Vincent Hancock stood on top of the world when he won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing for skeet shooting. The media spotlight glared on the clean-cut, 19-year-old soldier who beat out Norway in a dramatic sudden-death final round.
Now, however, he's in the dark.
In the middle of absolute-dark cornfield in south Georgia, Hancock pushed up his camo ball cap and put an eye to the infrared scope. Like magic, the white outline of a wild hog feeding about 100 yards away danced in the tube.
"This is a lot different than shotguns," he had said earlier.
Two other hunters also quietly leveled rifles on bipods and listened for whispers from the guide.
"On my count," said outfitter Rod Pinkston, who stood just behind the gunners.
"Four. Three. Two ... "
The wind was shifting. A hundred yards away, a boar in Hancock's site got spooked. The herd started to move off the field.
"One," said Pinkston, still in a whisper.
Three guns flashed as the shots rang out as one. Fire from the muzzles of the Browning automatic rifles lit up the hot Georgia night.
Hancock watched through his scope as the biggest hog in the bunch squealed, ran in a circle and dropped dead.
Then silence, followed by hoots and high-fives.
"Man, I just love this infrared stuff," said Hancock as he stood over a 160-pound boar. "I don't think I'll ever be able to go back. I'm spoiled."
That's the typical reaction of folks shooting hogs with thermal imaging devices, allowing them to literally see in the dark.
"Hunters are obsessed with this," said guide Pinkston, a recently retired U.S. Army master sergeant. "It's the closest thing to a real combat situation that you can get. Where else could you use semis on live targets at night?"
Jager Pro guide and owner Rod Pinkston supplies the weapons, and there is a high-tech arsenal in the truck vault of his crew cab.
What they have on tap:
• Three B.A.R.s chambered for .308-caliber bullets.
• One Bushmaster AR-15, chambered in an over-powering .450 caliber.
• Handguns, knives and a shotgun.
But the real red meat is the thermal imagining devices:
• B.A.R.s are topped with thermal imaging scopes that are a slight modification from the kind soldiers are using in Iraq and Afghanistan right now. These 320 x 240-resolution IR scopes are 1.5 power with an electronic 3-power zoom. They have a detection range of 600 meters, are mounted on a Picatinney rail and are powered by four lithium AA batteries.
• As a spotting scope, Jager Pro uses the kind of long-range thermal spotting scopes the U.S. Army uses on .50-caliber machine guns. Resolution is 640 x 480. They are 2-power with a 7-power electronic zoom and have a detection range of 2,000 meters, yet are light enough to hold in your hand and hold to your eye for long periods as you scout fields for hogs. They take six lithium AA batteries.
The thermal imaging devices capture the heat produced by animals and objects and give the hunter a level of detail sufficient to distinguist between a deer, hog or coyote, at nearly a half-mile away.
• Night vision scopes pale in comparison to the thermal devices, especially when the moon goes down and it's pitch black. N.V. devices gather ambient light, such as moonlight or light emitted by attaching a fancy flashlight called a IR scope illuminator. The device then produces images in visible light that were otherwise invisible. The NV scopes are 4-power and 6-power models of Generation 3A devices. They put out 64 line-pairs per millimeter, mount Weaver-style, have a detection range of about 400 meters, and operate on two lithium AA batteries.
Pinkston also trailers a Mossy Oak-covered gas-powered EZ-Go utility vehicle. The vehicle transports the outfitter, up to three hunters and a tilt-bed cargo trailer from field to field.
He can also record each stalk and hunt via an IR spotting scope wired to a digital video and sound recorder.
Well, Texas. But other than that, nowhere else in the U.S. can you do what Hancock just did. Here in Georgia, regulations say you can hunt hogs at night, provided you: are not using a light more powerful than 6 volts, aren't in a vehicle and not shooting over bait.
Other than that, on private land, there's no limit and no closed season.
The goal of the hunt was to drop as many hogs as possible. Some groups have taken as many as 13 in a night.
This night, swirling winds from the remnants of Hurricane Hanna busted the hunters again and again. But that's hunting.
Or is it?
Some would say it isn't hunting, and they make their opinion known on hunting site chat rooms, capital letters and all.
The most common objections to hunting hogs at night with tactical weapons and high-tech scopes are:
that it's hardly fair chase
hog meat gets wasted in the rush to exterminate, and
"What will PETA say?"
To the first question, Pinkston answers: "It's not hunting, it's hog control."
"Hogs are an invasive species, not a game species," he said. "Stop trying to put them in the same category as deer or elk."
But it cannot be denied there is a hunting aspect to a night with Jager Pro, a Columbia, Ga.-based firm billing itself as "thermal hog control."
On their night hunts, participants spot hogs with amazing thermal-imaging devices used by the military and SWAT teams, allowing them to be seen from a half-mile away. The hunters then figure out how to get close, depending on the wind direction, deer in the area, lay of the land and moonlight; stalks can be an hour long.
Often the hogs or deer figure out they're being watched, or the wind changes, and announcing the hunters' intentions well before they get their lens on the white glowing figures.
Regarding the second objection, about meat being wasted, sometimes it is. Wild pork cannot be donated to the state Hunters for the Harvest program because of concerns about brucellosis and pseudorabies.
In cooler weather, Pinkston donates meat to a local meat processor who butchers the animals and puts them in a walk-in cooler for local families to pick up.
