My buddy, Mark, missed a Boone and Crockett Club white-tailed buck with his bow. It was a gimme shot from 20 yards that he admits he whiffed for one of deer hunting’s simplest—and oldest—reasons.
“Buck fever,” he said, shaking his head an hour later. “I was in its grip!” We laugh about the tale now.
That hunt occurred on a special chunk of land; a property Mark and I had leased with a couple of buddies. Though all of us are long-time, hardcore whitetailers, paying to hunt was something new to us. Indeed, we’d resisted leasing for years, priding ourselves on our ability to access prime ground and hunt it well. But after facing some hard realities about our hunting areas, and critically examining our personal goals, we decided to give leasing a try. Here’s why.
Breaking The Landowner Barrier
Perhaps our primary goal was to manage the deer herd, and the hunting pressure, on a property. Buying real estate was our ultimate dream, but soaring land values in our region had made this financially impossible; after paying our mortgages and basic living expenses, our “play money” was meager at best. Gaining exclusive access to property simply by asking for it also seemed out of the question, because most of the landowners who let us hunt extended the same privilege to their family members and friends. Finally, trading labor (such as farm work) for exclusive hunting rights seemed to be more difficult than ever, as work/family commitments had reduced our free time. We struggled mightily just to squeeze in quality hunting time.
So when a friend of mine—a government employee who knows many landowners in my area—told me about a landowner who was interested in leasing, I asked for an introduction. My first meeting with Kent (not his real name) was cordial, but we both were treading unfamiliar territory. He’d never leased his property before, and had as many questions for me as I did for him. Like most farmers, Kent supported hunting and wanted deer numbers controlled. But he also wanted safe, ethical hunters on his land who he knew he could trust. And like all property owners, Kent had noticed a significant increase in his tax burden of late, and was looking for some relief.
After several meetings, Kent and the members of my hunting party agreed to some terms. Naturally, one of the first items was price. We arrived at a figure that amounted to a reasonable cost when split between five hunters, with the agreement that the dollar amount would be renegotiated after the first season. If we were happy with the hunting—and Kent was content with our behavior—our group would lease Kent’s ground under a long-term contract, with the potential for an escalating pay scale that would reflect the value we placed on having exclusive permission.
But there was more to arriving at a “deal” than just dollar signs. Kent wanted to know how many hunters there would be on his property, as well as the amount—and type—of deer we wanted to harvest.
“I want the pressure off of the young bucks,” he said. “If you need meat, there are plenty of does.”
This management strategy fit our goals perfectly. Kent also has a thriving livestock operation, and he wanted an assurance that we’d keep his gates closed and not hunt portions of his farm that were being grazed. Other documents, such as a legal agreement absolving Kent of liability, were drawn up and signed. Finally, issues such as posting property borders and dealing with trespassers were discussed. Kent’s property is large for our area, and he’d experienced much frustration in catching interlopers too lazy to ask permission. We readily agreed to help him with this situation.
After only one season of hunting Kent’s property, our group became excited about the possibilities for the following fall. We managed to take three nice bucks off Kent’s farm (Mark redeemed his miss by shooting a battle-scarred old buck later in the year) and had encounters with several others. But our enthusiasm went beyond bagging bucks. Primarily, we enjoyed our relationship with Kent, which had gone from simply business to one of friendship. We were also enthused about the privilege of implementing deer management techniques, such as food plots, ponds and harvest strategies that we thought we’d never enjoy unless we owned land. Finally, we hoped to invite some young hunters from the community to hunt with us—kids who perhaps don’t have parents who hunt, or lack the land or opportunity that’s essential to starting a lifetime of being a sportsman.
The Numbers Game
Leasing rates vary greatly and, in most cases, are negotiated on an individual basis. The price typically depends on a number of factors: past management practices, trophy potential, available deer habitat, area real estate/leasing values, number of hunters in the agreement, and the landowner’s prior experience with leasing (if he’s new to the practice, the fee is usually lower). As an example, Buffalo County, Wisconsin, is a top trophy whitetail destination (the area is No. 1 in both the Pope and Young Club and B&C record books), and leasing there is very common and often competitive. Hunters in that area can expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $20 per acre, depending on the quality of the property. In Pike County, Illinois—another popular trophy destination—lease rates might be even higher. The property our group leased was located in southern Minnesota. The big buck potential is high in this area, but management strategies haven’t been in place and leasing is uncommon. We paid about $3 per acre the first year.
Leasing Isn't Losing
I know there are many hunters who criticize leasing. I live among many of them, since it isn’t yet a common practice in our area. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that I believed I’d never have to pay to hunt deer. But times have quickly changed. While I can still hunt several properties for nothing more than the price of a handshake, those opportunities are becoming increasingly rare. Recreational land is being bought at an unprecedented rate—and for unprecedented prices—in my area. And farmers and ranchers, who struggle to pay their bills just as much as we all do, are realizing the wildlife on their properties can be another source of income.
Yes, things aren’t like they were back in “the good old days” when you could hunt most anywhere for free. But after trying leasing, I’ve come to realize paying to hunt—especially if the members of your party and the landowner are trustworthy, ethical, dependable people—isn’t a bad alternative. When we compared our leasing fees to the costs of owning land or going on guided hunts, we knew we’d selected the cheapest option. Factor in the relationship we formed with Kent, the opportunity to manage ground and visit it regularly, and we consider leasing dollars to be a wise investment.