Hog Huntin' in the Glades

Without a word, blue-eyed, leather-skinned Mark Clemons steers a camouflage electric golf cart down a lonesome, bumpy dirt road about 25 miles south of Lake Okeechobee. The only sound for miles is wind whistling through saw grass and spiky palmettos. A weak winter sun has barely been up 15 minutes when Clemons kills the motor and rests a mud-stained hand on a faded, brown pistol case. Raising his eyebrows, he gives passenger Mark Schneider a look that says, You ready for this?

The front of the cart forecasts the day's plan; a 10-pound bow, equipped with sharp arrows, rests on the cold steel. Leaning forward, Clemons whispers instructions to Schneider, a broad-shouldered real estate agent with the posture of a soldier: "After you shoot him, let him run away. Won't get far before he'll lay down and die."

About 100 yards away, in the grassy distance, a bristly black dog-size hog wanders toward the men. They wait silently out of sight. The blurred figure nears.

"That a sow?" Schneider whispers.

Clemons responds with an affirmative grunt as a puppy-size baby hog stumbles into view.

This is no good. When cornered, a wild sow with her babies is one of the most aggressive animals on Earth. Hunters have been maimed by them. Just this past October, a 72-year-old German hunter was killed by one outside Frankfurt.

The men silently size up the animal and decide to move on. Mama pig happily trots off into some shrubs.

Schneider nevertheless prepares himself. He takes a deep breath, grabs his bow, and gathers a quiver full of green-and-yellow arrows. Clemons shoves a shiny silver .45-caliber pistol into his back pocket, and they head into a woodsy stretch that backs up to a field of grass. There's no path, so Clemons ducks under pine branches and steps over logs, leading Schneider deep into the wild.

Soon they spot four feral boars — all twice the size of the sow — rooting for acorns 10 yards away in a dry, open clearing. A swirl of dirt rises around their moist gray snouts. Crouching behind a tree, the men look as if they've been plucked from a scene in Lord of the Flies. Schneider's face grows hot with adrenaline, and something primal glistens in his gator-green eyes. He pulls out a thin arrow and loads it on the bow. With a shaking hand, he draws the string.

He aims, but hesitates; there are branches in the way. After Schneider takes a few slow steps forward, the four-foot-long pig turns broadside, offering a clear view of his hairy, bulbous belly.

Schneider steadies himself. There's a pause. Just then, two boars look up at him, as if to say, Oh, fuck.

Too late. The arrow flies and makes a popping sound as is it pierces a midsize one's gut. The boar lets out an unholy snort and then grunts and hobbles into the woods. Blood trickles like water from a broken shower head onto the ground.

But it's not over. The beast could still charge them, sharp tusks exposed. Or it could escape to fight another day.

Wild hogs like the one wounded by Schneider have been hunted with bow and arrow, spears, guns, and even knives in the United States for almost half a millennium. Florida, where the Spanish first delivered the intelligent monsters, has the second-largest wild pig population in the nation, after Texas. Hunting season here typically lasts November to January. But as the state moves closer to closing a $1.3 billion deal to buy 181,000 acres of private land — mostly hog habitat — the ancient art seems poised to disappear.

The creatures aren't cute. Unlike their pink, curly-tailed barnyard relatives, they have fanglike tusks that jet outward like cream-colored swords from their lower jaws. Thick, wiry tufts of dark hair sprout along their backs, and they possess an armor of thick hide. An average hog weighs 200 pounds, but some grow to six times that — almost equal to four Shaquille O'Neals — all in one ornery package. Persians hunted them thousands of years ago. Later, European gentry made a sport of it. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto first brought domestic hogs to a settlement near present-day Bradenton in 1539 after stopping in Cuba. Some escaped and were raised by Native Americans in semi-wild conditions. "Florida is pig central," says Scott Hardin, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission exotic species specialist. "They just radiated out of the Southeast."

As hogs spread north during the 16th Century, they didn't need much help with survival. They are the teenage boys of the wild; they'll eat almost anything and constantly mate. "They are little breeding machines," says University of Florida professor Bill Giuliano, who teaches wildlife ecology and conservation. "People who want to eradicate them will have a heck of a time doing it."

