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Sipsey Wilderness Overrun With Wild Hogs
Zone A of Black Warrior WMA is covered with feral swine. Squirrel season is a great time to hunt them with small-game weapons.
By Nick Carter
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of AON
Hunting on foot and often alone, our expert Mitch Clifton has few photos of himself with hogs from the Sipsey Wilderness area. Here’s one of his hunting buddy Jeremy Lyell, of Tuscumbia, with a big boar hog taken during last year’s special March feral swine hunt. It was the biggest of four hogs Jeremy and Mitch killed that day deep in the wilderness area.
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“The hogs of the Sipsey Wilderness Area are more plentiful than the squirrels,” said one veteran Black Warrior WMA hunter. So, instead of hunting squirrels on the area during squirrel season, why not hunt hogs? They provide a lot more meat and excitement for your effort, and it’s not a problem to just walk in and kill them, as long as you’re willing to expend a little boot leather.

The Sipsey Wilderness Area is about 25,000 acres of rugged forest contained within the 91,263-acre Black Warrior WMA on Bankhead National Forest. The national forest and the WMA are known for producing big bucks, but if you’re going after bacon, you’d be well advised to concentrate on the Sipsey and the 60,000-acre Zone A of Black Warrior WMA.

“Our biggest pig problem is around the Sipsey Wilderness Area,” said Barry Baird, Black Warrior’s area wildlife biologist. “It’s overrun with hogs over there, and the population is definitely increasing.”

Barry said sows push out piglets at an alarming rate: a litter of 4 to 14 new pigs every six months. The hogs, which Barry suspects were released on the national forest illegally, cause extensive damage to state-maintained wildlife openings and native browse for other wildlife. Feral hogs have even been documented preying on fawns, turkey poults and turkey eggs, Barry said. The destructive nature of wild hogs is good news for hunters. It means the area managers want hunters to kill as many wild hogs as possible.

“They’re like kudzu on four legs. They’ll spread uncontrollably, and they’re hard to deal with. We trap them and occasionally do some nighttime eradication with thermal imaging gear,” said Barry. “But hunters play a major role in our hog control. We really wouldn’t stand a chance without hunters helping control them. They’re our on-the-ground management tool.”

Mitch Clifton, of Tuscumbia, is one of those “on-the-ground management tools.” He is an avid public-land hunter who spends a lot of time on Black Warrior. He started going off the beaten path and deep into the Sipsey Wilderness during WMA deer hunts because of the big — but elusive — bucks rumored to be there. But once the hogs started showing up, he decided to target them.

“Never had I hunted an area with a hog population enough to notice till about six or seven years ago, when I started seeing rounded looking deer tracks and every mudhole wallowed out,” Mitch said. “With a weird look, I told my buddy ‘We got pigs in here now.’”

Barry said hogs have been on Bankhead National Forest and the Sipsey since the 1980s, and the population experienced dramatic increases through the 90s. In about 2001 or 2002, they showed up on the management radar when people and wildlife managers began to realize how destructive they are. It was during these years that DCNR began treating hogs as what they are, an invasive, nuisance species... A tasty and fun-to-hunt nuisance species.

December through February is a good time to hunt hogs on Black Warrior. With the area’s early rut, which peters out in mid December, there’s not a lot of deer activity going on, and through the end of small-game seasons on Feb. 28, hogs can be hunted with small-game weapons — rimfire weapons like .22 or .17 caliber rifles. During deer hunts, whatever weapons allowed for deer are also legal for hogs. The one catch is, if one zone of the WMA is scheduled for a deer hunt, the other zone will be closed to all hunting.

So, if you’ve already burned up all three of your buck tags, if you want to fill your freezer with bacon, or if you’re just ready to get out of your stand and walk around a little, the Sipsey is one of the best stalk hunts in the state.

“You don’t have to set up for ’em. If you like to walk around, it’s the game for you, because it’s not something you have to sit around and wait on,” said Mitch. “We jump hunt ’em like rabbits. They’re easy to stalk because their vision is so poor. If you’ve got the wind on ’em, you can just about sneak up on ’em and thump ’em in the nose, but if you let them get wind of you, it’s not going to happen.”

Mitch suspects part of the reason the pigs have not spread far from Sipsey is because it is wild and inaccessible for those who don’t like to hunt very far from their trucks. As a designated wilderness area, there are no open roads and no vehicle traffic is allowed. Also, with no timbering and little human impact on the area since the late 1970s, the terrain can be pretty hairy. The wild hogs like that.

Sipsey is hilly, with a lot of steep bluffs and waterfalls. There are some open hardwood areas, but much of the planted pines have succumbed to pine-beetle infestation. There are also expansive mountain-laurel thickets.

