simply stalking them from the road.
“Just don’t get hog fever and forget all the rules and regulations when you see 20 or 30 hogs from the road. Find a safe place to park, and wait until you get at least 50 yards from the road to load your magnum. The hogs will still be there,” Ryan said with a smile.
Moving on to Ryan’s No. 2 pick, it’s time to hitch up the boat and head to the middle of nowhere—and by middle of nowhere I mean Big Hammock WMA, located approximately 12 miles south of Glennville.
Big Hammock offers 7,200 acres of public land that runs alongside the mighty Altamaha River, and that’s where the boat comes in.
“You can kill plenty of hogs on Hammock without using a boat—you better just be sure you have a plan to get them out,” Ryan said.
He uses his trusty Alumacraft jonboat with a small outboard as both a stalking tool and a game cart for downed hogs.
“The Altamaha is like a highway you can use to effectively hunt Big Hammock. Once you get a map and familiarize yourself with the area, there’s really nothing to it.”
There are boat ramps located within the WMA that offer access, but it’s important to know that if the river level rises above 9 feet (measured at the Doctortown gauge), the WMA is closed. With February’s unpredictable rainfall, be sure to always check the level online before you go. Here’s a link: http://water.weather.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?gage=dctg1&wfo=jax.
After launching the boat, Ryan keeps his eye on the bank for fresh tracks, as well as scanning the tree line for hogs.
“If you’re paying attention, you will usually spot some right on the edge of the thicker brush. They usually run off if they see the boat, but they usually don’t go far.
Give the hogs a few minutes to ease off and settle back down, and then begin your stalk.
When you’re easing along the river, another favorite place for hogs to congregate are sloughs. Hogs will often use these areas as watering holes and will often bed down near them. Ryan noted when he can’t find sign along the river, he can usually count on finding hogs in the sloughs.
When you kill a hog, that’s when the boat really becomes useful. It’s as simple as dragging the hog back to the river and walking back to your boat. Then you can motor up and load the hog.
“It’s a heck of a lot easier to load a 300-lb. hog into a jonboat than it is a truck bed,” Ryan said.
One other thing to point out about this area for those who fish is that during February the crappie fishing is pretty good in this stretch of the river. Those looking for some surf-and-turf combo action should do quite well bringing a minnow bucket along for their hog hunting trip.
Last but not least, Griffin Ridge WMA comes in as Ryan’s third public-land pick for February hog hunting. Located off of Highway 301 between Jesup and Ludowici, this 5,600-acre area can be a wild hog gold mine. Ryan said Griffin Ridge is loaded with hogs, yet it doesn’t get a whole lot of pressure from hunters.
Like the other areas, this WMA is open until Feb. 28 for small-game hunting and offers a great opportunity to harvest a porker this month. This area, like Big Hammock, is located along the Altamaha River and can also be hunted by boat, but Ryan prefers foot access.
“Most of the time when I hunt Griffin, I will leave the boat at home and focus all my efforts on foot between the river and the swampy area at the end of Griffin Lake Road. This block of woods almost always holds a good population of hogs.”
He said you will have to put in the legwork if you want to have a chance at killing a wild hog at Griffin Ridge, but success is common for those who work.
When we finished talking hogs for this article, Ryan wouldn’t let me go without pointing out that these three areas were his personal favorites, but that there are numerous WMAs in Georgia with good populations of wild hogs with very little hunting pressure during February.
Hogs Gone Wild?
Wild hogs are fun to hunt and taste great, but these critters can be very destructive.
How bad of a problem are wild hogs? Consider that there are government programs to shoot wild hogs from helicopters; there’s an effort to kill them with a hog-specific poison—a sodium mixture that takes out hogs but not other animals; and there’s federal money available for cost-sharing assistance for farmers who trap wild hogs on their private property.
Last January, GON reported that Georgia’s feral hog problems was getting $295,000 in assistance from the federal government, which allocated more than $20 million to battle swine infestations in 39 states last year alone. The annual damage estimates caused by wild hogs total $1.5 billion nationwide
Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff is best known for running Auburn University’s Deer Lab, where he was one of the first researchers to identify the Predator Pit scenario for deer in the Southeast. As a Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management, Dr. Ditchkoff has overseen lots of research of wild hogs.
“Nationwide, feral hogs are a growing problem,” said Dr. Ditchkoff. “The most serious issue with feral hogs is currently in the Southeast, although the feral hog problem is just as bad in California and Hawaii. In the Midwest, feral hog problems are in their infancy. But researchers are predicting that before long, the Midwest, which is the Bread Basket of America, will have as severe a feral hog problem as the southeastern U.S.”
Feral hogs compete with native wildlife for food and often monopolize acorn and soft-mast crops. Wild hogs aren’t just plant eaters. In some parts of Texas, landowners consider wild hogs as the second-worst predator, after the coyote, on newborn livestock.
Feral hogs also root-up and destroy crops and dirt roads.
“The feral hog population is creating more damage to the environment and farm lands than we realize,” Dr. Ditchkoff said.
The reproductive potential of feral hogs causes their major difficulty. A sow can have two litters each year of four to six pigs or as many as three litters in 14 months, which means one sow may produce as many as 12 to 18 piglets in that time. Dr. Ditchkoff also mentions that feral hogs can carry brucellosis, but well-cooked pork generally takes care of that problem. However, he recommends you wear rubber gloves whenever butchering or handling feral hogs.