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Straddling the peak of the roof on my 100-year-old farmhouse, the roofer had a good view of deer habitat. "I'd consider it a privilege if I could try my luck bowhunting on your place," he said.
When I said maybe he could, he scrambled down the ladder to show me his expensive bow, tucked in a hard case under the roofing tools in his truck. Also in the case was a quiver full of carbon-shaft broadheads and some field points for practice.
From underneath a bow-and-arrow target so riddled with holes that it looked like a giant round of Swiss cheese, he fished out a dog-eared photo album.
"And this is my son Jason," he said as he led me through several pages of deer hunting snapshots.
"But where are the deer?" I asked.
"Oh Jason passed on lots of smaller does and button bucks. He's waiting for the right one."
After telling me he scouts year-round, he asked, "Do you mind if I take a break from the roofing to look around for deer sign now?"
"Chuck," I said, "I'm paying you by the job, not the hour. Have at it."
Unknowingly, perhaps, Chuck had hit all my "yes" buttons for granting permission to hunt. He had obviously made an investment of time, energy and resources in his sport. He knew the critical importance of scouting early. And most important to me, he had made a commitment to teach the next generation of hunters reverence for the resource.
For nearly 20 years I have been granting or denying hunters access to my small farm. And for many more years, I've been asking for permission to hunt all across the state. I've made some mistakes, especially early in my hunting career. And I've learned from them. I've seen hunters who do and don't get the direct connection between their behavior and their access to private land.
Here are the highlights of the lore I have tried to pass along to my own children:
Scout for land – One of my axioms of hunting: Go where the game is. To check wildlife populations in your desired area, start by contacting a DNR Service Center and talking with a local wildlife manager or technician. Then plan one or more scouting trips at least a month in advance of the season opener.
Take along a gazetteer and a plat map book of the county you are scouting. If you see game while you are driving around, mark the location on the map. The plat map provides the landowner's name. You can use a phone book or the Internet to look up a phone number or a mailing address to contact the owner later. Plat maps showing each individual township (six square miles) or a book showing land ownership in all townships in the county can be purchased at county offices.
Talk to the landowner – Whenever possible, ask for hunting permission face-to-face well ahead of the time you'd like to scout and hunt. It's much easier for a landowner to say no over the phone, and when you are asking someone a favor, nothing beats that face-to-face meeting.
When you meet the landowner, light up your face with a warm smile and state who you are. Begin the discussion by referring to the plat map. The map helps identify you as a serious hunter who does not intend to trespass and it enables you to show the owner where you would like to hunt. Be candid about how many hunters would be with you. Try to keep your group small.
Property owners like to know who is hunting on their land. When I approach landowners, I always hand them one of my hunter's cards. One side has my name, address, phone number and picture of my dog and me. The flip side has my hunter's honor code. I invested about $35 in my cards at a local print shop.
Introduce young hunters – If you plan to have youngsters hunt with you, have them tag along when you ask permission. This experience serves as a good example for young hunters and their presence enhances your chances for success in securing permission. Young people bring the right kind of emotions to the moment – anticipation, excitement, joy – and adults find it harder to disappoint children.
If the answer is no, always say "Thank you just the same." I've been stopped in my retreat to my car several times by people who changed their mind because of my courteous behavior.
If the answer is yes, ask the landowner to tell you where to park and where not to hunt. Mark the location of livestock, standing crops, and other off-limits sections in pencil on your plat map.
Plan to walk – On the day of the hunt, park where the landowner directed you, let him or her know you have arrived and then walk – don't drive – to the hunting ground. Walking is one of the joys of hunting and it assures that you won't be mashing crops with a 5,000-pound pickup truck.
If you are hunting with a dog, make sure your host has agreed to that. Use a leash until you are well away from cats and other temptations. Remember, how you and other members of your hunting party conduct yourselves will dictate whether you will be welcome back or not.
Stick to your stated time and quarry – A yes from a landowner doesn't mean carte blanche privileges to hunt anything anytime. Agree on what quarry you will hunt and when you will hunt. Never assume permission to hunt for any other day than the one you asked to hunt.
I gave a fellow permission to hunt deer on my property last fall. Hearing several reports from his shotgun before 9 a.m., I thought he was either hunting poorly or had multiple tags to fill. But when he came back to his truck, he was carrying two ducks and a pheasant. When I reminded him of the 9 a.m. daily opener on pheasants, he said, "I don't have my watch with me."
Obey the law. Wear your watch, and if you say you want to hunt deer, stick to deer.
Alter the land only with permission – If you want to put up a deer stand, first discuss its construction, placement and dismantling. If you need to trim branches to open up shooting lanes, get the landowner's approval before whacking away.
If you are camping overnight on the property, a campfire is nice, but ask first if you may build one, and heed any burning restrictions. Always judge dry conditions, humidity and wind before lighting a fire. When in doubt about your ability to contain a fire, do without.
A good rule of thumb: Leave things as you found them. Assume you will be cleaning your game at your own home. In case circumstances such as warm weather dictate gutting immediately, get your host's permission before unsheathing your knife. Ask if you should bury the gut pile.
A compact shovel is a handy tool on all kinds of hunts. Besides using it to clean up after drawing game, you can use it to dig a latrine. The same deer hunter who shot birds on my property also left some toilet paper, flagging his open-air spot, which my black Lab found and rolled in.
Say thanks in many ways – After the hunt, take a moment to stop and say thanks. If you've been successful, ask if the landowner would enjoy a share of the harvest. Deliver cleaned, wrapped and labeled game as soon as possible. Remember to give your host a game receipt with your name, address and hunting license number; the recipient's name and address; a description of the gift; and the date.
When you are hunting someone's property, you might notice a problem, such as a broken fence or a tree down across a tractor path. Tell your host what you have seen and offer to help fix it.
When you've hung up your boots for another season, write a follow-up letter to your hosts. I once sent a photograph of my daughter to a farm couple who hosted her first pheasant hunt. When I returned a year later, I was pleased to see the picture still posted on their refrigerator.
I have a list of landowners who get a poinsettia from me every Christmas, whether or not I hunted on their property the previous fall. A gift to thank the people who provided you a place to hunt is a small part of your overall investment in the sport.
Keep your friends – The friendships I forge with landowners are among the genuine joys of hunting. Many years ago I was building a duck blind on a farm when the farmer stopped baling hay for a few minutes to chat. I remarked that getting straw stored for the winter must be hard work. "Hard work?" he said. "If you want to see hard work, take a break from your blind building and come with me."
He took me to a threshing bee on a nearby farm. He taught me how the machinery worked and showed me how to do various threshing chores.
That was the beginning of a long and warm friendship between us. Such friendships transcend the taking of another buck or another duck, and they add a dimension to the sport that lasts well beyond the hunting season.
Bill Klein is a lifelong hunter and freelance writer who recently retired from a career in marketing at AT&T. A version of this piece previously appeared in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.