The Ham Slam: Bowhunting Florida Hogs

ham_slam_fThey say variety is the spice of life, and that's certainly true in bowhunting. Whether it's varying the species we pursue, the tactics we employ or the equipment we carry afield, change helps keep the sport fresh, broadens our perspective and provides a constant source of new challenges to embrace.

So, when presented with the opportunity to join some friends last spring in the hog-infested swamps of Central Florida for a three-day hunt with Osceola Outfitters, I  added an interesting twist to the adventure by attempting to take one pig each with crossbow, compound bow and recurve bow — a feat I not so cleverly dubbed "the ham slam."

When it comes to sheer bowhunting fun, wild hogs are hard to beat. I've taken well over a dozen with various compound bows, so the genesis of my ham slam quest was a desire to expand my bowhunting horizons for personal and professional reasons.

Personally, after years of recreational recurve shooting, I was finally ready to take the traditional challenge and go after game with my Bear Take-Down in hand. Likewise, though I had shot plenty of crossbows on the practice range, I had never hunted with one. But in light of the ongoing, nationwide explosion in crossbow use, it seemed the time was right professionally to gain some practical field experience with the weapon.

The hunt was further facilitated by Florida's liberal hog-hunting rules, which feature no closed season, no weapon restrictions and an unlimited bag limit. Heck, you don't even need a hunting license! Add an overabundant hog population that provides plenty of shooting opportunities and all systems were go for my quest to add some new notches to my bowhunting belt.

A Rookie Mistake

Our hunt dates were April 21-23, which included our arrival at the lodge and an afternoon hunt on the 21st, followed by full-day hunts on the 22nd and 23rd. Robust hog population or not, I figured pulling off the ham slam with such limited time would require a combination of solid strategy, straight shooting and good luck.

My plan was to hit the ground running with crossbow in hand and then pick up the compound, with the intention of getting the "easier" shots out of the way quickly while leaving as much time as possible for the more challenging recurve. But as is typically the case in bowhunting, nothing came easily.

After arriving at the Orlando airport and meeting up with the other members of our group, we made the 45-minute drive south to the lodge, where we were greeted by Outfitter William "Hoppy" Kempfer, who has been offering fully guided hog, deer, turkey and alligator hunts on his family's 25,000-acre ranch for two decades. Having taken three boar hogs during my previous visit in 2011, I was eager to get started. So, it didn't take me long to unpack, throw on some camouflage, launch a few practice shots from my TenPoint Stealth SS and head out with friend Mark Sidelinger and guide Mike Kingery.

Wild hogs seek refuge from Florida's heat and humidity at mid-day and are most active early and late in the day, when groups of several to a dozen or more pigs can often be found feeding in fields, along flood-control berms or other open areas. The trick is to cover a lot of ground and glass likely areas until some hogs are spotted. Then it's time to make a plan and move in.

Although a hog's nose is virtually impossible to beat, their eyesight is poor, their hearing is only average and — unlike deer and turkeys — they don't pay a whole lot of attention to what's happening around them when they are relaxed and feeding. As long as you can keep the wind in your favor, keep noises to a minimum and pick your spots to move, slipping within bow range is entirely possible.

The first couple hours out with Mike and Mark were slow, but as the shadows grew and the sun slid lower on the horizon, we spotted a lone boar feeding in a grassy strip along a sandy ranch road. Mark, ever the gracious bowhunting companion, said, "You're up."

Eager to begin my stalk, I quickly attached the rope cocking aid to the crossbow string and pulled it back into place. In my haste, I didn't realize I cocked the crossbow with the safety already engaged — a critical "rookie mistake" that would soon add a significant degree of difficulty to this encounter.

Slowly easing my way toward the boar, I used a sizable clump of palmettos to shield myself from the animal's view as I closed to roughly 30 yards and dropped to my knees. The pig was feeding from my left to right, and I anticipated a relatively simple, 25-yard, broadside shot as it passed in front of me. At the right moment, I slid out from behind the cover, brought the crossbow to my shoulder, placed the crosshairs on the boar's chest, flipped off the safety and squeezed the trigger. Nothing! I squeezed again. Nothing! I flipped the safety back on and off again and squeezed a third time. Still nothing!

