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Pearls Before Pigs

Ray Casais remembers the days when pigs were everywhere in the Glades
COURTESY OF RAY CASAIS

The sun reflects off the artificial lake at the center of Midway Campground, bouncing a torpid late-afternoon light onto a trio of humongous RVs. In a sprawling tent near the camp's entrance, three young hunters groan and grumble in loose camo clothing — dreaming, no doubt, about pork.

Jack rises tall and sinewy out of the tent and rubs the sleep from his eyes. He drops a rank rack of ribs and a bottle of Publix brand mojo sauce into a trash bag and sighs. He munches on chips and dip while barking at his friends Clyde and Steve to get their asses up.

Clyde stumbles out, sporting spiked highlighted hair and a snug metal necklace. The young father earns a living as a high-priced hairdresser in Miami and has been hunting pigs with Jack for a couple of years. He flashes a mischievous grin and hurls a boot at Steve, who's still balled up in his sleeping bag.

Steve stands up about 20 minutes later and croaks with mild annoyance. He's on vacation from his pursuit of a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Central Florida and is engaged in something of a hunting bender. Steve produces a small pipe and pokes a little green nugget into its sticky bowl; he puffs deeply and opens a beer. The three are soon stoned, armed, and ready to finish the penultimate day of their weeklong swamp-side pig hunt.

So far they have the will, but not the swine.

Hunting season began in late October. Now, more than a month later, only seven hogs have been taken out of the Big Cypress National Preserve. The lack of pigs remains a mystery for both hunters and wildlife biologists.

Spanish pigs arrived in Florida (and by extension, North America) around 1539 with explorer Hernando de Soto. The swine outlived all of de Soto's women and most of his men. While the Spaniard's band dwindled, the pig population boomed into the hundreds.

They escaped into the wilderness and grew wild and fierce. They ate everything: roots, newts, baby deer, grubs, worms, snakes, birds, eggs, and tortoises.

For the next 300 years they bred like rabbits and kept up with the appetites of gators, panthers, and man by producing litters of five to 12 piglets twice a year.

By the end of the Third Seminole War, in 1858, the tribe's matriarchs maintained droves of them in the Everglades and sold them in markets as far south as Key West.

The creatures survived the hurricanes of mid-Twenties swimmingly. During the Thirties and Forties, they braved the fires and droughts wrought by the Army Corps of Engineers' ham-handed drainage projects.

The hogs stuck it out on the high ground, bedding down in hammock brush during the day. At night, they rooted and wallowed. They became a bonus for hunters who cut through the swamp in airboats, half-tracks, and homemade swamp buggies searching for deer. Before long, the hunters established clubs that stocked the preserve with pigs. "Rednecks and Cubans alike joined up to keep the pig population going," recalls a retired Florida Fish and Wildlife agent who participated in the stocking efforts. "They were adamant about it."

Ray Casais came to Miami from Cuba in 1967, when his family settled on the western edge of town. He can recall hunting pigs in the Big Cypress by age seven with one of his uncles. "When I was young," he says, "there were a lot of hogs."

As Miami spread west in the Seventies, Congress approved 574,000 acres of Dade, Collier, and Monroe County swamp for the Big Cypress National Preserve — the final southern battleground between man and pig. Casais roved the muck on a buggy and flushed out his prey with bay dogs. He finished them off with a spear or a knife. "It's a rush," he says. "There's nothing like an animal coming at you and you're fighting mano a mano."

By the late Eighties, the park had been expanded to 720,000 acres, and pig hunting was hot.

Lucky Cole, an erotic photographer, could count on shooting one pig a season off the back deck of his home on the eastern side of the preserve back in 1994, the same year hunters took 164 hogs out of Big Cypress.

Indeed the hogs were booming. In 1998 the Herald reported a population of between 500,000 and a million hogs in Florida. Three years later, the National Park Service limited hunters' use of off-road vehicles in Big Cypress, which meant they would have to haul huge carcasses from the swamp by hand. Hunting didn't drop off significantly, according to state records, but the number of pigs killed fell like a brick piano.

Records show only 48 pigs have been dragged out since 2003. Last year hunters bagged only two. (Cole hasn't seen one on his Loop Road property for years.)

So what happened to all the wild pigs?

Scientists' guesses have ranged from flux water levels to drought to fires to overhunting. Hunters blame panthers, pythons, and Everglades National Park rangers, who have orders to shoot feral hogs on sight. (Their value as panther food and hunting fodder has earned them a pass in Big Cypress.)

The cause of their seemingly reduced numbers, says Joe Bozzo, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, is "a big mystery. [But] I don't think anyone's heartbroken about it."

He's wrong.

Jack, Clyde, and Steve want a pig.

Jack, age 23, has hunted in the preserve for as long as he can remember. Last year he killed one on a paid hunt in Texas and has wanted to bag a Florida hog ever since. He's been out in the swamp since the season began, joined occasionally by his high school friends Steve and Clyde.

On Monday, November 19, Jack and Steve woke up two hours before dawn and drove more than 50 miles to the Collier County wildnerness. They gathered their guns and orange vests and headed off the road. They parked along the Tamiami Trail and walked through the dark predawn woods, toward a patch of rooted-up ground (telltale pig activity).

After setting out a bit of corn at the base of a couple of cypress trees, they climbed about eight feet up and sat in the eerie silence for hours. Steve perched on his makeshift platform — scrap metal connected to the trunk by a length of chain.

Jack recalls Steve talking a lot and maintaining a pungent cloud of reefer smoke around his perch. Steve says he was mostly trying not to fall asleep.

After sunup, they threw their things into Jack's pickup truck and rushed back to Miami. Jack put in a full day of installing alarm systems for Steve's uncle.

Steve slept.

By 4 p.m., they were rushing back to Big Cypress, hoping to make it to their tree stands for sunset. They arrived to find their corn eaten. As the sun disappeared, they could hear the far-off gobble of turkeys and the scuttering sounds of squirrels. Around 9, they navigated back to Jack's truck with flashlights.

The week continued in the stoned, soul-crunching cycle of Jack and Steve racing back and forth between the swamp and Miami, only to find their corn gone and the pigs elsewhere.

When the weekend rolled around, they set up at Midway Campground, 11 miles west of the Collier County line. Clyde somehow got away from the salon, his wife, and his newborn child to join them for a weekend of hunting. The trio alternated between wandering through watery stretches of woods and sitting in trees. The only shots fired during the whole week came from an automatic weapon that some hateful bastard let loose from a truck window to scare them off.

On the final night of the hunt, they returned to camp around 10, carrying pieces of gray firewood they found in the woods. Clyde seemed happy to get away from the madness of the city, though he made a number of pledges to shoot the next squirrel he saw. (He didn't.)

The trio camped out under the cool November sky and ate the store-bought pork ribs. They drank beer, made fun of each other's girlfriends, and bickered, between tokes, about how to correctly situate a series of Del Monte vegetable cans in the campfire. Later they zipped themselves, stony-eyed, into their sleeping bags and dreamed of the bygone days when pigs in Big Cypress were fat and plenty.


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