Freddie Stancil and his grandson, Jared Raynor, paused to point out an area where hogs had been rooting for grubs and acorns. Seeing a hog from a nearby stand, they said, would be as close to guaranteed as anything in hunting, but that it might be almost dark before one showed up.

“Get on up there and get ready,” said Stancil before he and Raynor moved on to their stand.

About an hour before dark, a doe showed up and began to nibble on corn around the feeder. She was soon joined by a dozen more, arriving for an early evening meal. Suddenly, one of the deer jerked its head upwards, alert and anxiously looking around. One stomped, then another snorted, and they quickly bounded to the edge of the woods and disappeared.

Even in January, with the rut long gone and deer season well in their rearview mirror, the deer were still nervous and spooky.

A few minutes later, the source of the deer’s alarm became evident, as a hog emerged from the woods across the field. About a minute later, a second joined the first, and they mingled back and forth, working closer to the feeder.

These weren’t trophy boars by any means, but at about 100 pounds each, they were excellent eating size for feral hogs. As Stancil examined them through binoculars, another pair of hogs sauntered out of the woods and joined them.

Stancil had to calm Raynor down, explaining that they were waiting for a trophy hog.

“It was a tough decision not to let Jared go ahead and shoot ... but I had seen some really big hogs and lots of sign, and I wanted him to have the opportunity to take a trophy,” Stancil said.

Darkness was quickly approaching, and after a few more minutes Stancil told Raynor to pick one out and get ready. The hogs were milling about, rarely standing still long enough to present a good, broadside target, and with the sun slipping behind the treeline, Stancil gave him the go-ahead, and Raynor slipped off the safety and squeezed the trigger.

The rifle bucked, and the targeted hog collapsed on the spot, while the others disappeared into the woods, leaving a happy grandfather to congratulate his young son and find another hunter to help load Raynor’s hog.

Stancil purchased some Johnston County land along the Neuse River in 1996 to have as a place to hunt deer. Four years later, the same year he discovered hogs on his property, Raynor, his first grandson, was born.

Raynor first joined his grandfather as a tag-along, later with a BB gun, then a .22 and now to a bolt-action .243 he proudly carries. Grandfather and grandson have obviously bonded well, and at only 10 years of age, Raynor is wise beyond his years in the movement and hunting of deer and hogs. He has taken around 30 hogs, including one brute of approximately 500 pounds, plus a handful of deer.

If reports of the spread of feral hogs across eastern North Carolina are to be believed, Raynor won’t be the only grandson sitting with his grandfather, ready to bring home the bacon.

Feral hogs are different from the wild boars found in several counties in the western North Carolina mountains, but they are not native to the eastern third of the state — they were imported.

Local legend has it that in the 1940s and 1950s, a Johnston County man imported Russian boars and released them along the Neuse River between Clayton and Smithfield to scare revenuers away from his moonshining operations. There may be no truth to the story, but many local farmers and hunters swear by it.

However they got there, feral hogs have finally gotten a toe-hold in the low-lying areas around the river, habitat that matches areas of South Carolina and Georgia where hogs are present in large numbers and are heavily hunted.

Add to the released hogs a number of animals that have escaped from the numerous hog farms in the area, and it’s not a great leap to a burgeoning population of wild porkers.

Joe Folta, a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission wildlife biologist who oversees Johnston and Wayne counties, said he can document two ways that domesticated hogs entered the wild; first, the flooding associated with Hurricane Floyd in the late 1990s, and fencing issues on hog farms. One tree down across an electric fence and “Voila!” wild pigs.

“Pigs are biologically sound animals,” Folta said. “As long as they have water, they can survive on almost barren ground. They reach sexual maturity quickly, with many breeding at about six months old, and they can have two or three litters a year. The average litter is six to eight piglets, but it could be as many as 10 to 12.”

Folta said piglets are subject to predation by bears, coyotes, bobcats and wolves until they reach about 50 pounds, but at that size, they have virtually no natural predators. A research project is under way at the Howell Woods Environmental Center that should provide some insight into population dynamics, but Folta said the general feeling is that the hogs’ survival rate is high, as populations have grown rapidly and are spreading to other areas.

Folta said some hogs have been illegally introduced from other areas, brought in by hunters to supplement hunting opportunities. But even if only boars were released, they mated with sows that escaped from the hog farms, and the hog population began growing exponentially.

“Escaped pigs adapt to the wild better than any other animals,” Folta said. “They quickly learn to find food and water to survive. Within just a couple of generations, offspring of those pink pigs that escaped from a hog farm more closely resemble wild pigs. They grow coarse dark hair, their hips narrow and the big hams of domestic pigs disappear. In addition, their snouts lengthen, and their tusks — which were clipped or pulled when the young domestic boars were castrated — begin to grow to help with grubbing for food. They develop the “razorback” look we associate with wild hogs pretty quickly. They are very adaptable animals, and that is the primary reason they survive so well.”

Folta said water systems are major travel routes for feral hogs. In times of drought, they may travel long distances in search of a good water supply. Food is usually found around water, and they prefer heavily overgrown, swampy areas where they are not disturbed.

Tom Padgett, a Commission biologist whose territory includes Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover and Sampson counties, echoed Folta’s comments and added that there has been feral pig activity along the Waccamaw River and Pee Dee River systems and in Bladen and Sampson Counties for many years. Over the past 10 years, he said, feral pigs have begun showing up along other rivers, including the Cape Fear and Lumber rivers, and numbers in their traditional areas had increased.

Chris Turner, a Commission biologist whose territory includes the extreme northeastern corner of the state, said his first call about hogs came six years ago, and it was about property destruction by feral pigs in Wanchese. More recently, he has been called to Elizabeth City and back to Roanoke Island for more.

Turner is concerned how the rapidly growing feral hog population will affect the land and native game species. He said hogs move into the most-sensitive lands and quickly change them forever, and he is also concerned with the diseases pigs carry, including swine brucellosis, which can be transferred to humans. He suggests wearing rubber gloves when cleaning and dressing them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services office in Raleigh is implementing a testing program on feral swine. The biggest concern is that classic swine fever, which has been eradicated from domestic swine, could be reintroduced through contact with feral swine and would be an economic disaster. Testing, which was scheduled to begin in late 2010, was also aimed at swine brucellosis and pseudorabies. Initially, testing will target feral swine near large populations of domestic swine and will expand to other area as funding and personnel become available.

Feral hogs are being discovered along more of the state’s river systems each year. They are adaptable and thrive in swamp and along the flood plain of rivers. Their numbers are growing and their range is spreading. It appears they are here to stay and hopefully they can be managed in a way that is not detrimental to the habitat and other animals.