If you’re sitting around waiting for someone to offer you access to her game-rich chunk of private property, you’re going to die of old age in your armchair while you wait for the phone to ring. Like almost every-thing of value, private land hunting opportunities usually go to the people who work for them. Since no two hunting permissions are secured in the same way, there’s no exact formula for how to gain access to private land. The best you can do is study the tactics and perspectives of people who do it well, and then try to incorporate these things into your own quest for hunting land.
Earlier I mentioned a farm where my two brothers and I all killed our first deer. The farm was owned by a man who went to our church. Over years of socializing at church-related functions, my father won that farmer’s trust and earned a hunting permission that kept our family supplied with venison for a period of about twelve years. That type of permission—one that comes through a preexisting personal contact—is easily the most common form of hunting permission. These types of contacts come in many forms: immediate family, in-laws, neighbors, coworkers, friends of friends, plus fellow members of clubs, churches, fraternal organizations, or sporting teams. In fact, of the dozen or so active hunting permissions that I maintained as a kid around my home in Twin Lake, Michigan, 90 percent were on lands owned by acquain-tances of my parents or friends of those acquaintances.
Even if you have close contacts who own good hunting land, don’t ever take for granted that they’ll give you hunting permission. This sort of transaction needs to be carefully cultivated, regardless of how well you know the person. Remember, you’re asking someone to allow an armed person onto that property, a property that might also contain buildings, pets, livestock, and a variety of other users. On top of that, you’re likely to be coming and going while it’s dark outside. What you’re asking goes beyond a simple favor; it’s a serious issue that needs to be handled respectfully.
To get a sense of how delicately I handle the issue of hunting someone else’s land, consider the following story. My wife used to work with a woman who was married to a guy who was raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York. This couple was (and is) very close to us. The man in charge of this family’s farm, which abounds in deer and turkey, was the father-in-law of my wife’s friend—let’s call him David. On multiple week-end visits to the farm I made sure to mention to David that I was an avid hunter. But despite my hints, he never even came close to extending an invitation for me to hunt his land. I knew that he had several elderly friends who hunted there on occasion, and I figured he thought that was enough.
Leaving gates as you found them will keep you on good terms with landowners who are gracious enough to share access with you.
Not wanting to be pushy, I waited until I’d known him for a few years and then I asked if I could come out for a onetime squirrel hunt on a mid-January day. I picked that time of year because I knew that other hunters wouldn’t be in the woods, so I wouldn’t be putting David in an uncom-fortable situation with his friends. At the end of that squirrel hunt, I stopped by the farmhouse to give David a few tokens of my appreciation, including some wine and a sampling of wild game sausages that I’d made at my home. I did not inquire about hunting there again. The next day, I followed up with a thank-you email. I attached to this email some photos of the meal that I’d made from the squirrels on his farm, because farmers are practical people and they like to see their resources put to wise use. Ultimately, my patience paid off. The next time that I spoke to the fanner, he mentioned that one of the other guys who’d been hunting there was no longer welcome. I could come out and hunt deer and turkey anytime I wanted. By that point, I’d known the man for a total of six years.
Not every place is that tough. Right now I’m sitting on another great hunting permission in the same region that came about through a good friend who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. This friend was visiting his relatives in Minnesota when he got to talking to a distant family member from New York who complained about a gross overabundance of deer on her property. My buddy shared some kind words about me, then promptly sent me an email urging me to reach out to her. I contacted her the next day and offered to provide letters of personal recommendation from other landowners whose property I’ve hunted in the past. She said not to bother, though the gesture clearly resonated with her. Without ever actually speaking to me, she granted me the first hunting permission that I had ever received over email.
These two examples are extremes on each end of the spectrum, but they demonstrate the adaptability and care that you need to use when approaching the subject of hunting on the land of a personal acquain-tance.
THINGS TO CLEAR UP WITH A LANDOWNER BEFORE HUNTING THAT LAND, WHETHER IT’S YOUR BEST FRIEND OR A TOTAL STRANGER
1. Assure the landowner that you hunt with strict adherence to all rules and regulations, and then stay true to your word. Even if it’s a seemingly silly law, like those stating that rifles and shotguns be cased at all times when inside a vehicle, adhere to it.
