[su_heading size=”30″]The author and a Weatherby Vanguard .375 H&M Magnum pursue feral pigs in the ‘Earthquake Capital of the World.’[/su_heading]
STORY AND PHOTOS BY BRAD FITZPATRICK
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]H[/su_dropcap]alfway between California’s Bay Area and the sprawling urban megalopolis of Los Angeles lies the Central Coast, a range of green hills and oak forests. It’s home to a good portion of the Golden State’s remaining agricultural land, and in hamlets such as Parkﬁeld (population 18 or 34, depending on whether you believe the city limit sign or the abandoned railway car in the center of town) you’re more likely to see ﬂatbed pickups and cowboy hats than sports cars and hipster garb. The Central Coast is so far removed from the hustle of Hollywood that it’s hard to remember that Parkﬁeld and L.A. are only a few hours’ drive apart. At Santa Lucia Outﬁtters’ hunting camp outside of town there are no lights visible at night except the ﬁeld of stars stretching from one horizon to the next. There’s no road sound, just the hum of wind through the pines.
Idyllic as this landscape may appear, however, the green hills and old-growth oaks mask a powerful secret. Just below the surface of the earth, two enormous tectonic plates, the North American and Paciﬁc, are pressing against one another with incredible force in a zone known as the San Andreas Fault. In Parkﬁeld, there’s an earthquake every single day, a fact that makes this tiny town the self-proclaimed “Earthquake Capital of the World.” Most shakes are small and unnoticeable. But many of the local residents I spoke with assured me that when a big one hits, I would have no trouble noticing.
On this visit, though, I was out to create some seismic tremors of my own. I was testing Weatherby’s new Vanguard in .375 H&H Magnum, a big bore for the brand’s budget riﬂe line. Parkﬁeld is just down the road from Weatherby’s headquarters in Paso Robles, and the Central Coast ranch country around these towns has, like many other places in the country, been overrun with feral swine. In the region’s steep canyons and dense forests, the pigs enjoy reprieve from area hunters and reach impressive proportions on a steady diet of acorns, barley crops, and tubers. As you no doubt know, they’re a big nuisance to farmers and detrimental to native species, and their numbers are increasing rapidly.
THE WILD HOG’S ABILITY TO SURVIVE in California and elsewhere is due in large part to the species’ ability to adapt to human habitation and avoid detection. Though they’re myopic and relatively easy to approach when the wind is right, hogs are anything but stupid. On the ﬁrst night of the hunt we were stalking a sounder of perhaps 30 adult pigs and shoats. The sounder was scattered across a ﬁeld of short-cropped green barley 100 yards from an oak forest. It was evening, and the sun had disappeared below the low hills behind us. Long shadows stretched across the ﬂat valley below, and we were busy looking over the sounder when one of the pigs spooked and ran for the forest. The remaining hogs followed suit immediately, rushing full-tilt for the trees en masse. The last two shoats, not much bigger than a football, disappeared less than 10 seconds after the ﬁrst pig broke for cover. The swirling winds had betrayed our position, and that was all that was required to spread panic amongst the hogs and send them straight to cover.
Most Central Coast hog hunting consists of driving backroads or glassing hillsides in search of pigs. So, with our group of hogs gone from that particular ﬁeld, guide Jim Martinez, Weatherby’s Brad Dykhouse and I started scanning the hills with our binoculars in search of our next target. There was a particular cleft on a hillside opposite our location that caught my attention. It was a dirty white, jagged ribbon that ran along the top of the face of slope, not a road or a cattle path but similar in appearance. I leaned toward Jim.
“What’s that mark on the hill over there?” I pointed at the scar that ran along the mountain.
“That’s a fault line.”
Seeing a fault line, the same type of geological rift that lifted the Rockies and the Himalayas far above the earth’s surface was unnerving, for sure, but there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I shrugged and started glassing the hillside once more.
The mountains of the Central Coast are often referred to as “rolling” hills, but that characterization was not devised by anyone who has had to climb them in search of pigs. After a few hours of following Jim up and down those slopes on a quest to ﬁnd our prey we were looking for, I ceased to refer to them as anything but mountains. Fortunately, the peaks provided a perfect vantage point from which to scout the next draw (and then the next) for pig activity.
It was early April, and the weather was perfect. The all-day sunshine warmed the hills, and as evening approached the cool thermal winds started rushing over the face of the mountain, bringing relief from the afternoon heat. It felt far more like mule deer or elk hunting than pig hunting, the three of us sitting back against the hillside watching the valley below and the opposite slope for any sign of hogs. Brad managed to catch up with his hog in just this fashion, positioning himself on a steep ridge when a sounder crossed the face of the opposite slope on their way to lower ground and hidden pools of water in the oak forests below. Brad’s chosen pig, a buttermilk-colored sow, stepped clear of the trees at 180 yards and a single shot from his Vanguard .308 did the job.
