The early sun glaring through the saddle on the opposite ridge illuminates only the steep, grassy slope from which observers view the hunting drama developing in the shadows across the ravine.
They can see Mingo Parra, bow in hand, working his way down through the thick brush from the ridge as his son, Pancho, comes through the gully. Dressed in camouflage clothing, they are revealed only by their movements.
Then, from their vantage point in the natural amphitheater, the observers see a dark form scoot down the hill to the left, low to the ground, then two more following the first.
“Hey, Brian . . . " the voice of Larry Greve, up on the ridge, murmurs from a walkie-talkie.
“I see ‘em,” Brian Reel responds.
Reel, 300 yards away, gives a short whistle that is clearly audible to the hunters in the morning silence. They look and, with hand signals, Reel indicates the location of the wild hogs. The hunters go into full-stealth stalk, crouching, each step calculated for position.
“They know what they’re doing,” Reel says. “I’ve never seen anybody go through brush as quietly as they do. Other guys just go crashing through, and those hogs go running. They must be Indians, the way they hunt.”
Funny he should say that.
“I’m one-fourth Apache,” said the elder Parra, who was born Domingo Sanchez Parra and has been bow-hunting for 41 of his 54 years. “My grandfather and great-grandfather were (full-blooded) Apache.”
Parra, who manages a service station-tire store in Bishop, also has taught his four sons to bow hunt, but Pancho, 24, was the only one able to accompany him on last weekend’s outing to Greve’s hunting ranch, “Hogs Wild,” 20 miles deep into the Coast Range west of Coalinga.
Greve’s 6,000-acre spread is what remains of the original family homestead of the 19th Century. A four-foot wire fence encloses 600 acres for hogs--descendants of wild Russian pigs that made their way over from a colony at Ft. Hunter Liggett in Monterey County through the years--and “exotic” animals such as wild sheep and goats acquired from breeding ranches in Texas.
While Parra’s ancestors were being squeezed out by westward migration, Greve’s folks raised cattle. Seven years ago, though, the cattle business had slowed, and, Greve said, “I wanted to see if I could make the ranch pay for itself.”
He started to sell hunting permits on the land, then two years ago built the enclosure, where only bow hunting is allowed and the animals have full run of the grassy, square-mile parcel that is so thick with trees and brush that they have plenty of room to roam and hide.
“We wanted a fair chase,” Greve said.
Most of the time it seems more fair to the game than to the hunters. The country in the enclosure is rugged, full of ravines and steep slopes. A day’s hunt, especially in the San Joaquin Valley’s three-digit summer heat, is exhausting.
Greve said the success rate for exotic game is about 85%. “But only one in 20 archers will kill a hog,” he added.
That was a challenge for the Parras, who display an impressive array of trophies around their office in Bishop. With cunning, they closed in on the hogs, which remained out of sight at ground level but could be seen from across the ravine darting in and out of cover.
The hogs were moving in the opposite direction, up the hill--as close an encounter with a wild boar as a reasonable person would want.
These animals, black or dark brown with three-inch tusks and beady eyes, are as mean as they are ugly, but not as dumb as they look.
“They can hear and they can smell, but they can’t see too good,” Greve said. “If you’ve got one cornered in the bush, you’d better back away. I’ve had a few run me up a tree.”
If a tree isn’t convenient, well, Greve had a .357 magnum stuck behind his belt buckle.
Mingo Parra had a .44 magnum in a holster on his hip as a backup. He hasn’t had to use it often, although there’s always a chance with hogs, which are not easily discouraged.
Still, the Parras prefer hunting with bows.
Bowhunting has a low success rate for any type of game--about 3% for deer, according to Jerry Miller of Whittier, a leader of the California Bow Hunters and State Archery Assn.
But there also was only one hunting fatality in the country last year among bowhunters, which is impressive, considering that in California alone, about 13,000 archery-only deer tags were sold.
The wild hog has been classified as a big-game animal in California only since 1957 but already ranks second only to deer in overall hunter harvest. It has become a popular prey of many bow hunters, who must be close to any game to be effective and relish that danger.
The season is open year-round, but the best hunting is on private lands, and even there it’s not necessarily easy.
It is clear that the hogs are going to be tough. Greve returns to ranch headquarters to collect two assistants, Badger and Birdie.
Badger is a barrel-shaped 13-year-old Queensland cattle dog. He has few teeth and waddles about comically on bowed legs, but he has little use for hogs. When he sniffs out a hog, Badger becomes Rin Tin Tin.
Birdie, a brown, short-haired female of uncertain origin, follows Badger’s lead.
Greve leads them into the enclosure through a gate at the top of the ridge, and within a minute Badger freezes, then charges downhill, baying and yelping. Greve and Birdie and the hunters stumble along behind, battling the 45-degree slope and the brush.
Seconds later, the dogs’ howling is joined by frantic oinking and squealing, and then the whole noisy bunch is plunging down to the muddy creekbed a quarter-mile below. The dogs finally bring the hog to bay at the bottom, with Pancho Parra close behind, followed by Greve, who has taken a nasty fall on one shoulder along the way.
“I was right there,” Parra says later, “but no way I could take a shot because of the dogs.”
Greve pulls off the dogs, and Pancho drills the hog from 10 yards away. His field-dress autopsy will show that his shot penetrated both the heart and lungs.
Badger is exhausted.
Greve estimates that the hog weighed about 110 pounds, although the average kill at Hogs Wild runs from 150 to 250. The ranch record is a 635-pound critter taken last year, but this isn’t a day to be particular.
“The best time to hunt these hogs is in the summer--July, August, September--when it’s hot and the water’s limited,” Greve says. “Then they’re all together, down low. Now, they’re all over the place.”
It has already been a long day when the group drives over to the Priest Valley Station roadhouse for a hamburger lunch. The hunters are scratched and disheveled, their clothes and boots caked with mud. They stumble in and plop down on the stools at the counter.
A waitress who knows Greve eyes his dirty, rumpled black Stetson and asks how the hunt is going.
“We got one hog,” Greve tells her.
“What’d ya do,” she asks, “beat it to death with your hat?”