Beneath ancient cypress and oak trees, they scurry and squeal.
They are Johnston County’s wild hogs, living on privately owned land along the Neuse River between Four Oaks and the Bentonville community. They’re dangerous because they’re feral, but they make for good eating, according to people who’ve lived alongside them for generations.
Now, about 7 million people have seen the feral pigs after a visit from Travel Channel star Andrew Zimmern, host of the network’s “Bizarre Foods” show. Zimmern travels the world seeking strange or uncommon foods and preparations.
In Johnston County, Zimmern dropped in on Jody Rhodes, who, like his father and grandfather, has lived along the Neuse River for decades, though he now has a home in Onslow County too.
What became Rhodes’ business began, back in the day, as the Devil’s Racetrack Hunting Club, he said. The club eventually faded, but Rhodes saw an opportunity to keep the hunts alive.
“This is a lifestyle that just doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.
Rhodes founded Carolina Razorback Outfitters to guide hunters through the dense forest and up into stands to await the hogs. The feral pigs range across more than 88,000 privately owned acres; Carolina Razorback Outfitters hunts on 1,050 leased acres of that.
Rhodes said Zimmern enjoyed his time in Johnston County.
“He was a great, down-to-earth, country kinda guy,” Rhodes said of Zimmern. “He seemed to really enjoy it out here and said he’d be back.”
The episode featuring Carolina Razorback Outfitters first aired July 5. It will air again at 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 12, on the Travel Channel.
Home is where the hogs are
This is Rhodes’ 19th year making a business of hunting feral hogs, but he’s lived alongside them his whole life.
“I grew up here,” he said. “This is home.”
Rhodes calls the area the Neuse Islands, a heavily forested expanse of thousands of acres that dip to lowlands and treacherous swamp.
Boars, wild pigs, feral hogs – they go by many names. But ultimately, the state classifies them as nuisance animals, meaning they’re mostly exempt from North Carolina restrictions on hunting
“We can hunt them any time except church hours,” Rhodes said. “Even then, we can still hunt them but not with a firearm – you have to use a bow.”
As Rhodes figures it, as Union troops marched across Johnston County in the waning days of the Civil War, they destroyed pig pens, and the hogs hunted today are descended from those animals.
Over the subsequent decades, the pigs have proven adaptable, Rhodes said, surviving, among other things, Hurricane Fran, which turned much of their stomping grounds into swamp.
As far as the state is concerned, Rhodes and his clients can hunt as many hogs as they want. The pigs are destructive, eating just about anything, and they’ve been known to decimate milkweed, an important food source for already-threatened monarch butterflies. They also compete with deer for acorns.
“They’re detrimental,” Rhodes said. “They call what we do depredation. ... We have them down to a manageable level now.”
Other animals avoid them, but since they range so far up and down the Neuse, they can be a pain for landowners.
“Ask any farmer around here,” Rhodes said. “They’re incredibly destructive.”
The lifestyle of Rhodes and his family is a fading one, almost a secret – or it was before Zimmern’s visit.
To Rhodes, it’s exclusive.
“There are just 19 keys,” he said of the limited access to the leased hunting land. “It’s a mafia.”
But Carolina Razorback Outfitters is also looking to capitalize on the fruit of its labors by launching a line of products made from boar hunted in Johnston County.
The company plans to produce dry-cured slab bacon, country-cured ham and air-dried sausages. Already the company is in talks with Dick’s Sporting Goods, Academy Sports and other retailers to carry the products, none of which require refrigeration, making them ideal to take on hunting trips, Rhodes said.
“It’s a darker, richer meat,” he said of meat from feral pigs.
Rhodes hopes that publicity from Zimmern’s visit will help with the product launch.
“The moon and stars really lined up for us,” he said.
The other side of the business is the hunting itself, evolved from generations of his family raising hogs and hunting the wild ones.
The feral pigs hogs have an excellent sense of smell and are incredibly intelligent, so hunting them can be tricky, and sometimes hunters come back empty-handed, just like any other hunt, Rhodes said.
Carolina Razorback Outfitters provides just about everything hunters need.
“Most come with just the clothes on their backs,” Rhodes said of his clients.
As for those clothes, Rhodes advised, earth tones work best, since the hogs can see color.
“They know what blue jeans are,” he said of the hogs. “They recognize them.”
“The best camouflage is the ‘sit down and be quiet’ kind,” Rhodes said, laughing.
‘Always going to be here’
Rhodes and his family have hunted wild hogs for generations. Their Fourth of July barbecues are full of boar barbecue. Boar sausage is a favorite at Christmas.
But along the way, the Rhodes family and others like it have cared for the land and the hogs that roam it.
Because of that care, Rhodes isn’t afraid that Johnston County’s feral pigs will one day disappear.
“They’re not going anywhere,” he said. “I know they’re always going to be here.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett
When to watch
The second airing of the Carolina Razorback Outfitters episode of “Bizarre Foods” will be at 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 12, on the Travel Channel.