ARCADIA, Fla. -- Floyd Long slows his pickup to a stop on the dirt road and jams a clip into his 9 mm pistol.
"I smell momma," he says, leaning out the window to take a closer look at the wild piglets milling nervously in the road.
Long climbs out of the truck and tiptoes up to the piglets, silver Smith & Wesson at his side.
"They're just babies," he whispers, " 'bout 3 days old. Momma's somewhere right around here, too. If she rushes, I'll have to drop her."
Long, a chunky 40-year-old fishing guide dressed in full camouflage, packs a pistol only as a last resort. He hopes to wrestle any charging pigs into submission with his bare hands.
Long is a hog hunter -- participant in a sport little known or understood beyond the rural South where it is practiced.
Hog hunters use specially bred "hog dogs" to flush out and corner wild pigs, which inhabit Florida's forests, mud flats and scrubland. Once the dogs have cornered a pig, the hunter flings himself onto the animal, wrestles it to its side and then literally hogties it.
The stakes of this grapple are high. The hogs -- descendants of domestic pigs released by Spanish settlers -- get belligerent when cornered. They can inflict serious damage with their curved tusks.
But hog hunters say that this wrestling match between man and pig separates the sport from its tamer counterparts like deer and bird hunting.
"It's you vs. animal, not your high-powered scope vs. animal," explains hog hunter Tom Fischer, 30, of nearby Punta Gorda, Fla. "You put the dog on the ground, ask the dog to catch [a hog], you get there and tie him up, throw him in the truck, take him home, pen him, doctor him up, fatten him up -- now that's what I call a sport."
What Fischer calls a sport is also a boon to Florida's ranchers and growers, for whom Florida's entrenched wild hog population is a nuisance. The hogs tear up fields and pastures with their ceaseless foraging.
The ultimate enthusiasts for the sport, however, are the hunters themselves, who say the direct clash with nature is never, well, a bore.
"You gotta be careful out there," Long warns. "You surprise a sow with babies, she can turn on you. That happens, you better head for the nearest tree and head on up it, 'cause she ain't in the mood for playin'."
Long climbs back into the truck and rolls slowly past the piglets. "See ya next year," he calls to them.
Later, a second truck comes bumping across the scrubland, a pair of dogs scrambling for balance among the crushed Budweiser cans and post-hole diggers in the pickup's bed. It pulls up alongside Long's truck and two men jump out.
"You all ready to do some hog huntin'?" says the driver, Trey Turner, a 25-year-old watermelon-grove manager with white-blond hair, jeans and dusty boots.
His passenger, Larry McClenithan, ambles over. McClenithan, 30, wears a camouflage cap and mustache. A tin of Copenhagen bulges in his shirt pocket.
Turner lowers the truck gate and the dogs bound off into the thicket.
The dogs -- a stocky bulldog-hound mix -- are trained to sniff out feral hog scent. When they flush a wild pig, they immobilize it by biting down on its ear. It is not unusual for dogs to be severely injured or killed in the ensuing melee.
Animal-rights activists are appalled by the sport's gore. But hog-hunting enthusiasts point to the fact that whatever quarry they catch, they take home alive. Captured hogs are penned for up to several months and fattened on bananas, oranges, grapefruit, carrots, sweet potatoes or store-bought pig feed.
Hog hunters say this fruit-and-vegetable diet sweetens the hog meat, which otherwise tastes gamy from the roots, palmetto berries and acorns a wild hog normally eats.
Each hunter has a favorite recipe for cooking the pig once it's slaughtered. Long's method is to marinate it in pineapple juice and beer, then cook it Hawaiian style, wrapping the pork in tin foil and burying it in hot coals.
Barking erupts from a distant thicket.
"Let's go, boys," Turner shouts, flicking away his cigarette. "Let's git 'em!"
They hop into the truck and bump across the rutted pasture. The truck careens around a palmetto island and pulls up at a creek just as an 80-pound sow crashes out of the undergrowth.
The sow, bristling with coarse red hair, scrambles down the bank and splashes frantically through the water. The dogs crash out of the thicket a second later, yipping and barking behind her.
Turner, Long and McClenithan sprint from the pickup and plunge into the creek.
"Whoop-catch-her, girl!" Turner yells, using the personalized attack command for his dog. "Whoop-catch-her!"
As the sow hits the far bank, she wheels and makes her stand. She screeches at the onrushing dogs but they are on her in an instant. One clamps its jaws on her ear while the other darts in and sinks its teeth into her neck.
"Git her, girl!" Turner yells. "Go on, git her!"
McClenithan rushes up behind the sow and snatches her hind legs, running her forward like a wheelbarrow -- standard hog-throwing technique. He then knocks her onto her side and kneels on her ribs, quickly winding a rope around her four legs and snout.
McClenithan stands up, exultant. "Hoo, boy!" he yells. "Hoo, yeah!"
Turner drops to his knees and fondles his dog's head. "Good girl. That's a good girl."
The sow lies panting on her side, struggling against her restraints. She tries to squeal but her snout is muzzled by rope, and she can only grunt over and over -- a sound like someone heaving with nausea.
The three men stand on the bank, dripping creek water as they catch their breath. The sky is purple behind them where the sun is setting into the pasture.
The sow they have captured isn't huge -- not the type of ferocious 400-pounder to inspire war stories over a 12-pack -- but it's only their first hog of the evening.
And besides, hog hunters say, it isn't the size of the pig but the thrill of the throw that keeps them returning to the scrubland.
Long, Turner and McClenithan wade back through the creek, the dogs paddling behind them.
As the pickup bumps along the trail between islands of palmetto and slash pine, the dogs whine with anticipation in back. Panting and wet, they are already sniffing the air for a new scent.
Pub Date: 5/05/98