2. Be specific about what you want to hunt. Don’t say you’re going to hunt deer and then come walking out of the woods with a dead turkey—unless of course you were granted permission to hunt turkeys as well. Each landowner has idiosyncrasies about wildlife on his or her land, and it’s your responsibility to find out what these are and then adhere to them. I hunt a lovely farm where the owner forbids the hunting of ducks and geese because she likes to watch them fly by. I used to hunt another farm where all legal animals were fair game except rabbits, because the owner’s nephew liked to chase them with hounds.
3. Tell the landowner when you want to hunt. If you tell a landowner that you’ll be hunting on Monday, don’t show up on Tuesday without checking in first. Maybe the landowner has given someone else hunting permission for that day, or maybe there will be a fence repair crew coming in and a hunter won’t be welcome on the land that day. Eventually, most landowners will tell you to come and go as you please. But until then, don’t make assumptions.
4. Tell them who will be hunting, and then keep your word. This is the most common mistake that hunters make, and it infuriates landowners. If you ask permission for yourself, then don’t bring a buddy without checking to see if it’s okay. One time my brother Matt secured a great turkey hunting permission from a wheat farmer whose crop was getting devastated by the birds. At the last minute, though, Matt decided to take along me and our brother, Danny. Our intention was to clear this with the landowner before we started hunting, but we never got a chance. When we pulled up with three guys in the truck, the landowner angrily kicked us off his property before we could open our mouths to explain.
Securing hunting permissions from complete strangers is ten times harder and twenty times more awkward than securing them from ac-quaintances, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In fact, I’ve done this many times, and I have enjoyed some great hunting because of it. My friends and I refer to this method of gaining permission as “banging doors.” Here there’s no room for patience or carefully orchestrated inter-actions. To make it work, you need to know when to ask, how to ask, and what to ask—and you need to do it quickly.
The “when” portion of the equation refers to timing, in terms of both time of day and time of year. Obviously, you don’t want to scare some farmer’s wife by banging on the door at 11:00 p.m. Rather than earning you a permission, that’s likely to earn you an ass chewing. Instead, you should limit your landowner visits to business hours only. Some guys suggest that you try to plan your visits to avoid a farmer’s dinnertime and peak periods of work activity, but it’s nearly impossible to anticipate such things, and it can be like trying to hit a moving target. Instead, use common sense. Don’t make a farmer shut down his combine in order to talk to you, but then don’t make him uncomfortable by staring at him from the window of your truck for an hour while he eats dinner with his family.
Asking permission to hunt small game or waterfowl is a great way to get your foot in the door on private property. Many landowners who love to hunt deer don’t really care about hunting small game, and they’re happy to extend the privilege to polite, consid-erate hunters. In time, that permission might be expanded to include big game.
As for the time of year, keep in mind that farmers and ranchers sometimes get so bombarded by hunters during hunting seasons that they begin to dread the sound of their own doorbell. A wise hunter pays visits to landowners during midsummer. This way, hunting season is close enough that the landowner doesn’t feel as though you’re talking about some abstract event in the distant future, but it’s far enough away that he doesn’t feel pressured to make an immediate decision. Under these circumstances a landowner might opt to defer his final answer until later, but that’s fine. A month or two later, when you’re a little closer to the season, you can remind the landowner about your previous visit and he’s likely to treat you more charitably as a known person who had the courtesy to ask for hunting permission well in advance of the actual season.
When it comes to how you ask, think brevity and conciseness. The moment you walk up to a landowner’s home and bang on the door, he’s going to be wondering whether you’re selling religion or fertilizer. Don’t keep him guessing. Many articles on this subject suggest that you start out by complimenting the landowner on how beautiful the property is, but that only makes it worse. You just end up looking like a phony. Instead, say something simple like this: “Excuse me, ma’am. I’d like to ask about the possibility of doing some deer hunting on your property. I have references who can testify that I’m a trustworthy and respectful hunter. I’m sure you get permission requests like this all the time, but I want you to know that I’m more than willing to limit my harvest to does, or to do whatever is most beneficial to you. And I’d be happy to return the favor by helping out with any chores or errands that might come up between now and hunting season.” By coming right out and stating your purpose, you do risk getting shut down immediately. But I’d venture to say that any landowner who says no right away would have still said no if you’d started out by saying how beautiful the grain silo looks in the light of the setting sun.