My pig hunt occurred in lower country, along a winding creek bed lined with oaks. There were still plenty of vantage points from which to glass pigs, but it didn’t require quite the climb that Brad’s hunt demanded. With Jim in the lead we crested a rounded hilltop and sat three abreast on the grassy rise glassing the shadowed agriculture ﬁelds below. Between our vantage point and the creek was a narrow ﬁeld, and as the sun sank down below the tops of the hills the pigs started appearing out in the open country at the edge of the forest. A brace of sows came ﬁrst, a red and black with so many fast-moving shoats underfoot that it was impossible to get an accurate count. More pigs came, more sows with young as well as dry sows that hadn’t been bred. There was a boar among them, a young male with short teeth and a sleek black coat. Jimmy dismissed him. We were looking for something larger.
As the sun set and the air cooled, a form appeared in the trees. It was lighter in color than the other pigs but considerably larger and heavier. The big boar slipped out of the trees at the tail of the sounder, easily identiﬁable because of his impressive size and a large black patch of skin on his hind leg. Jim looked him over in the glasses, but the long snout and tail, impressive bulk and visible tusks left little question that this was a shootable pig.
Jim ranged the boar at 200 yards, a long shot for the area but still manageable with the .375 H&H Magnum. The problem was that the ridge, with its uneven ground surface, didn’t offer us a very good shooting position. We could make it work, but I wanted to be sure that I had a solid rest.
Before I could get in position the lead sows turned 90 degrees along the creek and one by one they disappeared into the oaks and down into the drainage below, vanishing from sight one by one. The boar followed, appearing as a shadow passing through the wide oak trees before ﬁnally slipping over the hillside and out of sight.
“Just wait,” Jim said as he watched the pigs through the grey trunks of the pines and oaks. “I think they’ll come back up.” He lowered the glasses and looked up and down the creek. “They have to come back out eventually.”
I turned around and looked at the valley behind us, and less than 100 yards away I saw the form of a big, mahogany-coated boar standing alone in the ﬁeld. “Jim!” I said. “Jim!” He looked at me and I gestured in the direction of the boar. It turned out that Jim had known that pig was there all along, and while his proximity to our position and lack of sows with which to compare convinced me that he dwarfed the white pig on the opposite side of the ﬁeld, Jim knew better. Pigs are notoriously hard to judge if you don’t know what to look for, and I’d been fooled by the pig’s position. Jim said he believed the pig opposite our position in the creek was about 100 pounds heavier.
Humbled and happy that I hadn’t screwed up and shot a much younger boar, I decided to make a move. If we could slip down the slope, we could cut the range by about 50 yards and I could get in position to take a shot from a more solid rest. When the trees swallowed up the last of the shoeboxsized piglets across the ﬁeld, we crawled down through the green oats and set up where we could wait for the big white pig to give us another chance. One by one, the pigs started to reappear in the barley, the haggard sows and their demanding broods. Jim, Brad and I counted the pigs and watched for the white boar. One by one they appeared, black and reds and a couple very large brown pigs, but no white one. Where had the boar gone? How had we lost him in the shallow swale? We glassed the sounder from the leading sow to the last pig, watching as they moved across the ﬁeld away from us.
“There he is,” Jim said. The boar had found one of the few remaining patches of surface water in the creek bed and had rolled in it, covering the length of his side in brown mud and camouﬂaging him in the sounder. When he doubled back to check a sow, he revealed himself as the white boar we’d initially seen.
“You think you can make the shot?”
It was just over 150 yards, no problem for the .375 H&H from a steady rest. I settled down behind the Leupold VX-6 1-6x illuminated scope and centered the bouncing red dot on the point of the boar’s shoulder. I held ﬁrmly to the riﬂe and slipped the safety forward into the ﬁre position.
“When he stops,” Jim said. I waited until the pig paused in the center of the ﬁeld, well away from the sows and the swarming shoats. I pressed the trigger, taking up the slack in the Vanguard’s two-stage trigger until it came taut. Then, with one light press, ﬁred the shot.
The .375 roared and the earth seemed to tremble as I rose up in recoil, but by the time I came back down into the scope the pig lay motionless in the short-cropped barley ﬁeld. A cloud of dried mud and dust hung in the air above the dead boar.
By the time we’d ﬁnished dressing the pig and had him skinned and hanging in the meat locker it was well after dark. The last purple light of day was vanishing over the hills and the ﬁrst bright stars were appearing in the sky. There was just time to return to the lodge, wash up, and eat dinner. The next morning we were scheduled to start hunting turkey.
Two days later when I left the Central Coast we pulled up to the same stop sign on Route 46 where James Dean had been killed decades before. On our right, far out across an agricultural ﬁeld, there was a herd of tule elk visible through the waves of heat. It seemed the perfect end to the hunt, the sharp fault line between two very different worlds. To the south was L.A., its glowing lights visible for miles. Behind us, the interior of the Central Coast was much the same as it had been for millennia. As badly as I would like to have spent more time in this secret piece of wilderness, I had to return home, and that meant heading south. The car turned and we headed off. ASJ