By Andy Martin

While most Del Norte County big game hunters have put their rifles away for the year with deer and elk seasons over, some are heading south to pursue wild pigs.

Peak season is approaching for wild pig hunters in California, as hogs are feeding on an excellent acorn crop in the northern part of the state. Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties produce some of the country's best wild pig hunting.

There are some opportunities to harvest pigs on public lands, but most pig hunters pay for guided hunts on large ranches, where there is a substantial success rate.

andquot;The private ranches have a lot higher success rate,andquot; says longtime wild hog guide Ernie Sanders of Cloverdale. andquot;A lot of the public land is 5 to 10 percent or even less. Our ranch runs 75 to 80 percent. A lot of times we get 100 percent on the rifle hunts, but not on the archery hunts.andquot;

Prime time

December through May is the best time to hunt pigs in Northern California. The pigs are actively feeding and are out into the day, unlike summer and fall, when they are more elusive and nocturnal.

andquot;Right now we have tons of acrons,andquot; Sanders says. andquot;Then we have the rainy season. It's pretty hard to hunt them when it's dry.andquot;

During wet, cooler weather, the pigs tend to stay out after sunrise. andquot;During the rainy season the pigs tend to stay out a lot during the day,andquot; Sanders says. andquot;We'll hunt all day, but the chances of finding them are still best in the early morning than in the middle of the day.andquot;

Sanders hunts on a ranch with plentiful oak trees. The acorns, along with grasses, provide food through the winter for the wild pigs. andquot;We had a bumper crop of acorns,andquot; Sanders says. andquot;It's the best in five years. They'll be eating these into the summer.andquot;

The pigs will dig for the acorns and also feast on the sprouts of young oak trees. They'll also key on grass. andquot;Pigs eat a tremendous amount of grass in their diet,andquot; Sanders says.

Success rates

On a typical private ranch hunt, hunters can expect to see small and eater-size pigs, with the potential of a trophy hog. andquot;There's always the potential for finding a trophy pig, but you can't always find a trophy pig,andquot; Sanders says. andquot;We get a lot of trophy pigs, but everybody does not get one. Generally we find meat hogs.andquot;

The bets pigs for eating are in the 100-to 150-pound range, Sanders says.

During a hunt in late November, Sanders had five hunters. Three harvested very large pigs, over 250 pounds, while another took a nice eater-size animal. The fifth hunter had his chance, but missed five times.

Guides will often scout to find where the pigs are located, increasing the success rate. andquot;There is a lot of pre-scouting on the guide's part,andquot; Sanders says. andquot;We do a lot of driving and watch for sign.andquot;

Many hunting ranches also offer waterfowl or turkey and pig combos. andquot;We even allow the guys to do some waterfowl hunting mid-day when the pig hunting slows,andquot; Sanders says.

Some hunters will also do a bird hunt one day and pig hunt the next to get more familiar with the ranch they are hunting.

At Sanders' ranch, hunters can choose the terrain type they want to hunt, have the option to hunt with dogs, and can go into the hills in search of really big pigs. The biggest taken this year topped 400 pounds.

Outdoors writer Andy Martin, a former editor of Fishing andamp; Hunting News, runs a halibut charter boat in the Gulf of Alaska during the summer and guides on America's Wild Rivers Coast during the winter. His Web site is