Xtreme Measures: Thermal Optics by Night/Helicopter by Day

Want to put a serious dent in your wild hog or coyote populations? Try these outside-the-box methods and deliver a lethal one-two punch.

Xtreme Measures: Thermal Optics by Night/Helicopter by Day

The Trijicon Compact ACOG is a great sighting solution for hunting from the air.

Wild hogs can cause significant damage on large ranches and tracts of private and public hunting lands, resulting in a never ending battle to control their numbers. Same with coyotes. They are a rancher’s worst enemy during calving or lambing season, and they also wreak havoc on deer and pronghorn fawns. That’s why many ranch owners and hunting property managers employ aggressive predator population control in an attempt to keep their numbers in check. 

When it comes to wild hogs, the hard numbers are staggering. The breeding behavior of this predator/scavenger makes it the most prolific large mammal in North America, and presents a host of challenges for eradication efforts. 

According to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, an estimated 75 percent of a wild hog population must be removed annually to maintain the same number of individuals from one year to the next. Most often, wild hogs breed once or twice per year in favorable conditions. Compared to other large mammals, they have a very short gestation period of about 114 days and sows are sexually mature at 6 to 8 months of age. Litters average four to six piglets, but are often much larger. 

To a large degree, hogs have become big business, while at the same time helping to fuel the passion of hunters all over the country. Farmers, ranchers, landowners and many state wildlife agencies have all gotten into the game in an attempt to knock down hog populations to deal with their destructive nature. All have contributed to the explosion of an entire industry aimed at keeping hog populations in check.

By default, because you are reading this, you are likely already becoming or are an accomplished predator hunter, employing all the standard gear and tactics available to make it happen in the field, including precision rifles, suppressors, e-callers, custom loads, decoys, scents and anything else that gives you an advantage. But if you really want to take a serious chunk out of wild hog and coyote populations on any given property you need to consider kicking it up a notch — by taking back the night with thermal and IR optics, or even taking it a step further if the situation permits, by bringing in the mother of all predator hunting tools, the helicopter. Ask any predator hunters who have worked the graveyard shift with thermal optics and they will say it’s a blast and extremely effective. Ask anyone who has hunted predators from the sky and they will say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

So, it might be time to bite the bullet and invest in a thermal hunting rig, particularly if you are already spending the time, effort and money to take out as many critters as you can. Beyond this, and admittedly best suited for larger ranches, farms and private hunting lands, consider bringing in a seasoned helicopter pilot and giving ’em hell. The payoff is worth it, and depending on who you talk to, the amount of land needed ranges from 500 to 30,000 acres. Much of that depends on the pilot’s level of experience and the size of the helicopter he or she is piloting. Oh, and by the way, you will have a hard time finding anything else that’s this much fun.  

Hunting at night with thermal optics is one of the fastest growing methods of pursuing wild hogs and nuisance predators such as coyotes. Once available to only a few elite hunters because of limited availability and a hefty price tag, thermal optics are now much more affordable, with new brands hitting the market every year. Caution: Once you give it a try, it’s extremely likely you will never look back, which, of course, means updating and accessorizing your favorite predator/hog hunting rigs.

Trijicon Compact ACOG sight.
Trijicon Compact ACOG sight.

Tools for Taking Back the Night

The Trijicon brand is known the world over for its military optics, but is also uber-popular with the predator crowd for its wide variety of hunting optics and unique sighting systems, many of which do not depend on batteries — optics that are designed and built around a forged durable unibody one-piece frame. These optics are nearly indestructible — designed for hard use knocking around in a warzone or a hunting ranch or lease. It’s not surprising that Trijicon’s thermal optics are built on some of the same principles. Here is a quick look at a couple of its most popular models.

Trijicon IR-Hunter 

Trijicon’s IR-Hunter is a rugged and powerful mini thermal riflescope that is easy to use. It features improved system controls for faster system response and reduced lag while a new manual focus adjustment for 60mm versions provides improved image quality at all distances. The main housing is constructed from forged 7075 aluminum and features an updated top-loading internal battery compartment for faster access, a slimmer profile and increased durability. Its quick release mounting system featuring Trijicon Q-Loc technology provides multiple mounting locations to affix a scope rapidly and reliably in the dark. This feature also decreases sight-in time and rounds fired with “return to zero” repeatability. The IR-Hunter has improved reticle choices, and all Trijicon Electro Optics thermal scopes feature 640x480 resolution and 12-micron thermal sensors with 60Hz frame rates. This scope was refreshed in 2023 and a standard USB connector was added, allowing the user to charge the scope with nearly any external power source. This is key, because it eliminates battery concerns.

