He arched his eyebrows, bent over for a closer look and pointed at the bell-shaped bottom of a tupelo gum next to the trail.
"Now check out the tree, Bwana," Pelayo hissed.
The bark was smeared with mud — wet mud. Some was still dripping down the trunk.
NOW I got excited, especially as I looked along the trail (more of a muddy rut, actually) that paralleled the slough. Even in the wet, squishy mud, most tracks were sharp and clear. The leaves bordering the trail were also sprinkled with wet mud.
Then Pelayo winked and pointed ahead at a tangle of blowdowns, briars and assorted vines.
"Bwana, I'm guessing some are bedded up in that thicket," he hissed. "Let's spread out a bit and take our time approaching it."
He plucked some leaves off a nearby myrtle, and threw them into the air.
"Wind's still in our favor, Bwana."
The "Bwana" bit was getting a bit old. He started it the second I entered his truck two hours earlier, and never let up. Eddie had actually hit upon the theme and term. But, in fact, they had a point. We were on a swine safari, hunting them in the most genuine sense of the word. NOT sitting at the camp "ooohing" and "aahhing" at the trail-cam pics of half a dozen hogs cleaning out a hundred pounds of corn in one night. Not waiting (in utter vain) for one of them to actually show up during legal shooting hours.
Nothing like that. Here we were tracking and trailing game, like Pete Capstick, Jack O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Teddy Roosevelt and that bunch did with cape buffalo, kudu, lions, elephants, etc. The only thing missing was the soundscore: the pounding of Zulu drums, a Tarzan yell and the cackle of guinea hens.
In a word, we were hunting, something we rarely do nowdays — though we throw the term around with great abandon.
When jumped, wild swine and feral hogs (and the mongrel type that mostly infests the Pearl River Basin) don't bound and gallop into the next parish, as do deer. We've found that in the bowels of what we still call the "Honey Island Swamp," you can walk slowly through the woods and brambles, and often spot the pigs moving away slowly just ahead of you. We like to go in by boat from the Mississippi side of the East Pearl, get deep into the swamp, locate fresh trails and wallows, then spread out about a hundred yards apart and walk into the wind.
Often the swine you spot won't necessarily be the one you put up. Your hunting chum on your right or left might have put it up — and the one he shoots was one (or several) you spooked. But whatever, you might suddenly find a pig out front, offering a 70-yard shot. If a herd is spooked, this is even more likely, as the pigs (especially the younger, tastier ones) will sometimes mill around a bit, in seeming confusion, offering multiple shots — sometimes at multiple swine. And you talk about EXCITEMENT! Beats sitting in a tree or boxstand any day.
Look at a map of Pearl River WMA, and note how the roads and trails are concentrated in the very north and northeast sections. Look just southeast of this area, and you'll find English Bayou running parallel to the East Pearl for a mile or so before joining it. Note the cul-de-sac this junction forms.
The Thanksgiving either-sex weekend crowds tend to concentrate in the north/northeast section of the WMA, and this orange invasion tends to push many deer and swine down into the English Bayou area, especially funneling them into the cul-de-sac. Consequently the hunting in this area (in our experience, at least) gets better as the season progresses and the pressure in northern sections pushes down the game.
Not that the swine hunting's too shabby farther south around Highway 90. Actually, after a few days of gusty southeast winds, it's a great time to hit the marshy area of the WMA. The tides come up, and the swine concentrate on the higher ridges and islands. Things can get interesting, mainly because there's no trees.
"Aim well!" is veteran swine hunter Jamie Bonck's advice. He and his beagles ran into a herd of hogs in that marsh area recently. "People say hogs can't see well," he laughs. "They say hogs run around blindly when shot at or chased by dogs, and so people think they're charging. Well, it's true they don't see well.
"But I tell ya, this sucker I ran into last year, he was coming STRAIGHT at me! He came out of a thicket, stopped, looked over and saw me. He SAW me. I don't care what anyone who wasn't there says. 'Whoo-boy!' I thought. Then he came straight at me. No mistaken identity here. No blind rush. He knew damn well I was the cause of his problems. BLAM! BLAM! I opened up on the sucker. He turned and dropped not 20 feet in front of me."
There seems no way to put even a dent in the Honey Island Swamp's swine population. They breed year round like rabbits, and are every bit as sharp as deer. Some claim pigs are, in fact, much sharper than deer, and even than dogs. They go nocturnal even faster than deer, and stay that way in even lightly hunted areas. Hence, our "walk-'em-up" safari strategy.
Suddenly a weird gabble issued from up ahead (almost like a guinea hen's cry). Pelayo got up from inspecting the smoking-hot swine sign along the slough, and looked at me with a frown, cocking his head and cupping his ear.
"Where's Eddie?" I asked. "Tried to get him on his cell a little while ago, but looks like he turned it off?"
Then the gabble got louder, mixed in with a few yells. We started trudging and stumbling in their direction, double time. After a couple hundred yards, we recognized part of the yells as Eddie's. So we picked up the pace.
We were all wearing orange, and Pelayo pointed ahead through some brush at Eddie. We got closer, and saw he was looking up into a tree, yelling and gesturing. And his yells and insults had a type of sing-song familiarity to them.
Other yells, threats and insults issued from the tree canopy itself — from an intrepid hunter who had REALLY humped his way up in a climbing stand. He must have been 30 feet up, we noticed upon arrival.