“I would just walk around and look for ’em,” Mitch said, when asked about the best strategy for hunting wild hogs on the area. “They’re usually around any of the pine-beetle kills and mountain laurel thickets. In cooler weather, they tend to stay up a little higher. In December, I would be on the ridges in the pine-beetle thickets and the mountain laurel. They’re sort of like a big buck deer; they like the thickets.”

Barry mentioned that pigs don’t have sweat glands, and their movements are driven in a large part by temperature. During the cooler months, they are active during daylight hours, but during the heat of summer, they usually become nocturnal or move only early in the morning or late in the evening. Mitch said a good place to find them on cold days is on an east-facing ridge, where they’ll be soaking up the sun.

Because they don’t have sweat glands, hogs also like to wallow in the mud, which is something you’ll be looking for to tell you if pigs are in the area.

“There’s very few places you can put your finger on that wilderness area map and not find pig sign. And that applies to pretty much the whole ‘A’ side of the management area,” said Mitch. “The sign is everywhere. The trees will be brown all the way around where they’ve rubbed the mud off them. The taller the mud line, the taller the pig you’re dealing with. Any depression that’ll hold water will be a waller, and the trees will be gouged where they’ve gotten their tusks into it.”

When you’ve found fresh sign, you know there are pigs nearby, and you might hear them rooting, wallowing, squealing and grunting. At that point, you need to make sure you’re downwind of them for the stalk. Then all that’s left is the shooting once you spot them.

“When you go down there, make sure you carry a bunch of bullets,” said Mitch. “Don’t do like you’re deer hunting and just carry five or 10 bullets.”

The most Mitch has ever killed in a day is six hogs, but he said he could have killed more if he had wanted to. The sows travel in family groups with a bunch of other smaller pigs, but the big boars will most likely be alone, unless they are courting sows. The biggest Mitch has killed off Sipsey weighed an estimated 300 pounds.

“The biggest one I ever saw down there looked like a big black Volkswagon,” Mitch said. “I’m gonna say he was in the 500s (lbs.), but it’s no problem to find a 200-pounder.

“You ever seen that old King Kong movie, when the trees are swaying and bowing and everything? That’s the way it looks when they’re running through the woods. They just knock down everything in their way. I’ve buggered ’em and had them not know where to go. They’ll run flat over you just trying to get out of there.”

Taking a big, tough wild hog down with a small-game rifle like the .22 magnum Mitch uses can also be a challenge. Mitch suggested using good game points that don’t break up on impact with a hog’s thick skin.

“I recommend head shots. They seem to take the other ones in stride. Aim between the eyes or right at the burr of the ear,” he said.“Or you can draw a line between their ears and their eyes. Make an “X.” That’s where you want to aim.”

Once pigs have been shot at or scared out of a particular area, both Barry and Mitch said they are unlikely to come back.

“Pigs are very smart,” said Mitch. “If you kill ’em in one place, you’re probably not going to kill another one there for a while. They’re smarter than deer.”

For this reason it may be necessary to get pretty deep in the woods — on foot — to put yourself in the hogs. Mike said you can find hog sign right at the gates and even along the roads bordering the Sipsey, but he thinks that activity occurs mostly at night.

“To really get into the pigs, you need to get in at least a quarter-mile,” he said. “And the deeper you go, the more prominent they are.”

Mike suggested taking a whole day and getting in as deep as you feel comfortable going. With calculations from his GPS, he said he sometimes logs more than 10 miles a day on foot during his stalk hunts. He said some of the best access points are at the main trailheads into the Sipsey at Gum Pond, Bunyan Hill and Thompson Creek.

“Bring your lunch, plenty of bullets and plenty of water,” he said. “I recommend a GPS, because it’s thick in there, and you can get turned around pretty easy.”

Because a day-long hunt can take you miles deep into the wilderness area and because the terrain is so unforgiving, getting hogs out once you kill them can be a chore. Barry said it would be OK if people wanted to quarter and pack out their hog meat.

“We would like people to harvest all the hogs they can. They’re a problem, clearly,” he said. “It’s OK to quarter a hog and haul it out, but white-tailed deer must be checked out whole so that managers can collect data that is so important to managing the herd.”

For wildlife managers, the exploding population of wild hogs on Sipsey might be somewhat of a nightmare. But for hunters who enjoy stalking and killing, those hogs provide a 25,000-acre porker playground. If you find yourself tired of sitting quietly in a stand waiting for something to walk by this winter, lace your boots up tight and take a walk in the Sipsey. There’s a good chance you’ll come home with a freezer full of four-legged kudzu that tastes surprisingly like pork chops and sausage.
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