November 01, 2023
We have seen a huge change in land ownership and land use during the past 20 years, especially as it relates to “recreational land,” aka hunting ground. So, where is this all headed? You may as well accept the future and do something about it, or you will someday end up on the outside looking in.
I wrote an article about the future of deer hunting for the Iowa Game & Fish magazine 25 years ago. In that article, I laid out what I thought was going to happen in my home state, based on then-current trends and common-sense projections. What I told the Iowa readers didn’t sit well with them; they were used to open hunting and easy access. I got some strongly negative feedback telling me to stuff it. It was a classic example of killing the messenger if you don’t like the message.
At the risk of repeating the bad news and getting Petersen’s BOWHUNTING readers on my back, I am going to cover this sensitive subject again. I will tell you where I think this is all headed and how you, with some planning, can stay ahead of it.
Supply & Demand
A lot of people are buying rural land to secure their own, private hunting area for the future. Twenty-five years ago, this was mostly unheard of in most parts of the country. That is when I started. In 1995, I took my own advice from that Game & Fish article and bought part ownership in some land. It was the best thing I ever did, both financially and as a bowhunter.
Fast-forward to today, and the trend toward buying land specifically for hunting is gobbling up hundreds of thousands of acres each year; and I don’t really see it slowing anytime soon. In addition to buying hunting ground outright, many people are leasing hunting land at rapidly increasing rates. When I was a boy, not a single Iowa farmer I knew took money to let people hunt. Now, it is rare in the area where I grew up to find a single farmer who isn’t leasing his farm for hunting, or strongly considering it.
To guarantee a place to hunt, for yourself and your children in the future, you need to understand why this is happening. It is simple; anything that has value will eventually command that value in a free-market system. In other words, if you have something that is valuable, eventually the market will assign a price tag to it.
Having a good place to hunt is valuable. And in the areas where the supply is lowest (highly populated regions) or the demand is highest (top trophy hunting counties anywhere), the price goes up. That is Economics 101; supply and demand work in opposite directions to set the price of pretty much everything in a capitalist economy.
Ideally, you will be able to make a small land investment, but I understand that is not in the cards for most readers. If you can’t afford land right now, start moving in another direction.
The Management Solution
Here is one potential path few people are talking about. Many people who buy hunting land live a good distance from the property and quickly realize they need lots of help, from maintenance and habitat projects to shooting enough does and ugly, bully bucks to keep the herd at a healthy level. These absentee landowners will often grant privileges to people who prove they can be trusted.
You may have a buddy or family member who owns land. That is a great starting point. Rather than ask to shoot a buck, ask to help them with land projects and eventually to shoot a few does. That starting point may soon lead to a situation where you are trusted with shooting cull bucks (which can be awesome to hunt). It is tougher if you approach strangers, but it can be done. It just takes more time to get your foot in the door. Remember, you aren’t asking to hunt at first.
To be trustworthy in this regard, you will need to become more sophisticated and learn not only how to rough score a deer on the hoof, but more importantly, to age a deer on the hoof. You will probably end up with a target list of bucks that you and the landowner agree on.
With these skills, you become valuable, because the landowner can trust you to make good management decisions. Gaining this level of trust does take time, because you have to start slow. The landowner will eventually realize how much help he really needs and how big of a part you play in helping him reach his goals.
Being the designated cull-buck shooter may not be as exciting as going after the biggest deer on the property, but it also doesn’t come with a big mortgage. Hunting even cull bucks can be very challenging and thrilling, and much better than sitting at home watching football on TV. So, for this plan to work, you need to become very knowledgeable regarding what needs to be done to produce a well-managed herd and then play a role in making that happen.
Pay to Hunt
Of course, you can also lease hunting land. I did that for two years (2020 and 2021) while I was between the sale of one farm and the purchase of another one.
At first, it rankled me that I had to pay several thousand dollars to hunt a farm I once hunted for free as boy. But then I got to thinking about the fact that I had 500 acres all to myself in a good neighborhood. Further, if I was going to buy that farm, the cost I was paying for the lease would barely even cover the property taxes, let alone the mortgage. That kind of put things into perspective. And I did shoot two really nice bucks there!
Granted, owning land is better than leasing in most cases, because owning creates equity and the investment should grow in value over time. But it still puts a strap on your finances in the process.
After buying the current farm, I have had to cut back on some of the other stuff I used to do for fun (trout-fishing trips being one of first casualties), because I didn’t have time with all the projects I now had to do, and I didn’t have as much discretionary income with the big mortgage. In fact, I had to work more hours at my freelance jobs to help pay the cost, further cutting into my outdoor time. So, while owning is definitely better from an investment standpoint (and it is more permanent), leasing gives you more freedom.
Even when I was boy, I knew the importance of “paying” for my hunting privilege. I knew that someday I would be competing with lease hunting (I saw it happening in other states). So, rather than taking my hunting permission for granted, I always offered to work for the farmer in return. I grew up on a farm, so building fences and putting up hay was second nature. The farmers all started taking me up on my offer. Dang it!
Before I finally realized I would be better off working longer hours in my office (rather than bailing hay four days per week) so I could buy my own land, farmers were actually calling me, asking me if I wanted to hunt deer on their land. Of course, what they really wanted was for me to come help them put up their hay. It was comical to see how quickly the word got around.
Anyway, my point is this: If you are good at something landowners see as valuable (roofing, construction, farm work, mechanical work) you should be able to find places to hunt by simply offering your services. Like anything, it will take time, but once the word gets out, entire neighborhoods will open up to you. It is getting harder than it was when I was a boy, but if you are willing to sweat next to a farmer, you will find him very generous, and soon he will be asking his friends and neighbors if you can hunt their land too.
Public-land hunting seems to have gained a kind of romantic prominence, as if it is somehow purer or nobler than hunting private land. I hunted enough public land in my life to know that it is not nobler. It can be fun, and it sure can be challenging, but it is often frustrating and unproductive. Given options, I would not pursue public-land hunting as my first choice. But that’s just me. Even the good public land in Iowa is less productive than average private land. I am guessing it is the same way in most places, except the Western states where there is so much public land hunters get spread out.
It just comes down to numbers. The more hunters on a piece of land, all else being equal, the harder the hunting will be. If all else fails in your attempts to find private access, it is great to have a few secluded ridges on public ground to fall back on.
Gaining long-term hunting access to good hunting land takes time, persistence or lots of cash — sometimes all three! To keep from being on the outside looking in 10 years from now, you have to start now. Then, stay engaged until you see it through. Your hunting future depends upon it.