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On the hunt for wild pigs above Lake Sonoma

Guide Jayson Collard finds a high point to view the web of game trails while searching for signs of pigs high above Lake Sonoma. (JOHN BURGESS/The Press Democrat)

JOHN BURGESS, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

On a narrow ridge high above Lake Sonoma, hunting guide Jayson Collard “glassed” the web of game trails in the oak woodland below.

Through the blur of dense growth and distance, his image-stabilized binoculars distilled a large 2-by-2 black-tailed deer buck resting in the shade of a stand of old oak trees. Just beyond, a coyote stood on alert, then hobbled away on a broken leg.

It was still mid-afternoon, and the wild pigs he was looking for weren’t up and moving yet. But there was plenty of other wildlife to see.

“I’m always noticing game trails and scat and food,” said Collard, 31, an expert bow hunter. “I can’t turn it off. How many people get to see mountain lions? I see them all the time.”

Collard had left his bow behind on this particular day. He was there to guide Tyler Nackord, a San Quentin guard from Penngrove who has hunted for four years, so it was Nackord who carried a bow.

But if you’re imagining a Robin Hood-style archer’s implement, don’t.

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Today’s compound instruments are marvels of modern materials and design: lightweight, adjustable, with cams and stabilizers that improve aim and delivery power. Nackord, 31, also toted a range finder to supplement the bow’s precision distance and targeting system.

A neon blue light embedded in the nock at the tip of the arrow even lights up if the point should reach its target, a nocturnal beast that forages by night.

But even with all that help, the likelihood of bagging a pig is slim, despite their exploding numbers and wide range. Wily and resilient, they are highly adaptable to hunting pressure, moving easily into new territories or becoming more active at later hours.

Most hunters walk for miles, sit and watch for hours and still go home with nothing in their game bags. It’s a good day when someone actually takes a shot.

This just happened to be Nackord’s lucky day.

“For the past week, I shot about 50 arrows a day, making sure I can get the shot right,” he said.

Pig hunting is permitted at Lake Sonoma only by bow or crossbow, and only during a window when park visitorship is relatively low, this year from November to March 23.

But by special arrangement, and for a price, a limited number of hunters can arrange for a guided pig hunt in the adjacent 5,000-acre preserve called the Lake Sonoma Wildlife Area, located north of the public recreation area, the Liberty Glen Campground and the Lake Sonoma Marina. The $300 fee supports the Friends of Lake Sonoma, which helps the Army Corps of Engineers run tours and educational programs through the park Visitor Center and Fish Hatchery.

And it buys Collard’s expertise.

Nackord and Collard hired a shuttle boat to ferry them to a far corner of the preserve covering the northeast side of the lake. Upon landing, they secured camouflage backpacks over camouflage clothing and began the slow walk up a steep hillside toward the place where they would sleep.

There were no trails, except those made by animals, and it was a tough climb to the ridge-line campsite 700 feet above the lake. The view made it well worth the effort. Pritchett Peak loomed high on the east. In the other direction, one of Sonoma County’s best views unfurled — rolling, oak-studded hills, layered one behind the other, divided by fog-filled valleys.

Collard has glassed the area for years and knows that the main game trail passes between two large oaks, then continues across the hillside passing 30 yards below the campsite. His plan was to split up and glass as large an area as possible in the hour before sunset. He gave Nackord a radio with a headset so he could keep his hands free for the bow, then headed off 100 yards to the west.

Under every oak tree in the area, a perfect circle of rooted dirt where the pigs had been feasting on acorns gave away their presence. But pigs, which have poor eyesight, have a well-honed sense of smell and can detect odors up to seven miles away, Collard explained, so merely knowing they are in an area is not enough.

“It’s exciting to finally see a pig, but that’s just the beginning,” Collard said. “You still have to plan your route. How am I going to get to that animal? How close can I get to take a shot?”

Sitting in silence is the hunter’s meditation. But instead of thinking of nothing, a hunter focuses on everything.

Dark, pig-shaped objects, viewed through binoculars, turn out to be merely rocks. A warren of chemise may offer cover for sleeping and is worth checking out. A game trail on each side makes its role as a hideout more likely.

Opening your ears to the squeals and rustles of a pig also admits the flapping wings of birds flying low over the lake, the motorized boat of an angler on the water, the constant bird calls and, from miles away, a donkey’s bray.

Nackord, keeping watch on the hillside above Lake Sonoma, jumped at the sound of a grunt.

Grabbing his bow, he surveyed the area for several moments before determining the sound had come from across the lake. But the “grunt,” much to his disappointment, had in fact been the grinding sound of a car crossing cattle grates on Rockpile Road on the opposite ridge line, some two miles away.

After another 30 minutes came the noise of scuffling feet and a quick grunt from a game trail to the southeast, in between the two oaks Collard had shown him earlier. Nackord’s eyes grew wide, his body taut with adrenaline as he nocked an arrow.

Ducking low, he could see the black back of a pig moving down the trail under low-hanging branches. He tried to use his range finder but quickly realized the animal was moving too fast. He would have to rely on his own judgment when looking through his sight.

“I guessed he was between 25 and 30 yards, drew back and put my 20-yard pin a little high,” Nackord later explained.

He stayed calm, his posture and form perfect as he trained his bow on the animal, moving it in an arc to match the speed of the pig. He let the arrow fly, and the sound it made on impact was like hitting a 55-gallon barrel with a bat. Nackord spun around, threw his hand in the air triumphantly and, in the endorphin rush that followed, ran to a nearby photographer and grabbed him for a bear hug.

The perfect shot to bring down a pig lands just behind the shoulder and penetrates the lungs. Nackord thought he had made that shot.

Looking over the edge of a 15-foot-wide ledge where he had expected to find the pig, he chastised himself. No hunter wants an animal to suffer, but his shot had not been enough to kill the pig. Though injured, it had gotten away.

Collard arrived quickly after receiving the radio call that Nackord had “hit the target.” The guide took over, questioned Nackord and located the spot where the pig had been struck. Crouching low to look for a blood trail, he tracked the animal’s direction. The pair sidestepped down the steep incline and soon saw the neon blue of the arrow from about 200 yards.

Checking the wind direction and the distance to the pig with his rangefinder, Nackord approached from upwind, taking a yard off the distance with every step. At 50 yards, the pig spooked and moved slowly into the brush.

This time, Nackord didn’t need a second shot. After two year of hunting pigs without so much as releasing an arrow, he would bring one home.

“I got an animal I can share with my friends,” he announced. “I’m taking this to Bud’s Meats for some jalapeño cheddar sausage.”

Local boy, local game, local processing.

You can reach Staff Photographer John Burgess at 526-8529 or john.burgess@sonic.net.