Private land holds the majority of wildlife, don't overlook it and its stewards.
I grew up hunting western Montana as though it were my personal ranch. While my parents owned a small acreage that held some birds and the occasional deer, we didn’t really hunt it. Instead, I hunted my neighbors’ places: my doctor’s small farm or the place deep in the mountains owned by my father's coworker. If we were driving by and saw a deer in the field or flushed birds across the fence, we
would drive up to the nearest house where I would knock on a door and ask for permission. More often than not, I would be granted access with a genuine, “Good luck!” If I was told no, it was with sorrow because it was leased or outfitted. Still I was beyond fortunate, I felt favored. In the way you only know once something is gone, I appreciate nameless souls who granted me passage into their homesteads to hunt.
Today, many of my former hunting grounds have been sold off, parceled out, or simply do not hold game. I can point to a hill where I killed my first deer, a small whitetail buck with an 80 yard shot through the neck (not where I was aiming) with a 30-30 Winchester now being held by a third generation of hunters. A large, white house now sits there with several more ringing it, cascading down the hillside. I’m sure deer still pass through, but I wouldn't be bold enough to fire a rifle for fear of where the bullet would travel. Gone, too, are wheat fields where I would carry a shotgun looking for something to fly. Instead, a Home Depot sits there. Stories like this are nearly universal for those of us who have grown up hunting. We sound like old-timers who used to sell us on the glory days before “everyone started hunting.”
I still frequently hunt private land. In fact, when I approach a new area it is what I explore first. I would hazard that my success rates on asking and being given permission is around 50%. This is me simply me knocking on a door, introducing myself, asking about the place, and then about hunting. I’ve done this all over the country and found landowners to be amiable, affable, and sometimes amusing. Each case was unique, but the outcome was the same: go ahead, just don’t shoot my cows. This isn’t a generosity or command I take lightly. While the ranch might be thousands of acres, every inch is their home and I have been invited in. If they asked me to pat my head and rub my belly before I went through each gate, I would gleefully, albeit uncoordinatedly, oblige. It is easier to say no, than to worry about the troubles an unknown hunter might present as he makes his way through a place. Because of that, I always say thanks.
Maintain a Christmas Card List.
Christmas cards are quickly becoming a memento of the past which is why they get noticed when mailed. Thinking of landowners beyond hunting season is uncommon. I go a step further and assemble a small gift box of personal and handmade affections. Years past have included Irish whiskey fudge, spice rub, and Christmas ornaments. It probably costs around $20 for each one, but without fail it sets me apart when I arrive the next fall.
1. Offer your own skills.
Ranchers and farmers tend to not be doctors and lawyers, which means they may need help or advice later on. Certainly there are limitations to what each of us can provide for free, but being willing to help returns the same favor that has been extended to you. I know of a web designer who has provided mom and pop operations with free web pages that have boosted their stock business; he is welcome anytime to hunt.
2. Free Labor.
This is a tricky one. In almost all ranch and farm work, there is a certain way that the rancher/farmer wants it done. It might be more work to train you up or inspect your work after the fact than to actually let you do it. But sometimes grunt work is just that and they might take you up on it. Your willingness to do whatever needs done and be on call throughout the year can be a valuable offer.
3. Advocate for Common Causes.
It often seems that the battle line in wildlife management is between the sportsmen and landowners. The reality is that the vast majority of issues have common ground. Listening to understand their perspectives and then advocating on their behalf when it doesn’t directly impact your hunting demonstrates your concern beyond just hunting. It is often said that a landowner only sees a hunter on opening day, but there are opportunities at stock sales, association meetings, and lobbying days to rub elbows with those that provide for wildlife 365 days every year.
4. Pay Attention to Natural Disasters.
Fires, floods, and wind are the big three natural forces that can immediately and catastrophically impact an operation. During the fire season I keep tabs on new fires that start in areas that I hunt. Evacuations can come quickly and require all hands on deck. Even just having a truck that can pull a trailer can ease the burden. This goes beyond just being a hunter and is part of our code of the west of being a good neighbor.
5. Don’t Show Up Empty-Handed.
It is amazing to me how a case of Bud Light gets me access to 3,000 acres every fall. A rancher I met on the side of the road, fencing, just wanted a cold beer after a long day. We brought him 24 and have repeated it every year since. I know other hunters who have been turned down since and wonder how we continue to be allowed through the gate. It all comes down to genuine relationships. Some ranchers will politely decline anything you bring, happy that you enjoy and appreciate the land they steward.
In the end it comes down to relationships. Find them, grow them, maintain them. Sometimes it takes years before you are granted access, but it is worth the investment. But I have found that once I am in, it's on me to make sure I stay in. It's a privilege I hold dear and protect with fervor. So thank you to all the ranchers, farmers, and sweet, elderly ladies (Kathleen) that have allowed me to hunt on your land. I am truly and immensely grateful.