High on the Hog
Hunting from a helicopter isn’t as easy as Sarah Palin makes it look.
With my legs dangling out of the side of the helicopter, I scanned the ground below me for any sign of feral hogs. I was entering the second hour of my aerial hog hunt and had yet to hit anything. We had seen more than forty pigs, but it turns out that my single trip to the gun range and one practice run shooting from the air had not adequately prepared me for my first-ever hunting trip, which entailed gunning down a sprinting pig from a moving helicopter.
As we flew over a small reservoir on a 25,000-acre spread of land, we spotted a sounder of hogs—two sows and their piglets—lounging in the shallow water, seeking respite from the 103-degree heat. The pilot, Dustin Johnson, maneuvered his Robinson-22 helicopter over the group, flushing the pigs out of the water and onto a nearby wheat field. Terrified by the sound of our blades and the rat-tat-tat of my gun, they ran at a fast clip in single file, with striped young piglets bringing up the rear. It was dusk, and this was my final chance to score a kill. I stared down the barrel of my AR-15, gripping the trigger.
Aerial hog hunting is having a moment in Texas thanks in part to Stephenville Rep. Sid Miller’s “pork chopper” bill, which passed the state legislature this spring, and in part to the booming hog population. Miller’s bill makes it legal, as of September 1, for sport hunters to rent the gunner seat on a helicopter to shoot hogs or coyotes. (Under current law, landowners can contract a helicopter company to control the feral hog population on their land.). He filed the same bill during the 2009 legislative session, which died in the Senate, but not before being ridiculed by the press and the public.
The feral hog menace is no joke: Texas has more than 2.6 million feral hogs—that’s enough to replace every man, woman and child within Houston’s city limits—and left unchecked, that population can double every five years. One legislative estimate put hog damage—from broken fence posts, lost livestock, ruined crops—at $400 million per year. They’re also increasingly encroaching on urban areas: in the Dallas suburb of Irving, 239 hogs have been trapped since last October. “I think when people got home and heard from their constituents, they found out this is a serious problem, not a Sarah Palin moose-hunting joke,” Miller said.
Hunting from a helicopter is “probably one of the most effective ways to take out a large number of feral hogs,” said Scott Vaca, Assistant Chief of Wildlife Enforcement at Texas Parks and Wildlife. “They get educated to traps very quickly. With aerial gunning, you can get to places that maybe you can’t drive to, but you can fly there and find them and flush them out of cover.” Since 2004, aerial gunners have killed some 79,000 hogs. But wildlife officials estimate that, just to hold the population steady, sixty percent to seventy percent of the state’s hogs must be killed every year. Under the old law, only the pros could aerial hog hunt, and they charged landowners up to $600 an hour for the service. Now, people looking for a novel hunting experience will pay for the luxury of shooting from the air, which will shift the cost from burdened landowners to enthusiastic sport hunters.
I didn’t want to just get in a helicopter and start shooting. Before taking to the skies, I attended the Vertex Helicopter Aerial Hunter Safety Class, where I spent a long June morning in a classroom in a hangar at the edge of Houston’s Hobby Airport. As portable air conditioners whirred, I was schooled on the scope of the hog problem, the rules for aerial hunting, and how to shoot an AR-15 from a moving helicopter. (Handy tip: Don’t drop the magazine mid-flight; it can fall out and knock out the chopper’s tail rotor.)
I furiously took notes as Vertex President Mike Morgan flipped through a PowerPoint presentation about the safety concerns presented when unloading a semi-automatic rifle from a helicopter. Morgan, whose muscles filled out the Vertex employee uniform of a tan flight suit, is an Army-trained helicopter pilot who flew scouting missions during Operation Desert Storm. “We’re here basically to exterminate these 400-pound rats,” he boomed.
Tough façade aside, safety and professionalism are foremost in Morgan’s mind. A slew of helicopter hunting videos have cropped up on the Internet, and he screened several during the class as cautionary tales. In one, a man aimed a loaded AK-47 at the cameraman. Another showed a man pointing his weapon up into the rotor system. In a third, a national ABC news spot that aired in May, an Abilene-based helicopter pilot flew his chopper under a set of wires. That’s one of the most dangerous things a pilot can do, Morgan said. “Over 95 percent of wire strike accidents are fatal.” If people get to the skies and start acting like cowboys, accidents will happen, a major concern for the fledgling industry. “A lot of people think it’s a legalized sport now,” Morgan said. “It’s not a sport; it’s an extermination program.”