But in the summer, the meat spoils quickly, and Pinkston hauls 10 pounds of ice for each hog field-dressed. After a hunt in September, a group from Tennessee dressed and carried 16 hogs to their homes and families.
What Pinkston offers is very different, perhaps revolutionary: It brings out emotions — positive or negative — from everyone hearing or participating in it.
Regarding what PETA might say to gather anti-hunting support, they can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a muddy, smelly hog in the end. It's true, however, that PETA's ability to motivate antis for their cause shouldn't be underestimated; the group has helped shut down hog-dog rodeos in Louisiana, dove hunts in Minnesota and waterfowl hunts in Maryland, to name a few.
But it's Pinkston's hope the more people know of what he's doing, the more acceptance he'll gain. In fact, this kind of hog hunting demonstrates hunters can help farmers and be effective at "pest" control, he said.
And there's not a moment to waste, whether you are a daytime spot-and-stalker, dog-runner or night hunter, according to this hunter and wildlife controller.
Pinkston points to disturbing developments in Kansas and Nebraska, where state legislatures banned feral hog hunting on all public land, turning over the issue U.S. Agriculture Department to take care of, resulting in the U.S.D.A.'s use of helicopters to kill hogs.
"Do you think Kansas and Nebraska hunters were polled before (the states) passed the legislation (to ban hog hunting)? No!" Pinkston wrote in response to a post critical of his operation.
Pinkston wants to preserve all forms of hunting in the Peach State. He also has another interest here; he's not shy to say that he's a soldier, hunter — and businessman. As a sales representative for a thermal imaging manufacturer, he has a lot to gain, should the U.S.D.A. choose to use his gear for hog, deer, coyote — even beaver control — around the country.
It's no secret that agents hired by state and federal governments slip into metro neighborhoods to eliminate overpopulated white-tailed deer herds eating decorative flowers, raiding suburban vegetable gardens or suffering from limited food sources. Often the government-paid exterminators arrive under cover of darkness and use high-powered lights and suppressors to bag deer before sunrise.
"Think how much more effective urban deer control would be, rather than scaring people to death shining lights in their yards at night?" said Pinkston, holding up an IR scope about the size of a rattle bag.
That's Pinkston's big mission: "Within three years, I will change the way state D.N.R.s and the U.SD.A. control deer, hogs, coyotes and beavers across the nation."
Public enemy No. 1?
Wild hogs are not native to this country. They reach sexual maturity at eight months and give birth prior to their first birthday, producing two litters of as many as 12 piglets each year. No other large mammal in the U.S. can reproduce at that rate.
They damage millions of dollars in property and crops each year, and once the piglets are a few months old, they have no real natural predators.
Rod Pinkston is a weapons expert who retired in August after serving 24 years in the Army.
Fort Benning, Ga., was his home for the last nine years. There, he ended his career as the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer instructor of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. He coached world-class shotgunners like gold-medal winners Vincent Hancock and Glenn Ellers, who both won gold for skeet and double trap, respectively, in Beijing. They still call him "Sergeant P" even though he is no longer their boss.
"Two Olympic gold medals were the best retirement 'gift' my men could ever give me," Pinkston said.
The 6-foot, 1-inch soldier is 42. He has the energy of a 19-year-old but the experience of someone much older. He served in Bosnia as well as Desert Storm.
While stationed in Germany, he earned the coveted Jagdschein (German hunting license) and took wild European boars in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
And would you believe it? Pinkston grew up on a pig farm in Illinois. He's only had two jobs in his life: working on the farm and being a soldier.
"This is a perfect match," said Pinkston. "I can put my knowledge of pigs and my combat experience to work now. It's a natural."
He got his wildlife control operator in 2004 and started guiding hunters in 2006.
These rooting mammals are the bane of farmers, who can watch a herd of feral hogs devour hundreds of pound of peanuts, corn and most other crops in a single night. A farming corporation actually invited Pinkston to the 10,000-acre plantation they hunted recently.
"We're crazy about Rod," said Byron Brown, who farms 7,000 acres near Shellman, Ga. "His business is a blessing to the farmers."
No money trades hands between the outfitter and the farmer.
"If I charged them for the service, they wouldn't call me," said Pinkston, claiming that fuel, seed and fertilizer prices are tough on the farmers of south Georgia, leaving them with little to pay for the service, were they to charge.
"I want to kill every hog and help every farmer," said Pinkston.
In the meantime, he's hoping his Jager Pro outfitting business grows as the hog population decreases. He charges $1,100 per person for a two-night hunt, which is fairly typical for a two-day, daytime hunt from California to Florida, and to which participants must bring their own guns and ammo.
Two nights are the way to go, anyway. If you've never hunted with this kind of equipment, there is a big learning curve to deal with.
Hancock, an excellent marksman with a shotgun, dropped only two hogs recently during an all-night hunt.
Getting in on the action
Jager Pro is now taking reservations for 2009 hunts. Currently Pinkston only books weekend hunts, but that's about to change, now that he's devoting full-time energy to the business. For reserve a hunt, visit their Web site, jagerpro.com.
Although hunters stalk in the dark, sometimes there is moonlight, so full head-to-toe camo is recommended.
Bring bug spray if you're hunting in the summer, spring or early fall. If you have a ThermaCell butane flying insect repellent, bring it, too.
"We're talking Boone-and-Crockett mosquitoes," said Pinkston on a recent hunt when one landed on his arm, illuminated by the rising sun.