On top of that, a hog can adapt to almost any climate, has no natural predators, and can bear up to three litters of 13 per year. They are smarter than a toddler and have a better sense of smell than a hunting hound. Over time, they have learned to recognize traps and run quickly when chased.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission first declared hogs wild game in the Everglades in 1956, but as time went on, animal rights groups and environmentalists wrested some control from hunters.

State rules became more restrictive. By the Eighties, hunters had to apply and pay for licenses; they were permitted to use only certain weapons, and could hunt for only a few months of the year in regulated areas. "It became clear we needed to manage wildlife using science," says Henry Cabbage, who has worked at the commission for about 25 years. "But now it's more or less micromanaged."

In 1996, Charlotte County hog territory became the setting for a murder mystery, as investigators contemplated whether human bones had been dragged to a semi-rural area by a boar or dumped by a killer. After months of research, they dismissed the hog theory and collared former Navy officer Daniel Owen Conahan Jr. for tying naked homeless men to trees, sexually mutilating them, and killing them. He was sentenced to death.

Then in February 2004, Central Florida hunter Gary McQuiston caused a stir by shooting and killing a 400-pound endangered black bear, which he mistook for a giant boar. A part-time taxidermist, McQuiston was sentenced to 11 months in Pasco County jail. "All I could see was the silhouette," he told the court. "And I wanted that pig. It was the biggest of them all."

The same year, 31-year-old hunting guide Chris Griffin shot an 800-pound hog in Alapaha, Georgia, near the Florida border. A photograph of the mammoth animal, hung by its hind legs, circulated among small-town hunters, and it became known as "Hogzilla." The story was broadcast around the world, and Griffin was even invited to appear on The Tonight Show. The following year, National Geographic Explorer dug up the creature for a documentary. An independent film company soon held auditions for Legend of Hogzilla, a horror flick loosely based on the true story.

In 2005, a fireman trumped Hogzilla, bagging a 1,200-pounder near a pond on a farm in Okahumpka that was nicknamed Hog Kong. The shooter, 39-year-old Larry Early, told the Florida Times-Union he first thought it was a cow but then "saw an eight-inch tusk."

Wild hogs munch on seedlings, young domesticated livestock, and even alligator and sea turtle eggs. Each year, they do $100 to $200 million in damage to land in Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and their rooting looks something like a drunken tractor plow. They also carry 45 parasitic and infectious diseases such as pseudorabies, which can spread to hunting dogs and domesticated swine.

Experts estimate the wild boar population in Florida to be between 500,000 and 1 million. The animals live in all 67 counties, with populations most dense in the areas immediately west and north of Lake Okeechobee.

It's not as easy as you'd expect to kill them. Their keen sense of smell helps them avoid detection; hunters bag almost three times as many deer as hogs. Restrictions also play a role. On public land, only one boar can be taken a day. To skirt the rules, some enthusiasts pay a guide to hunt on private property, where almost anything goes. In the past few years, more hunters have flocked to guides such as Clemons, who leases about 6,500 acres south of Clewiston.

The lack of rules has allowed some horrendous practices. Everglades hunting clubs have begun offering cage hunts, in which animals are trapped and shot in large fenced-off areas. Some people even use helicopters to shoot them from above. Extreme hunters use spears and knives, sometimes flipping a boar by its hooves and stabbing it in the heart.

Ron Oizzo, who runs Ron's Guide Service in Lakeport, near Lake Okeechobee, says he sees several knife hunts a year, usually from Hispanic clients. "You got blood squirting all over the place, and you gotta try not to get bit doing it. It's a gruesome way of killing 'em, and I think you have to be a little sadistic to do it. You have to have a little Jeffrey Dahmer in you."

On a damp, chilly morning in February 2005, as the clouds rolled in over the flat, swampy land a few miles northeast of Big Cypress National Preserve, Clemons led a brawny, gray-haired 64-year-old former racecar driver named Gary Roubinek on a boar hunt. They brought along a .45-70-caliber rifle that was big enough to kill a large bear.

About 9 a.m., they spotted a five-foot-long, 250-pound beast of a pig. Roubinek shot it in the head and then through the chest. But, for some reason, "he just wouldn't die," Clemons recalls.

So the men pushed a few yards through the prickly underbrush to finish the job. They didn't expect a fight.