The “what” portion of the equation refers to what kind of birds or animals you’d like to hunt. Typically, the more romantic and coveted the species, the less likely you are to get permission from a stranger. If you drive up to a large cattle ranch outside Durango, Colorado, and ask the owner for permission to hunt the herd of bull elk that have been hanging around his irrigated pasture for the last two weeks, the answer’s going to be no. For one thing, elk are big business in Durango, and there’s a lot of demand from hunters and outfitters who are willing to pay top dollar for hunting rights. For another thing, if he was going to say yes to the first guy who drove up his driveway, that would have happened two weeks earlier when the elk first showed up.
Instead, get your foot in the door by asking about less coveted species that don’t demand as much attention from other hunters. Squirrels and cottontail rabbits are obvious examples. Another great avenue of ap-proach is to ask permission to hunt a deleterious species such as Canada geese. Often a farmer who’s watching his alfalfa field get destroyed by geese will be in the mood to open his gates to a polite goose hunter who happens along. Antlerless deer and elk can provide great opportunities as well. Farmers and ranchers who are dealing with severe crop damage from grazing animals get sick and tired of hunters who pass up female deer and elk because they want to kill a trophy. Anyone with a snippet of knowledge about wildlife biology understands that ungulate popula-tions are reduced through the harvest of females, not males. If you kill a male, you’re removing just one animal. If you kill a female, you’re remov-ing her future offspring as well. Explain to a beleaguered farmer or rancher that you’d like to take a doe instead of a buck, and he might just give you the keys to the place. And once you get your foot in the door with squirrels or does, you can further earn the landowner’s trust by showing yourself to be courteous, honest, and generous. If all goes well, you’ll get the hunting equivalent of a promotion. Soon he might be calling you about those bull elk in his pasture.
A FEW MORE RULES TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN YOU’RE ASKING FOR HUNTING PERMISSION
1. Go alone when you ask permission, even if you’re hoping to get permission for more than one person. No one wants to be outnumbered by strangers on their own property.
2. Ignore rule #1 if you plan on hunting with your kids. In that case, absolutely bring them along. Families make people feel comfortable (at least in small doses), and many landowners would be pleased to know that they are facilitating positive, out-of-doors interactions between children and their parents.
3. If you’re a man and your wife will be hunting with you, have her ask permission. If nothing else, the landowner will appreciate the novelty.
4. Dress nicely. If you just got done working and you’re covered in paint or you smell like a deep fryer, get cleaned up first.
5. But don’t dress too nicely. Remember, you don’t want to look like a salesmen or like you’re gonna start passing out religious pamphlets.
6, 7, 8, 9. 10, 11, 12, and 13. Look the landowner in the eye. Stand tall. Don’t mumble. Speak firmly and confidently. Be polite. Don’t try to flatter the landowner; he’ll see through it. If the answer is no, say thanks anyway. Finally, when the interaction is over and you’ve received permission, it’s time to comment on hot’ beautiful the property is. At this point he’ll actually believe you.
THE PAY-TO-HUNT OPTION
If you are short on time but have plenty of money, you might consider a lease, trespass fee, or other pay-to-hunt option. These options are also good to ponder if you’re older and “can’t hike like I used to,” or if you’re trying to introduce young kids to hunting. The access to private land will almost certainly decrease the hunting pressure and increase the action, and that adds up to better hunting. For the older chap, it saves his knees; when taking kids hunting, it allows the focus to be on them and not on what your competition might be doing. Leasing the hunting rights on private land can be either outrageously expensive or surprisingly cheap. A Tennessee hunter pays $2,000 annu-ally to hunt whitetail deer and turkeys on a couple of thousand acres. He can shoot both does and large antlered bucks (which is what he’s after) on the property. His buddy, who is only interested in having a secure spot to kill three to four does for the freezer, hunts the same property for $400 annually. He figures that each doe is well worth the $100 it costs him. A group of Missouri hunters travels to Colorado to hunt elk every other year. They have a sweet deal worked out with a landowner. For $1,000 each, they get a cabin on 320 private acres; this private property adjoins thousands of acres of otherwise hard-to-access national forest. They kill most of their elk on the public land and seldom see other hunters back there. This group of hunters sees great value in their arrangement with the landowner. By shelling out a little cash, they have a far better hunt than they would otherwise experience. The reasons are many to pay for hunting grounds. It’s up to each hunter to decide whether such gains are worth the expense.