OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — The helicopter hovered low over a thicket of cabbage palms, its rotor whop-whop-whopping, rattling the fronds and flattening the grass as two men sitting in the passenger seats fore and aft pointed shotguns out the open side.
Suddenly, a wild hog darted out of the brush and began to run across the pasture. One of the hunters aimed and pulled the trigger, knocking the animal down with a load of buckshot. The chopper rose and continued west across the 5,000-acre ranch, seeking more targets.
By dusk, five hunters flying in two chartered “pork choppers” had shot about 20 hogs in 2 1/2 hours. Two ground-support crews in pick-up trucks recovered two carcasses and killed a third hog that ran in front of one of the trucks. No one was certain how many of the animals had been killed, wounded . . . or simply stung by pellets.
“A bloody testosterone fest,” hunter Bob Diwozzi said afterward.
Added Steve Polanish: “It was neat. It was different. There is a sport to it as far as leading and they’re running. They have the advantage with the cover out there.”
The five hunters and a friend who rode with the ground crew each paid $1,000 to hunting guide Jeff Budz of Okeechobee, who lined up the helos and secured permission from the rancher. Budz said his aerial hunting parties have taken about 125 hogs from the ranch in the past five weeks.
“This is the new norm,” he said of “pork chopper” hunting.
Budz might be the only south-central Florida operator conducting guided aerial hunts for wild hogs, which are considered nuisance animals by many Florida farmers and ranchers. Also known as feral pigs or wild boars, the porkers were introduced hundreds of years ago by Spanish explorers and early colonists. Prolific, adaptable and omnivorous, they can breed a couple of times a year, produce large litters and thrive in a variety of habitats. They are widely blamed for devouring crops and rooting up pastures with their broad snouts as they look for food.
No one knows how many inhabit the woods, pastures and marshes of Florida, with some estimates ranging from half a million to more than 2 million spread across all 67 counties. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considers them non-native wildlife — but not game animals — so hunting rules are fairly liberal. Hunters may shoot or trap them year-round, with no size or bag limits, and a hunting license is not required on private property.
The majority of Florida hunters stalk wild pigs with guns or bow-and-arrow, or sit in tree stands waiting for them to pass by, or use dogs to track and catch them. Helicopter hunting, although new to Florida, is legal, according to FWC spokesman Tony Young.
“It sounds pretty interactive. . . going after the prey instead of waiting for it to come to you,” Young said. “Sounds like it would be a pretty cool experience.”
Not all hunters think so.
Bob Hayes, an outfitter who conducts a variety of hunts at his camp near Okeechobee, believes aerial hunting for pigs is “unethical.”
“I think it casts a bad shadow,” Hayes said. “You can’t tell me they kill every animal they shoot. It’s not a hunt . . . it’s eradication. If you want to kill something, don’t call it hunting. To me, it’s like an accident waiting to happen and give the hunting industry a bad name.”
Wildlife wrangler Manny Puig, 57, of Miami, and host of The Savage Wild on the Outdoor Channel, says helicopter hunting is not for him.
“I like to hunt with a spear. I don’t even like to hunt with a gun,” Puig said. “I don’t like it, but I’m not gonna condemn it in certain circumstances, like if you’re a farmer and your crops are getting devastated. It’s like skeet shooting. If you enjoy that, you’re gonna enjoy doing this, too.”
Pork chopper hunting is growing popular in Texas, which just legalized the practice last year. Several hunters from the state have posted videos on You Tube, and helicopter companies advertise charter services and safety courses.
For the Okeechobee hunt, Budz chartered two helos from P & S Agricultural Services in Pahokee, Fla., piloted by Hunter Parker and Carlos Deluca. The two pilots pride themselves on being able to fly low and slow over wild pig hiding places.
“You kind of flush them out into the open, and you get up next to them and you can shoot them,” Parker said. “You kind of rattle them out of the trees.”
Whether nuisance hogs are trapped or shot, they can never be wiped out in Florida, according to William Giuliano, a professor of wildlife ecology and statewide extension specialist at the University of Florida.
“They’re here. We kind of hold them at bay. We’re never going to get rid of them,” Giuliano said.
As far as helicopter hunting, “the method doesn’t bother me in terms of harvest of any species, as long as the method is humane as possible, so the animal is not suffering,” Giuliano said. “Helicopter shooting isn’t fair chase, but the purpose is not fair chase . . . it’s removal.”
Besides the three carcasses recovered, the total number of hogs actually killed during the Okeechobee hunt was difficult to determine. The two crews in the sweep trucks said they may have missed some of them. And hogs seemingly felled by gunfire often run off and hide in thick cover to heal their wounds, according to FWC wildlife biologist Don Coyner, who’s in charge of Florida’s public hunting grounds.
“They’re extremely hardy,” Coyner said.
“They can take a small wound and heal and become part of the breeding population again.”
The recovered hogs were donated to workers at a local dairy for a barbecue.
As for the rest, Young said, “Some human might not have eaten the hogs not recovered, but some alligator did or some vulture did. It fed something. It did not go to waste.”