But bloody, angry, and seeking revenge, the hog snorted and stormed Clemons. He pulled out his pistol and aimed. Then ... click. The gun wasn't loaded.

This is it, Clemons thought. This is how I'm gonna die. With the hog in pursuit, Clemons sprinted to a palmetto tree and fumbled to the top, where the boar couldn't reach him. But the animal didn't give up. It butted the flimsy plant, which began to give way as Clemons hopped to another. For five minutes, the game continued. Roubinek scrambled to find ammo in his pocket and popped another bullet into the rifle's chamber. He shot the attacker between the eyes.

Clemons tells the story like a fireman describing a battle with a big blaze, shaking his head while sitting at a homey table inside the Swamp Water Café, a diner-style restaurant on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation. He employs phrases such as "trophy hawg," "big ol' fella," and "fair chase." As he is about to finish, a hearty waitress with a dirty-blond ponytail clears his plate of Indian tacos. "That pig should have had me," he says. "It was the hog from hell."

After nearly 40 years of hunting, Clemons believes he can read a wild boar's mind based on the way the wind blows. He is able to wrestle an alligator and escape with just a scrape, and navigate the Everglades in the eerie black of night. His freezer has been filled with gator jowls, squirrel, and snake. ("One thing people don't know," Clemons says, "is how good rattlesnake tastes.") Under his fingernails is the dirt that comes from working the land.

Clemons has the hardened exterior of a man who lives by cold Darwinian law. He seems bothered — or perhaps simply uninterested — in traffic jams, small talk, and hurt feelings. "I like the isolation," he says. "Out here, we don't have all those issues." He can seem primitive and brutal, but is also unwaveringly principled.

"[Mark Clemons] may not look or act like it, but he's an incredibly smart guy," says Schneider, the real estate agent from the bow hunt. "His philosophies are deep and wide."

The guide was born August 1, 1960, to Arthur Clemons, an outdoorsy tomato nursery worker, and Nell Gavin, a pretty, slender homemaker who could hold her own on fishing trips. He was the youngest of three boys in a working-class family that lived just west of the Palmetto Expressway.

Arthur, an orphan, had grown up in the mountains of Kentucky during the Great Depression and was deathly poor. Things were so bad that at times he was forced to shoot and eat squirrels. This had a long-lasting effect. As an adult, he refused to hunt.

But the family sometimes trapped lobster in the Keys during the summer. Mark recalls that when he was four years old, an uncle named Don heaved him into the water during a fishing trip to teach him how to swim. At first, he flailed and choked. "You're scared and you're crying," Mark remembers. "But it's over in a second."

Five years later, the family moved to a more isolated, rust-colored, one-story house near the beach in Bonita Springs. As a scrawny nine-year-old, he shot his first gun with his brothers, Brett and Wayne. Aiming at a soup can, he pulled the trigger. The recoil was so strong it knocked him over and he began to cry. I never, ever want to do that again, he thought.

"It was always competitive between us," says his older brother Brett, who now prefers computers to hunting. "We were raised outdoors and were constantly beating the crap out of each other. "

By age 12, Clemons was living in the "one-stoplight town" of Naples, shooting birds from the sky. As a hobby, he caught rattlesnakes with nets in the winter months with his father. They sold the snakes to Ross Alan Institute for serum, and researchers paid them a dollar per foot for the rattlers and $100 an inch after 10 feet. "It was big money back then," Clemons says. "All I could see was dollar signs." He quit after a hissing, six-foot-seven-inch viper struck his boot and nearly killed him, he says.

As a teenager at Naples High, he hung with the "gear heads," drag-raced, and snuck out at night to meet girls, though he never got into much serious trouble. (A few years later, he would have an upsetting brush with the law.) He had friends, but he "always understood animals better than people," he says.

In the late Eighties, he began leading sightseeing charter tours through the Glades on swamp buggies, four-wheel vehicles with raised bodies for maneuvering marshy areas. "He knows the Everglades like the back of his hand," says his sturdy, good-natured, chain-smoking wife Rita. "And he's real ethical about hunting."

During a tour one day in 1989, his buggy broke down 20 miles from any road. There was no cell phone reception on the ground, so he climbed a tree and called for help. He and his crew were rescued by helicopter before nightfall, he says.

