MELISSA - The damage wrought by feral pigs in Texas is legend, with property and habitat destruction hitting $500 million annually and woe visited upon scores of animal and plant species, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These crafty porcine beasts have few predators, are blessed with keen senses of smell and hearing, and have even become profitable for some as a meat source – all of which has aided their population boom in recent decades.

Deemed an invasive, non-game species in Texas, feral pigs may be taken by any means at any time. There’s no bag limit or season, and all one needs to hunt them is a hunting license and landowner permission. And when Texas says anything goes, Texas means it. Thermal optics, night-vision goggles, drone photography/video - even helicopters - are A-OK for seeking out and destroying the wily feral pig.

The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife calls them “nuisance animals” and advises against introducing them to one’s property for any reason. The USDA deems feral pigs “ecosystem engineers,” as they drastically transform habitats with their rooting and trampling, and compete fiercely with wildlife and livestock for water and food. They also spread disease.

Second-year Melissa Middle School coach Paden Whetzel has been doing his part to help curb the problem, while enjoying some fine sport and excellent eating as well.

Whetzel’s weapon of choice is the AR-15.

“I get why AR-15s are frowned upon because they’re such a powerful weapon – but I love them for pig hunting,” he said. “I’m not a big trapper. I’ve bow-hunted pigs but my preference is definitely ARs.”

Whetzel doesn’t use dogs for pig hunting.

“I’m not a big fan of it because a lot of dogs get injured,” he said.

Generally speaking, he said, evenings are best for pig hunting.

“I say that, but I think it really depends on the day,” Whetzel said.

As long as it’s cool, he added, they can be found almost anytime.

Feral pig meat is leaner than domestic pork. Whetzel likes it best as sausage, mixed 50-50 with the domestic. A friend, he said, prepares it just right, mixed with Italian seasoning for a delectable treat.

“Really, it’s like good Italian sausage,” he said.

Whetzel has also enjoyed it roasted in the wild, which can be good, he said, if cooked right. One of his favorite “in the wild” culinary subjects is a 15-to-20 pounder, cut in half down the back, with the hair weed-torched off. After slow roasting, the outer skin is peeled off just before eating.

“The meat is so moist,” he said. “It’s crazy. I’ve had feral hog at times when I didn’t even know it was feral until somebody told me. I think a lot of that depends on diet too, what the pig’s eating.”

Some, he said, can taste pretty gamey.

Whetzel estimates the biggest pig he’s bagged weighed 275 to 300 pounds. If a clean kill, he’ll sometimes eat the bounty himself or offer it to friends.

“Ideally, I like to do that just because they’re not being wasted,” he said

Born and raised near Lubbock in the community of Ransom Canyon, Whetzel, 32, is a graduate of Texas Tech University. He’s hunted since he was a kid but didn’t really start pursuing pigs till around 2012 when he located leases east of Lubbock that were covered with them – specifically, near the towns of East Afton and Dickens. Whetzel hunted there perhaps 20-30 times a year, he said, with his brothers and, quite often, with friends from Tech who hadn’t experienced much of the outdoors.

Around here, Whetzel and friends pig hunt near the small East Texas burg of Ben Wheeler on land owned by Melissa ISD superintendent Keith Murphy.

“There’s a lot of pigs everywhere in East Texas,” Murphy said by phone. “They go in and they root up your farm area. They go anywhere they want, anytime they want. There’s a lot of them. … I let a few people [hunt]. When it comes to guns we’ve got to be safe - but I don’t mind them shooting those pigs at all. We bought that property for the kids to have a place to deer hunt and what happens is, the pigs take over. When you’re trying to mow and you’re trying to plant hay … they get in your pasture and they root it all up.”

Murphy said he doesn’t do much hunting of any kind.

“If I had the opportunity [to shoot pigs] I would, but I don’t carry a gun very often.”

He has trapped some, though, here and there.

One of Whetzel’s favorite pig-hunting stories involves an episode with his brother Marty out near East Afton. Marty had his $1,000 Browning Medallion 7-mm Mag with a $500 scope and Whetzel had his AR. Usually when pigs are 300-plus yards away there’s not much chance of hitting one – even with the high-dollar gear. But with AR ammo so cheap, Whetzel said, and on a whim, he popped a shot downrange maybe 400 yards at a group of five smaller pigs that were sprinting like mad. A mere moment after his brother asked what he was doing, the round — aimed just above and ahead of the racing pork cluster — dropped one pig with a clean shot to the head.

Whetzel admitted that luck had aided his Marine-sniper-like effort.

Pigs have four tusks - two grinders on top and extra-sharp cutters on the bottom. The biggest tusks Whetzel said he’s seen measured about four inches from the gum-line out. These jumbo choppers can produce massive gouge wounds, though Whetzel said he’s not suffered one or been with anyone who has.

Pigs are nowhere close to being wiped out. Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service estimated that in 2010 an annual harvest rate of 66 percent was needed just to keep the population where it was. The harvest rate is 29 percent.

These days, very few true European pigs - with their longer snouts and legs, larger heads and high backs - are left.

“I believe every one I’ve ever shot was a hybrid,” Whetzel said.

Another Melissa pig hunter is Terry Wittwer, 42. He and his sons, Colton, 15, and Dalton, 13, hunt on Wittwer’s property near Commerce.

“We’ll just get the wind in our face and try to jump them in the woods,” Wittwer said by phone. He likes to use an AR-10, which is similar to an AR-15 but shoots a .308-caliber round instead of a .223.

“I don’t really bait them much,” he said. “We do have cameras up. Sometimes we’ll run a feeder. If I have somebody coming that wants to go shoot a hog, then I might get a feeder going just so I know they’re there.”

Wittwer, a McKinney police officer, said neither he nor anyone in his party has ever been injured hunting pigs.

“I don’t get that close to them,” he said.

As for eating wild pig, he said they do on occasion, when they get a female that’s not too big.

“I usually just smoke them or barbecue them,” he said. Wittwer has bagged a couple of pigs that probably went 300 pounds, though he couldn’t be sure.

“I would say it’s not like deer hunting,” he said. “There’s risk to it. When you go deer hunting, if you see a deer it’s going to run away from you. Generally speaking, pigs will too but if you find a sow that has babies then there’s just a greater risk factor to it.”

And for Wittwerwhat makes a good hunter is time.

“Having the time to go hunt them,” he said. “They’re everywhere. We’d shoot a lot more if we had more time.”