Now in a panic, I lowered the crossbow, turned around and crawled back behind the palmettos, where a confused Mike was wondering why I hadn't shot.

"The crossbow won't fire!" I whispered, handing him the weapon.

Quickly realizing what I had done, Mike proceeded to reattach the rope cocker and pull the string back so I could release the safety catch and get the rig properly cocked. Meanwhile, the boar — still completely unaware of our presence — continued feeding away from us in the fast-fading daylight. Honestly, the whole thing would have been comical had it been someone else hunting.

With the TenPoint finally ready for action, I now had to regain some ground on the boar in relatively open terrain. Crouching low and waddling step by step, I got to 40 yards as the boar approached a barbed wire cattle fence. With shooting light rapidly dwindling and fearing the boar would soon slide under the fence, I decided it was now or never. Raising the crossbow to my shoulder once again, I held the crosshairs as steady as I could in light of my now-labored breathing and squeezed off the shot. The bolt sailed toward the boar, hitting with a hollow thump that told me what I didn't want to hear. I had hit the pig in the gut.

Turning around to gauge Mike's reaction, the expression on his face said it all. I can only imagine he was thinking, This guy can't cock his crossbow correctly, and he can't shoot it straight, either! Oh, the life of a professional hunting guide.

Realizing we needed to give the boar some time, we headed back to the truck to find our flashlights and enlist Mark's help. By the time we crossed the fence and picked up the blood trail along a well-worn game path, it was completely dark. Fortunately, we didn't go more than 150 yards before Mike practically stumbled on my boar, which was laying in the brush but still had enough fight to get up and make a fierce charge that forced us to beat a hasty retreat before I was able to circle around and make a finishing shot.

Mosquitoes swarmed around us as we dragged the boar back to the truck through the heavy Florida night, and I offered Mike and Mark apologies for making the evening more complicated than it needed to be. Still, in spite of the difficulties, my first-ever crossbow hunting experience was a success — and one I'll not soon forget!

One down. Two to go.

If at First You Don't Succeed'¦

Day two found me picking up my Hoyt Carbon Element for the second leg of the ham slam. With a familiar compound back in my hand, I was back in my comfort zone. But just as with the crossbow, getting the job done would prove more difficult than anticipated.

The morning hunt was slow, yielding nary a stalk. Fortunately, Osceola Outfitters is big enough that Kempfer always has some new hotspots in mind. So, we didn't get far into the afternoon hunt before Kempfer led me through a cow pasture, over a fence and into a jungle of vegetation known to be a favorite hog haunt.

Sure enough, we'd only gone a short distance into the tangled mess of vines and palmettos before we spotted movement ahead of us. A small group of hogs was lounging in the shade of a live oak, highlighted by a large, toothy boar bedded at the base of a tree.

With the wind in our favor, we picked our way around the edge of the clearing and reached a spot just 30 yards from the boar, which was laying perfectly broadside to us. I had plenty of time to range the shot multiple times, take my time getting ready, gather myself and settle in for the shot. Yet when I stepped out from behind our cover and loosed my arrow, it sailed harmlessly over the boar's back and skidded across the leaf litter on the ground as the startled pigs disappeared into the bush.

"What happened?" asked an incredulous Kempfer. "Did you use the wrong pin?"

"No," I replied dejectedly. "I just punched it."

Had I blown a "gimme" shot like that on a trophy whitetail, it would have made me sick to my stomach. But there is no such gravity when it comes to wild hogs. If you blow one opportunity, you simply go find another.

No more than an hour later, we spotted another group of hogs and I was given a chance for redemption. After a brief stalk, we had closed to about 25 yards. This time, my aim was true, and after a brief search through a maze of game trails winding through the thick cover, I laid my hands on the black boar.

Now, that was more like it. Two down. One to go.

Gone to the Dogs

So, the ham slam would come down to this — one day remaining to take my first kill with a recurve. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't the part I was looking forward to all along.