"This Bozo," Eddie said looking at us while pointing up in the tree, "thinks he OWNS this swamp!"
We looked up and the guy seemed immensely agitated.
"You're messin' up my hunt!" he yelled. "I oughta come down there and !"
"You don't frighten me, you silly pig dog!" Eddie yelled. "I blow my nose at you, you silly person!"
"Come on, let's go!" Pelayo grabbed Eddie by the shoulder, but he jerked free and pointed up at the tree again.
"I don't wanna talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food-trough wiper!"
Then Eddie blew a loud raspberry and patted his hat, like John Cleese from the French Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. "I f**t in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries! Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time!"
"Don't think he saw the movie, Eddie!" Pelayo yelled while grabbing his other shoulder. "This swamp's plenty big enough, for Pete's sake! Let's head down English Bayou a little farther, start stalking another area. No big deal!"
Eddie was convulsed in hysterics, looking behind him and watching the guy's crimson face as we trudged off.
"We're outta here, amigo!" Pelayo waved at the climber-hunter. "Good luck! The morning's young!"
Getting deep into this swamp lugging a climbing stand is no picnic. You can't blame the guy. He was obviously a serious hunter — gotta be to stand hunt this area. But hey, such interruptions come with the (public) territory.
Pelayo had a point. Our type of hunting that morning didn't require a stealthy and strategic stand set-up before light — as the horribly agitated gentleman had undoubtedly undergone. He was ambushing. We were stalking.
Eddie was laughing and gasping as we trudged back to the boat.
"What a jerk! Got all worked up when I walked under him. But I hadn't seen the guy," Eddie shrugged. "He didn't have his orange on up there. I got him really worked up, foaming at the mouth. But he couldn't get at me! Just like the jerks who run the Crescent City Classic!"
Eddie's Crescent City Classic routine has itself become a classic. He likes to set up near the finish line in City Park, and scream insults and abuse at the racers just about a half mile from the finish line.
"Heck, if they made it that far," Eddie reasons, "they're SERIOUS, right?! So you think — at that stage — they're going to stop and chase me? No matter how horribly I'm insulting them, no matter the magnitude of their rage at that moment — they're pining for that finish line, something they've been practicing for months. And here's the finish line — almost in sight!
"But here's some lunatic screaming insults from behind an oak tree! They're dying to grab him by the throat and strangle the slimeball and kick his butt till his nose bleeds then report him to the cops, but man, there's the finish, right up ahead! Can't drop out NOW?!"
Eddie started this charming past-time a couple years back when he heard his ex-wife and her boyfriend were running. He let 'em have it good, we hear. He enjoyed the experience to such an extent that it spilled over to "greeting" other runners.
"I noticed that the Crescent City Classic attracts a bunch of Uptown and French Quarter greenie and pinko types, kayakers and stuff," explains Eddie. "That's why I love being a spectator — a very vocal one.
"Same with the jerk up in that tree. I knew I could insult him with impunity. What's he gonna do? Jump down 30 feet to strangle me? I knew by the time he humped down I'd have a big head start on him. So I really piled on the abuse."
It was hard to argue with Eddie's logic.
We motored a quarter mile up English Bayou, and found another area, fairly open (even given the horrendous blowdown problem from Katrina), and sure enough, in short order came upon swine sign every bit as fresh as the stuff we'd found earlier. It doesn't take long to find such down here. The recent hurricanes have cut down on the number of hunters but not on the amount of game, much less of browse. Swine trails crisscrossed the place.
We spread out about a hundred yards apart, and started walking northwest, into the wind, keeping each other's orange usually in sight. About a hundred yards into my stalk, I noticed two hog trails that looked like mini cattle ruts leading into blowdown/briar thickets. Of course, I thought. They're bedding up in there now, after munching out on the abundant mast all night and early morning.
A half hour of slowly stalking later, I thought I caught movement ahead and was straining when — PEOW! — Pelayo's .22 rang out on my right. PEOW! He shot again, and I jumped again.
Geezum! I thought. He musta got into a herd.
"Coming your WAY!" Pelayo suddenly yelled. "A HERD! Coming right at YA!"
"Holy moly," I thought as I lifted the gun, but I couldn't see anything?! Now a third shot! From my left! Eddie was shooting! And finally I saw the swine moving up ahead.
So I rested my gun against a tree, but just couldn't line up through the scope for a clear shot, despite all the little patches of black and white and brown moving across my crosshairs. Too much movement! Too many swine! My heart was pounding in my freaking throat! I was a basket case!
"Hunting is the master behavior pattern of the human species," says Chicago University anthropologist W.S. Laughlin. "Man evolved as a hunter, he spent over 99 percent of his species' history as a hunter, and he spread over the entire habitable globe as a hunter."
My nervous system was in primal mode.
Finally one got in the open, and another, and ANOTHER! But I STILL couldn't pick one that stayed still long enough!
Eddie shot again from my left, and he started whooping. And Pelayo joined in from my right.
My knees were knocking crazily as I walked to Pelayo first. He had two little (tender, tasty) ones down, and we high-fived like idiots. Then Eddie came running up.
"Come check out mine!"
He'd whacked a big black boar, which was odd since mature boars are usually solitary creatures except when breeding. So maybe we'd stumbled upon a swine orgy? Whatever.
"Plenty sausage for the tailgate parties!" Eddie roared.
And we cranked up the whooping and high-fiving to Super Bowl levels.