After four hours in the classroom, we flew out to Anahuac for an afternoon of aerial target practice. For the first twenty minutes of the hour-long flight to Anahuac, I clutched the helicopter’s doorframe in fear. The doors had been removed—the better to shoot out of the chopper—and so the only thing separating me from the ground was my seatbelt, which I checked several times out of anxiety. Morgan calmed me over the headset and, by the time we reached Baytown, I felt confident enough to remove my hand from doorframe to send a tweet. (“This tweet comes to you from a helicopter. #thismodernlife.”)
Six weeks later, I found myself making the long drive from Austin to Knox City, a speck of a town in God’s Country, twenty miles as the chopper flies from our governor’s childhood home of Paint Creek. A tractor painted like the Texas flag greeted me at the outskirts of town, and hanging over the one stoplight in town was a banner announcing that the Annual Donald Johnson Memorial Seedless Watermelon Festival would be held the last weekend in July.
I pulled up to the Rockin’ Grill Steakhouse where I met Dustin Johnson, the lanky 24-year-old owner of Cedar Ridge Aviation whose family has lived in the Knox City area for more than a hundred years. (It turns out the advertised watermelon festival is named after his grandfather, who developed and grew the world’s first seedless variety with the help of two scientists.) As we waited for early evening, the time the animals emerge from their wallows, Dustin and his co-workers from Cedar Ridge Aviation regaled me with tales of hog hunting as we ate brisket sandwiches. (Not hog, disappointingly. When prepared correctly, feral hogs are supposed to be delicious, as Phillip Meyer chronicled in this September 2011 piece for TEXAS MONTHLY.)
Their company, which started conducting aerial hog depredation two years ago, has exterminated thousands of hogs in the six-county area surrounding Knox City. He told me that the new law has generated an extraordinary amount of interest, and he already has thirty helicopter hunting trips scheduled for after September 1, including one for a group of ATF agents from New York. (A legal loophole allowed me to hunt with Dustin two months before the new law goes into effect. In fact, it has always been legal for someone to hunt from a helicopter so long as no money changes hands for the flight.) He informed me that I was only the second woman he had ever taken helicopter hunting, and the first, an 85-year-old with many African game safaris under her belt, gunned down 25 hogs on her own ranch. Dustin also boasted that in March, he took Ted Nugent on a hog hunt and, the Nuge, being the Nuge, bagged close to 150 pigs.* I felt outmatched.
After dinner, we drove east of Knox City down State Highway 22 to the helicopter, which Dustin keeps in a metal barn that used to store piles of seedless watermelons. On our eleven-mile flight to his 640-acre family ranch, we flew for a stretch along the bone-dry Brazos River, which was bisected by trails of tiny hog hoof prints. Dustin pointed out the mud wallows hogs had dug to keep cool, the places where they had rooted up the dry riverbed (perhaps looking for some aquatic delicacy that had survived the drought), and the rows of crops that had been trampled by hungry pigs.
We also flew past a wheat field where Dustin had killed 64 hogs that week. Vultures were swarming the carcasses, and when we got closer to the field, hundreds flapped up from a cluster of trees near the banks of the Brazos where they had been roosting. Even vultures enjoy bacon.
To aid my hunt, that morning Dustin had baited two areas on the ranch with deer corn and wheat seed, and feral hogs were feasting at both sites. He lined shot after shot up for me, positioning the helicopter on the right side of the pigs each time, but I kept missing. While YouTube clips make helicopter hunting seem like a videogame, it’s actually quite difficult. An hour passed, and my lackluster marksmanship scared off all the pigs. In a last ditch effort to score a kill, we landed so could Dustin call a neighbor for permission to shoot on his land. Permission secured, we flew over to the nearby 25,000-acre spread of wheat fields and pastures. Dustin assured me they’d killed more hogs on this ranch than anywhere else, gunning down 223 there in two hours last year.
It was here we saw the sounder of pigs in the pond. When one of the largest pigs broke away from the group, I squinted and aimed my laser sight at her back. Dustin lined up the copter, keeping her on my left side. We hovered about twenty feet above her, and I squeezed the trigger. Then I fired again. She crumpled into a heap. Picking herself up again, she slowly moved into some brush, where she collapsed. We made a second pass, and I discharged a few more rounds into the injured sow until she stilled.
“I killed one!” I exclaimed with a little too much glee as we landed. Dustin gave me a high five, and then we worked together to drag the 200-pound carcass out of the brush, towing her some 150 feet back to the helicopter for a photo op. Her open eyes were glassy, and a tusk curled out of her mouth.
Because of me, there’s one less feral hog roaming around Texas.
*Correction: The original version of this story stated that Ted Nugent killed “more than thirty pigs.” He, in fact, killed close to 150 pigs, because he’s Ted Nugent.