How to Gain Access to Hunt Private Land
April 05, 2013
"Hi, my name is Bruce Ingram. I live over in Botetourt County and teach at the local high school. I know you're busy, so I'll come straight to the point. I'm looking for a place to bowhunt for deer. I'm not interested in killing big bucks, or any bucks at all for that matter. If you let me hunt, I'll never come on Saturdays or holidays when family members might be hunting. If you're having a problem with too many does and crop damage, I'll try to help with that."
The above is my introduction to any farmer or landowner whose door I knock on or meet while the individual is laboring outdoors. In that half-minute, the property owner learns my name, where I live, what I do for a living, and why I am standing there. That person's response can then take three forms: "No, sorry;" "Well, I don't know;" and "Yeah, that would be all right."
I have standard replies to each of those responses. For the negative one, I don't try to change the farmer's mind.
"Not a problem, sir. If the situation ever changes, here's my business card. And, do you know of any neighbors that might let me bowhunt their places?"
For the indecisive comment, here's my rejoinder.
"Besides being a teacher, I'm also an outdoor writer, so I don't have much free time. I have a lot of farms where I have permission to hunt, and where I try to help the landowner control his deer population. If you let me bowhunt here, I may not be able to come over but three or four times after school the whole season. I hunt over at [insert the names of nearby neighbors], so please feel free to check what kind of guest I've been if you want."
The goal of the above is to give the landowner a little more information about me, how many times I am likely to visit, and some potential references. I can't remember a time when permission has not been granted in this case. For the affirmative response, here's what I say.
"Great, thank you so much. Here's what I need to know: where your property boundaries are so I don't trespass on your neighbors' land, places where you want me to hunt and that are off limits, where you've been seeing most of your deer in the evenings and what time, and restrictions on what I can't shoot. We can talk about these things now, or I can come back later if you want."
This response to the landowner's granting of permission gives even more information about what type of hunter I will be. It's crucial that any farmer maintain good relations with his neighbors, and I show that I am aware of that need by mentioning my desire not to unwittingly trespass. Many farmers have certain sections where they don't want hunters to venture, and I likewise show that I'm aware of that likely requirement.
Most landowners that I have encountered are eager to talk about where they often glimpse whitetails and enthusiastically reveal where I can put up a stand based on their observations. The final topic, restrictions on what can't be shot, is something that usually requires a great deal of discussion. But it is also something about which bowhunters should be absolutely certain that they are following the property owner's desires.
For example, one landowner I contacted quickly agreed to my request to hunt, told me that I could kill any age or sex of whitetail, to feel free to come anytime, but, to my amazement, forbid me under any circumstances to ever shoot one of his coyotes. He informed me that he was fascinated with this predator and loved watching them.
He added that I could shoot turkeys if I had a chance, and then ended our conversation with the constraints that I could not kill any foxes or bobcats either. Can you imagine how angry this gentleman would have been if one evening I had downed a coyote, proudly brought the dead creature to the man's door, and then watched him erupt with rage and yank my hunting rights?
I have permission to hunt 13 properties within 10 miles of my school, plus 20 other properties in surrounding counties, in nearby West Virginia, and even some homesteads in Tennessee and North Carolina. And like the coyote enthusiast, many of these folks have greatly differing requirements for what I can and cannot kill, and even when they want me to come.
For example, several individuals do not want me to kill any fawns of either sex. I usually try to kill several doe fawns every year, as no four-legged creature tastes better in my wife, Elaine's, opinion. But I make sure that on these lands, I only harvest mature whitetails.
As one would expect, many landowners don't want underage bucks shot, except for one couple who plant pines (many of them exotic) of many different species on their tract. I have been told repeatedly, as the twosome constantly complain about how many of their trees have been rubbed, that they would prefer that I kill any buck I see, regardless of his age.