Trijicon Reap-IR 

Trijicon’s Reap-IR 35mm Mini Thermal Riflescope is small, rugged and powerful and allows shooters to engage targets in any light conditions — trusted by the most demanding shooters and hunters who require speed and accuracy for night-time use. It optimizes the S.W.A.P. mindset (size, weight and power) with its small packaging combined with lightweight, rugged features. And the Reap-IR’s simplified Easy Zero Method makes sighting-in the optic easy and intuitive. Getting rounds on target is only a matter of aligning an on-screen digital icon with bullet impacts using provided MOA readouts. All Trijicon Reap-IR optics feature 640x480 resolution, 12 micron thermal sensors and 60Hz frame rates. The Reap-IR family comes standard with five included reticle options and six advanced polarity settings for exceptional visibility in any environment. Redesigned electronic hardware and a new digital thumbstick improve system response and enable the use of external USB power sources and digital video recorders. This optic is engineered to last and is built in the USA. 

Once you dial in your thermal optic setup and understand its operation basics, which are very intuitive, you are ready to begin making an impact on your lease, ranch, farm or hunting area. One of the best benefits of night hunting with thermal optics is that there are no real restrictions or barriers other than access to land and having the right equipment. Equipment-wise, all you need to do is replace your traditional riflescope with a thermal hunting optic on your current predator rig and off you go. You will need a good battery charge for the thermals to operate for longer periods of time, and it is highly recommended that you purchase an external charging unit. Most thermal optics operate just as well during the day, so there’s no need to switch out optics for daytime hunts. 

One of many hogs taken at night with a pig-rig rifle scoped with the new Trijicon IR-Hunter thermal sight.
One of many hogs taken at night with a pig-rig rifle scoped with the new Trijicon IR-Hunter thermal sight.

One-Two Predator Punch

Now if you really want to have a massive impact on your wild hog and coyote populations, assuming you have enough land to warrant this, you can fly the property in a helicopter during the day and knock ’em out at night using thermals — a highly effective and deadly combo. Even if you don’t have enough land or the ability to make this happen financially, the thought of leaning out the side of a helicopter with an AR-style weapon, while a skilled pilot navigates you into optimal shooting positions time and time again, has to get you excited. Sounds crazy, and at times it is just that, but if you have a large enough piece of land with a verified predator population to warrant this approach it’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Using a helicopter coupled with consistent nighttime thermal hunting will knock down more animals than you possibly could using traditional hunting methods.

So what’s it like flying around a ranch in a helicopter? Unbelievable. The first thing is safety followed by communication with the pilot at all times. The third component is getting the hang of shooting from a moving platform — with intuitive, split second adjustments that happen without even thinking about it, just reacting. The pilot and I were connected via headsets that cut out the noise from the helicopter. We operated as a team and at all times had eyes out front looking for hogs and coyotes. Each time we spotted one there was a quick conversation and a plan of attack was quickly hatched, as the pilot explained how he would make his approach and how to best handle anywhere from one to 20 or 30 targets at a time. A good pilot can actually use the helicopter to push and maneuver hogs out of heavy cover into more wide open shooting positions, making this an even more effective method than you would think.

The concept of night hunting is fairly easy to grasp and the skills used during the day stand up at night. The visual component is much different because you’re targeting heat signatures, but your shooting skills hold true. Hunting from a helicopter changes the game quite a bit because you are moving and the animals are moving, too, so it becomes a real intuitive shooting situation, but it won’t take long for most to figure it out. Our helicopter firearms were fitted with compact ACOG optics, which weigh about 5 ounces. They have center dot illumination and were attached with the universal Q-Lock mounting system, all from Trijicon. You would be hard pressed to find a better setup for this type of hunting.

Flying with a well-seasoned helicopter pilot who comes highly recommended is a must. The right pilot will be able to get you in the best position for all setups. One such pilot is Kyle Lange, and during our hunt I picked his brain about hunting from high places.

What is the minimum size ranch or farm that would make a helicopter hunt worthwhile?  

Normally 30K to 40K acres is needed. Our minimum charge as a helicopter service is four hours a day.  

Is there some kind of barometer that tells you when your predator population needs this kind of attention?  

[With wild hogs] there will be rooting damage, crop damage and man made water sources damaged. Also livestock damage. A large hog can eat a baby lamb or goat kid in one bite.

How often should you fly a ranch to knock down hog or predator populations? 

There is a preventative approach and then there’s a wait till the problem happens approach. On farms you might want to hunt a particular month before planting so they don’t have to plant twice. Livestock ranches might do the same for coyotes. They know within a week when the cows will calve. 

What, if any, misconceptions are out there about this method of control?

Maybe not a misconception about the method [but the result]. Hogs are BIG business. While there are some real depredation situations, a lot of folks are cashing in on hog hunting. Some don’t want helicopter control because they are selling nighttime thermal hunts. Others are using fancy traps that can be remotely triggered from a smartphone. Some of those folks are selling them.  

Obviously, hogs are first on the list, but what other predators can effectively be targeted through the air? 

Coyotes. A cow having a calf can normally fight off two coyotes successfully during the first day or two of having her calf. Any more than that and it’s just a matter of time. For coyotes, sheep and goats are as simple as a human going to the fridge and picking out something to eat.

Once on site, how much fly time can you expect in a day, and how many days are normally booked? 

Weather is a big factor. I suggest booking two days to hunt and we as a service block out an extra day to a half day. It’s nice for everyone to fly at least two times a day or at least two times during the hunt. During the second round you’re more familiar with what’s going on.


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