Soon he started Everglades Adventures, a business in which he guides hunts for alligators, hogs, and doves on private land. He leased about 24,000 acres of McDaniel Ranch, on County Road 833, just north of Big Cypress.

In July 1992, while living in Naples, he was charged with illegal disposal of solid waste — a third-degree felony — after he admitted to using heavy machinery to bury a mobile home as part of a cleanup effort. If convicted, he would have had to surrender his firearms permit and retire as a guide. After some publicity, clients stopped showing up. He earned less than $2,000 one year. "Overnight, my business was history," he says.

The case was dropped at the request of the prosecutor, who determined that wildlife officials with a personal vendetta had lied about Clemons. (Several years and many court hearings later, he won a $280,000 judgment in federal court.) "There was a concerted effort to target me," he told the Naples Daily News. "I don't think there's any question about that."

Since then, business has picked up. And there have been plenty of dangerous run-ins with nature. One of them came about three years ago, on a trophy hunt for alligators with a German beer brewer. When the men found a nine-foot gator in a 100-foot-wide canal, they shot at it, grabbed it, and fastened its mouth shut with black electrical tape. As it lay motionless, Clemons checked for a wound.

It didn't exist. "Right then, boop," Clemons says, "his eyes opened up." The gator tumbled into a death roll and flipped the guide over in the water. The reptile got free, but Clemons swam after it and the brewer shot it. They tossed the animal in the back of their truck and took it home.

In November 2006, while turkey hunting, Clemons was surrounded by four menacing Florida panthers in what the Southwest Florida News-Press called the year's "most alarming of all incidents documented by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission." He threw a rock to scare them away. There are only about 100 of the big cats left in the world. "If I'd have shot 'em," Clemons says, "every law enforcement agency in the state would have been there."

Around the same time, developers bought part of McDaniel Ranch and kicked him out. He considered shutting down the business, but then found nearby land to lease south of Lake Okeechobee. Problem was, the prices had swollen from about $2 (in the late Eighties) to about $28 per acre per year. He has been able to afford it by finding well-heeled clients who are willing to pay up to $5,000 for a couple of days in the wild. Pig hunting, he explains, "is becoming a rich guys' game. Every year, it gets more complicated."

Stiff bobcats with bulging eyes, rock-hard turkeys in flight, and alligator heads glazed like doughnuts welcome visitors to the living room of the Clemonses' cozy beige mobile home a few miles outside Clewiston. Here, Fox News perpetually flickers and iced tea is consumed from big blue plastic cups.

It's just after 10 a.m. on a breezy recent December day, and Clemons grabs the huge dark-green head of a dismembered nine-foot alligator from a table. He turns to his latest client, Steve Merlin — a loud, beer-bellied doctor with a grayish ponytail/bald-spot combo — standing in the kitchen with his hands in his pockets.

Merlin has hunted hippos, zebras, and bears. He has come from South Carolina for one reason: to find, kill, and mount the largest possible alligator on his wall.

Pointing to a spot just below the gator's skull, Clemons explains how to sever the head from the spinal cord in a single shot. "You're gonna see that dot," he says, gesturing toward a silver-dollar-size indentation above the reptile's neck. "Shoot two inches behind that. You can't just blow him in the chest. When he slides in the water, there ain't a blood trail."

Half paying attention, Merlin turns to his camo-clad girlfriend, Palmyra, a svelte brunette with farmer-girl good looks, whom he has persuaded to come along and videotape the massacre. "Hey, baby, let's go kill an alligator!" he says. She nods with a tired expression. Clemons loads a brown .30-06-caliber, 20-inch rifle into his dusty green Chevy pickup truck and drives for a half-hour along a winding dirt road to a man-made lake.

About 120 yards in the distance, a 12-foot alligator is sunning itself. "There's our boy," Clemons says. "See him?" Through binoculars, the gator looks like a giant lizard with prehistoric claws and ivory triangular teeth. It's asleep on a bed of matted grass.

"That's a big son of a bitch," Merlin announces in his Southern drawl. "Shit, man."

"You didn't think we were going after a little gecko?" Clemons says. "Did ya?"