In addition to spot-and-stalk hunting, Osceola Outfitters maintains numerous corn feeders throughout the property. These feeders provide a predictable stream of shooting opportunities on hungry hogs, and given my total lack of experience with traditional bowhunting, I wasn't too proud to accept when Kempfer suggested I spend my final morning perched in a ladder stand overlooking one of these feeders.

Arriving on stand before daylight, I settled in with my Bear Take-Down for what I hoped would be a short hunt. When the feeder sprang to life around 7 a.m., the noise startled me so badly I practically fell out of the stand! Even when I know what's coming, those feeders get me every time.

Similarly, it was no surprise when a group of six to eight hogs came grunting through the brush a few minutes later and made their way into the clearing at the base of the feeder. Still, the pigs' anticipated arrival did nothing to calm my nerves as I slowly stood up, wrapped three fingers around the bowstring and yanked it back toward my left cheek. Taking aim a good-sized sow standing broadside not 15 yards away, I relaxed my fingers and watched with great expectation as my feathered shaft leapt from the bow. Although my side-to-side aim was spot on, I badly overestimated the elevation, causing the shaft to sail harmlessly over the hog's back. Dang it!

As my arrow buried itself halfway into the sandy soil beneath the feeder, the sounds of scrambling hog hooves and crashing brush filled the air. Then all was silent. For the next two hours until Kempfer returned to pick me up, I relived the encounter dozens of times and consoled myself with the idea most traditional archers probably missed their first shot at game.

While I certainly didn't feel any shame in my miss, I was now down to the final afternoon of hunting. Fortunately, Kempfer has a seemingly unending number of tricks up his sleeve when it comes to pursuing pigs, and this hunt was about to go to the dogs.

Having watched another hunter find success behind Kempfer's specially trained hog hounds during my previous visit, I knew this exciting, fast-paced tactic could be perfect for securing the close-range opportunity I'd need to score with the recurve. So, my confidence was high as Kempfer loaded several dogs into the "swamp buggy" (an old ranch truck converted into a high ground clearance vehicle with kennels on the bottom and hunter seating up top) and we headed off into the swamp.

Here's how this whole hound hunting thing works: A lead dog fitted with a Garmin GPS tracking collar ranges out in front of the buggy as Kempfer drives slowly along. When the lead dog crosses a fresh hog track and picks up the scent, it immediately starts barking and sprints off like a shot as it takes up the trail. That's the signal for Kempfer to stop, release two or three additional dogs and start the chase.

That's where the hunter comes in, and it wasn't long before I found myself climbing down from the buggy and charging into the swamp behind Kempfer. To say it is difficult to keep up with a pack of dogs hot on the heels of a hog while scrambling through a swamp with a 56-inch-long recurve in your hand would be an understatement. The entire affair is loosely controlled chaos, and I repeatedly found myself tripping over tangled vines, tumbling into mud and handing my bow to Kempfer so I could get down on all fours and crawl through tiny holes in the thronged vegetation.

Eventually, of course, the hog either evades the dogs or the dogs catch up and "bay" the hog, meaning they surround it and continue barking until you finally show up. Then, you have to figure out how to move into shooting position on an extremely agitated hog making repeated charges toward the dogs and you.

The first time the dogs bayed the large black sow we were after, Kempfer was attempting to maneuver me for a shot when the pig bolted, the dogs followed and the whole traveling circus started moving again.

We'd been running through the swamp for about 30 minutes before we caught up with the hog a second time and found it holding its ground in the middle of a small creek. This time, I was able to get to about 10 yards and made a good chest shot. However, the wounded hog took off for a second time, forcing us to scramble through the jungle once again before the dogs bayed it a final time and I released a finishing shot from near point-blank range.

Did I mention it is hot in Florida? By the time all this played out, I was nearly exhausted. My cheeks were beet red, my chest was heaving, my heart was pounding and I was completely soaked with sweat. But it was a good kind of tired. With three hogs on the ground, my ham slam was complete. It may not have gone exactly according to plan, but it worked out just the same.

Mission accomplished.

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