Hog hunting in the South is brutal, dirty, sometimes scary -- and lots of fun.
CENTRAL GEORGIA -- Hog hunting is a brutal game that Southerners have been perfecting for more than a century.
In recent years, Northerners have become infatuated with the sport, flocking to places like Georgia, South Carolina and Florida in late winter to chase this invasive, wild species.
Count me among those intensely fascinated by the premise of hunting long-haired, big-tusked hogs that trace their origins to domestic stock loosed intentionally and/or accidentally.
They are nicknamed the "poor-man's grizzlies'' -- the insinuation being, wild hogs are hunted by folks lower on the societal food chain, who could never afford to hunt actual grizzlies.
Rich or poor, this is not a sport for everyone.
Wild-hog hunting might not be your cup of tea if:
n you're afraid of the dark;
n you don't like getting muddy;
n you're afraid of chasing a critter that can and will kill you if it gets the chance;
n you won't wade through water higher than your boots;
n the thought of running, crawling and brush-busting through a swamp is not your idea of a good time.
Add dogs to your hunting team, and you can increase hog hunting's nasty factor by 10.
If none of these things phase you, then hog hunting is one of the most exciting, enjoyable and memorable experiences you'll find anywhere in the great outdoors.
It's been raining for a day and a half as of 2 p.m. on this 23rd day of February.
We've seen 7 inches turn every dirt road -- which is nearly every road in this part of the Peach State -- into a rutted, greasy mess.
Every stream is over its banks.
Every low piece of ground is submerged.
Every footstep produces a "squish.''
It's the last afternoon of a three-day hunt for me and six buddies, and -- despite the drenching rain -- we are all jacked up.
The downpours have eased enough to release the hounds.
That means the action is about to get intense.
We're hunting a sprawling cattle ranch owned by Bobby and Mahala Fortner.
"Mr. Bobby,'' as we call him, is the epitome of a Southern gentleman.
He's got the typical slow, rolling Southern drawl you hear from locals in rural parts of Georgia and South Carolina.
Mr. Bobby's accent sweetens the air every time he sees one of us and asks, "How y'all doin' today?''
If someone were to describe the perfect place to hunt wild hogs in the South, they'd likely describe the Fortner farm, whether they'd ever seen it or not.
It's got crop fields where corn, rye, peanuts and cotton are grown.
Those fields are separated by dense woods surrounding streams and swamps.
Add huge cow pastures, where cattle are given peanut hay, corn and other feed also highly desired by wild hogs.
Like many, many places across the South, the Fortner farm is hog heaven.
Ron Templeton and Zan Helton are a couple of Georgia buddies who share a deep passion for hunting and for dogs.
Especially hog dogs.
Power company linemen by trade, the two boys breed, raise and train their own packs for chasing and catching wild hogs.
Yes, I wrote "catching.''
Templeton and Helton both have dogs that will grab a wild hog by the ear, snout, leg -- whatever they can lock their jaws on -- and hold it until a hunter arrives to shoot the hog, or the handlers call off the dogs and let the hog go free.
The latter is what happens most times Templeton and Helton head out.
"This is our hobby,'' Templeton says. "We like working the dogs. We don't have to kill the hog every time.''
Pitbulls are superb "catch'' dogs, Helton says.
They're stocky enough to take on a hog and they've got strong jaws.
Helton was training a new pit for his pack during our hunt.
The dog performed well on hogs in a controlled setting, Helton reported.
Would he do well on a live hunt in the woods?
"You can't never tell until you get him out there,'' Helton said.
Most of the dogs in Templeton's and Helton's packs are mixed breeds of different hound varieties, curs -- you name it.
A good hog dog must have a good nose, and it must be fearless, Templeton says.
Not all hogs run from the dogs. For some, their first instinct is to fight.
All of Templeton's and Helton's veteran dogs bear battle scars.
There have been some deaths.
Both boys are highly skilled at wound care.
The South is famous for its hog-baying competitions, where dogs are judged on how well they work at cornering a hog in a pen and barking at it.
Helton scoffs at such games. His dogs work for a living. They are not for show.
"My dog Cowboy is the best dog I've ever seen, and he probably wouldn't even pay attention to a hog in a pen,'' Helton said. "He knows that hog's caught, so what's the point?
"You get those competition dogs out in the woods and they don't know what to do.''
The air is full of mist as Pat McCormick of Cochranville and I take up posts along a cattle fence, overlooking a flooded pasture bottom.
The other members of our party are guarding different strategic locations surrounding a thick patch of swamp, where Templeton and Helton are going to loose six of their dogs.
McCormick is carrying a bolt-action Ruger .270. I've got my trusty, semi-automatic Remington R-15, chambered in .30-Remington AR.
We're barely in position 10 minutes, when the dogs start barking.
That means they're on the trail.
For the next hour or so, McCormick and I have front-row seats to what can best be described as a battle royal.
In the thicket directly in front of us, dogs are barking and occasionally yelping, hogs are grunting and squealing, and hunters and handlers are hollering questions and commands.
"This is unreal,'' McCormick says with a smile as the din moves closer to us.
The hogs we're waiting for are not the hogs the dogs are baying and fighting.
We're watching for escapees.
It takes awhile, but one finally pops out of the thicket about 250 yards downstream to my right.
It's a massive, black beast that looks like a small tank as it easily fords the swift creek, before stopping to survey its surroundings.
I hustle over to a good vantage point, cutting about 50 yards off the range, and set my AR on top of a set of shooting sticks.
Three quick pops from my rifle and the hog is down.
It's a sow that weighs over 300 pounds, thanks to the 3 inches of fat separating its hide from its meat, which is the finest wild game I've ever tasted.
McCormick takes another hog running from the melee.
With a pair of pigs on the ground, McCormick and I return to our posts as the war in the swamp rages on.
"Being here to experience that racket was worth the price of admission,'' McCormick says.
Some people certainly would find the racket horrifying.
But then again, hog hunting isn't for everyone.
P.J. Reilly is a Sunday News Outdoors writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org