Then the gator feels the vibrations from the truck and his eyes shoot open. He slides into the lake in one fluid motion. "Damn," Merlin says. "There he goes."

They drive around for 45 more minutes, until the gator emerges again in the same spot. The men creep to the top of a small, shrub-covered hill. Merlin holds the rifle as Clemons leads the way. Palmyra dutifully stays behind with the bulky video camera. In a whisper, Clemons directs Merlin to step lightly. Gators can feel a vibration from two miles away, he warns.

The two duck behind a bush at the top of a small hill about 60 yards from the gator's sunning spot. They would have a clear shot, but the gator is facing them. The silver-dollar-size indentation on the side of its head is shielded, and without hitting that spot ­— and paralyzing the creature — it will be lost.

Two hours pass in silence as they wait under an enormous sky. The gator doesn't move.

In the distance, soft coos and clucks of wild turkey sound; a vague whiff of chicken manure wafts from a nearby farm. Clouds threaten, and Clemons wonders how much longer the reptile will stay put. Just then, the gator slides back in the water, and the men return empty-handed to the car. Merlin looks like a kid who dropped his candy on the ground. Behind the video camera, Palmyra has fallen asleep.

Determined to kill something before the sun sets, Merlin says he now wants to shoot a hog. So at dusk they roll out to a row of orange trees, where they spot a pack of wild boars. Merlin aims the rifle at a 60-pounder as his girlfriend covers her ears.

He pulls the trigger and — boom! — the explosion shakes the earth, a flash of light sparks, and the smell of firecrackers floats past. His bullet hits the pig directly in the right eyeball. It instantly drops to the ground, violently shaking and twitching.

Merlin grabs the hog by the top of the head, leans in close, and smiles proudly as Clemons snaps a shot with a digital camera. The pig's legs spasm and jerk suddenly, as if it's trying to run away.

"It must be my DNA," Merlin says. "I just love shootin' shit!"

When it comes time to take home the hog meat, though, the doctor demurs. "It would just be easier for us," he tells Clemons, "if you took care of it."

Schneider and Clemons are having trouble tracking the 100-pounder they wounded with the green-and-yellow arrow. The trail of blood the animal had trickled on the ground like bread crumbs has abruptly ceased — and the men are baffled. Schneider, the broad-shouldered real estate agent, shakes his head and sighs.

He and Clemons continue moving forward, ducking under silky webs where mouse-size banana spiders hover. Schneider ties turquoise tape to branches to mark the trail as the guide leads the way.

Ten minutes later, Clemons sees the arrow on the ground. It's slightly bent and covered in blood. "There's a good sign," Clemons says, holding it up. A few yards away, in the shade, lies the lifeless pig, its cavernous mouth agape.

After they approach, Clemons gives the inert hog a friendly pat on the belly. The two hunters each grab a hind leg and drag it — head bumping along the trail — back to the electric cart. They set it in the back, where a lake of blood pools and begins to run down the side of the cart.

Forty-five minutes later, at home, Clemons slides the carcass five feet across the cement to a stainless-steel industrial-size outdoor sink. As Schneider prepares a cooler, Clemons hangs the animal by the hooves and sprays it with a hose, sending a scarlet stream from its soft snout into a drain. Then Clemons slices the skin with a scalpel and peels it off, like an orange rind, over a trash can.

One by one, with his bare hands, he cracks off the hog's hooves. He slits the throat, lops off the penis, and then turns to Schneider, who is watching. "All you need is a little salt and lemon," he says. "Real tasty." He hacks off a leg, then a shoulder, and tosses the pink meat into a pile by the sink.

A few minutes later, Rita comes wandering over from the mobile home. She pulls a Kool cigarette from a pack, lights it, and offers sandwiches. Watching Clemons cut the hog, she points out that the animal probably had a good life — better than those "store-bought pigs."

Washing the blood from his hands, Clemons says, "Some guys are just in it for the kill. Me, I got too much respect for these hogs."

"Look at that beautiful meat!" Schneider exclaims more to himself than anyone else. He plans to slow-cook a shoulder roast.

When the skinning is over, the real estate agent packs the meat into a cooler, loads it into a white sedan, gives a nod, and drives down the bumpy dirt road toward a pork-filled Christmas.

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Natalie O'Neill
Contact: Natalie O'Neill