A dusty gravel road leads to a hunting lease in rural Cundiff, near the Wise-Jack county line.
A collapsed farmhouse sits on the dirt road leading into the lease. Memories lie buried like bones beneath the broken boards. A nearby gray wooden barn somehow still stands.
A trio of hunters ranging in age from 12 to 34 make their way to a ridge. They settle in a clearing, talking in hushed tones, waiting for feral – wild – hogs to appear.
Electric lines linked by towers lead into the west. They disappear into the brilliant setting sun like they’re carrying energy straight from the star itself. The towers create a mowed area on the lease, and the hunters can see more than a mile toward a wheat field in the distance. Prickly pear, boulders, brambles and mesquites rise from the sand and dust.
The land is jagged, like the earth is baring its teeth.
Then the orange sun sinks, vanishing in an instant leaving traces of purple, coral and red on a few stray clouds.
Seven ducks fly north overhead in V-formation as the day darkens. There is no moon.
Suddenly, like a phantom, a black hog appears in the thickets to the south. Andrew Gage aims his weapon. A barbed-wire fence, several trees and tall brambles lie between him and the hog. A single shot explodes from the rifle and a bullet strikes the boar. He streaks to the east, rushes back west, crashes into thickets and vanishes. At the spot where he was shot, traces of blood and flesh cling to strands of beige grass. The 200-pound beast lies collapsed and dying somewhere nearby.
After Gage’s accurate shot in near-black darkness, it’s not hard to see why he and hunting partner Cason Caraway might get their second first-place finish in the third annual Wise County Hog Contest.
“Everybody misses,” said Gage, the 22-year-old from Decatur. “I just try to concentrate as much as I can. It’s like anything else. It takes a lot of practice. It just comes naturally now. I don’t even notice myself doing the bolt action.
“Cason and I learn from our mistakes every time we go out on a hunt. Each year we gain more and more knowledge about hunting these wild hogs, and it has paid off. There’s still lots to learn, but we feel pretty confident every time we go out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s part of it. We enjoy it either way.”
The 200-pounder Gage killed Monday night is tiny compared to the behemoth he slaughtered a few weeks prior. That one weighed 399. If the results stand, Gage and Caraway look to bag more than $4,000 for their efforts.
The spot where Gage shot the hog Monday night was the same 700-acre hunting lease where he shot the 400-pounder.
On Feb. 23, under the ghostly light of a full moon, Gage found his prize pig.
“There was a full moon that night,” Gage said. “It was so bright I didn’t use any lights. ”
Images on game cameras had confirmed the mammoth roamed the area.
“I knew he was out here,” Gage said. “I’d been out hunting him several times but never found him.”
While walking down a rough dirt road, he noticed the long-haired beast in a thicket of mesquites and brambles several yards off the trail.
“I saw him, and I didn’t know what to think,” Gage added. “I got out my hunting sticks, but I couldn’t get a clear shot on him because of all the trees in the way. I got a shot off, and I had no idea if I had hit him or not. Then he started crashing towards me. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know if I’d hit him. It lasted about 10 to 15 seconds, and then it was over.”
The 400-pound hog disappeared in the dark. It was too dangerous to go searching in the thicket for a thrashing wounded hog.
“They got teeth hanging out of their mouth that are like a razor blade,” said Kory Chapman, who leases the land where the animal was shot. “They get a second wind. They will run through you and tear you up.”
Gage returned the next day with Caraway and found the beast.
“We went to where I shot him,” Gage said. “I didn’t see any blood so we went straight into the brush. Cason saw the signs, the blood.”
The single shot from his .257 Weatherby bored through a mesquite tree before striking the boar in the vitals.
“It was a perfect shot,” Chapman said.
The game cameras didn’t do it justice. It was larger than he imagined.
“I had no idea how big it was,” Gage said. “I just knew it was a big, mature hog. After we found him, it was all smiles and high-fives. I was more excited than I’d ever been on a hunt.”
THE HUNT IS ON
Three years ago Chapman came up with the idea to start the contest just to prove a point.
“People always think the hogs they see are bigger than they really are,” Chapman said. “During deer season, people always said they saw these hogs that weighed 500 pounds. I just wanted to see how big they actually were. So I started this contest where everyone threw in $100 to see who could shoot the biggest hog. It turned out a lot of these 500-pound hogs just weighed 100 or so pounds.”
The hunt has grown over the years, and so has the size of the hogs killed. Gage and Caraway won the contest in 2011, the first year of the Wise County Hog Contest. That year Caraway bagged a 250-pound specimen.
Only 23 teams competed the first year. It grew to 38 teams in 2012. Mike Overton and Larry Lewis of Decatur won it with a 288-pound hog. But Gage and Caraway raised the bar again this year with the 399-pounder.
For 30 days, teams of hunters have a chance to scour the region in search of the biggest hog. Each team pays $100 to register and can submit up to two animals which have to be weighed within 24 hours after the kill. Hunters are not allowed to use traps, hog dogs, helicopters or high fences. This contest ran from the end of January through March 10.
The unofficial standings have Gage and Caraway in first. Second belongs to Matt Kasner and Chet Selz, who killed a 332-pound sow with a bow. If results stand they’ll win $2,430. In third is the father-and-son team of Randy and Daniel DeWebber with a 276-pound boar earning them $810 if the results stand.
Results remain unofficial until the top-ranked contestants pass a polygraph test expected to be administered this weekend.
HUNTING WITH PURPOSE
Although the contest gives local hunters a chance to win big money and bragging rights, it also serves a dual purpose of cutting down on the number of feral hogs.
As many as 3.4 million feral hogs roamed Texas last year according to a recent study by Texas A&M’s Institute of Renewable Resources.
“Because of their destructive feeding habits and potential to spread disease, feral hogs are a substantial liability to agriculture and wildlife in Texas,” read the study.
Feral hogs reportedly cause $52 million in agricultural damage every year. That equates to roughly $7,500 in damage per landowner in the state – and they are multiplying at an astounding rate.
“Every three months they can produce a litter of 16,” Chapman said. “People are begging you to come hunt hogs on their land.”
And with each generation, the hogs’ domestic characteristics diminish, and they become more wild.
Feral hogs are growing by a rate of 21 percent per year in Texas. They find suitable habitat in approximately 80 percent of the state, and there are an estimated 2.45 hogs per square mile over that area.
Hogs were introduced from Europe into what is now the United States by Spaniards in the 1500s. Settlers found them beneficial as a food source and liked their ability to adapt to most environments. It’s that adaptability that has allowed them to flourish once they escaped or were released for hunting purposes from the bonds of domestication. Now they’re literally flooding the landscape.
As the numbers of feral hogs grow, Chapman expects the popularity of the contest to grow as well.
“It’s gonna be real big next year,” Chapman said. “There’s always room for it to grow.”
And there’s always more hogs to hunt.
“Hogs have no predators,” Gage added.
Well, except for one. Gage stalked through the thickets, gun in hand, barrel pointed down.
The night grew darker with no moon above. Stars appeared like bright pinpricks in the black fabric of night. The constellation Orion, the hunter, the most prominent figure in the winter sky, floats above. Wielding his weapon, his three-starred belt beaming, the ancient hunter is in pursuit of his prize every night along the dome of the sky.