The question of when I can visit is another topic where landowner desires vary greatly. One farmer, on whose property I have hunted since 1990, has told me that he would rather that I not call when I'm coming or that I even call to renew my annual permission to hunt. He says he is exceptionally busy, and that maybe once or so a year while he is out in his fields, I should drop by and give an update on what I've been seeing.
In contrast, another landowner wants me to e-mail him two months before the season begins, request all the dates that I want to come, allow him time to coordinate those proposed dates with the three other hunters that he allows on his property, and then before the season starts he informs all of us when we can come for the entire autumn. This person only permits one hunter at a time on his 110-acre spread in order, he says, to ensure that each of us has a quality experience.
I recently went hunting with my friend Fred Cox, who operates Grand Slam Turkey Calls. Like me, Cox is a schoolteacher. He has two jobs, and does much of his hunting after work.
"I recommend that hunters never call a landowner they haven't met," Cox said. "It's too easy to turn someone down over the phone. Visiting someone in person gives you a chance to make a positive impression, and show that you are sincere about wanting to be a good guest."
If he is granted permission, Cox gives the landowner a "permission to hunt form," for him or her to sign. He has already filled out the form (so as not to waste the landowner's time) with his name, address, phone number, e-mail address, and the make, model, and license plate number of his vehicle. "I want to make it as easy as I can for the landowner to get in touch with me and have all my contact information in one place," Cox said.
I never ask if I can bring someone else with me, especially on an initial contact, and after retaining permission for several years, I then bring up the subject. I prefer, though, to let the landowner offer to let me bring someone. However, Fred brings up the subject as soon as permission for him to go afield is granted. And he also wants to know how many other people are allowed on the land, and whether more than one person will ever be there. On small properties, say those under 50 acres, Fred tells the landowner that he will only come on those evenings when he will be the only individual afield.
Another way that Cox and I have similar approaches is on the subject of giving gifts.
"I try to give every landowner a gift of food every Thanksgiving," Fred said. "The gift might be a turkey breast or a deer ham. I will also send a thank-you card."
With permission to hunt some three-dozen farms, I can't give presents to all of these landowners. But what I do present is a loaf of my wife, Elaine's, homemade bread every time I kill a big game animal. I have actually had landowners call me, say how much their family enjoyed a previous loaf, and request that I come back soon to hunt.
Besides the gift of bread, I also have several customs that help me retain permission to hunt. Never open a gate. I never drive through gates, or even open them to walk through. I climb over or crawl under every gate. If a cow escapes, or someone in a vehicle ruts up a wet field, I can honestly tell the landowner that it is impossible that I committed those acts.
Never hunt when family members are afield. I try to find out when family members are going to hunt a property and promise to stay away then. I never want a close relative telling the landowner that I ruined his outing. Never wear out my welcome. I'll rotate among farms the first two weeks of the season, and then narrow down the list to only the best locales and stand sites. Even so, I try never to visit a property more than three or four times a season.
Never be a problem creator, be a problem solver. Several years ago, I came to the gate of one of my favorite farms to bowhunt after school, and found that the gate had been torn down or had fallen down. I propped up the gate so that the beef cattle could not escape, and called the landowner to report what I had found and done. He was extremely grateful. It's none of my business if another hunter had done something to cause that gate to fall.
Regardless, that landowner received the impression that I am a help to him, not a hindrance. Never downplay the fact that you are a bowhunter. We are obviously quieter than gun hunters, and therefore less intrusive. In all sincerity, one of the biggest problems I have is visiting all the farms I have permission to hunt. Last year I had to apologize to several landowners that I was unable to visit them, but will try to make it up to them this year. And the invitations to hunt other farms keep coming in. The word does spread if we are safe, ethical sportsmen.
I don't want to say that bowhunters will never have to lease land if they follow my precepts, but I have never paid a penny to hunt anywhere and don't plan to ever have to do so. You, too, can possibly have this kind of success at securing access.
The author is a resident of Troutville, Virginia. He writes a weekly outdoors-themed blog.