My background as a trapper has benefited me in many ways as a deer hunter. Back in the 1980s, when I was making the greater portion of my annual income from fur trapping in Iowa, I learned a lot about working with landowners. I did much of my trapping on public property, including the roadsides, but at one time I also had permission to trap on more than 40 farms.
Accumulating that much land to trap was a process, one that taught me a lot about landowners and farmers, including how they view others using their properties. I've used what I learned to get permission to hunt some good whitetail properties, too.
So here are five important tips that will benefit you greatly when you're asking for hunting permission:
1. Show Up — Don't Call Up
Don't ask for permission over the phone unless you already know the person well. It's much harder to say "no" in person. And frankly, he or she wants to see your face and learn more about you before allowing you access to that land.
So clean yourself up and go out there to ask in person. It might take a few tries to find the owner at home, but keep trying. Phone calls are a last resort. I've found that if you can catch the farmer actually in the field, most seem to have a pleasant disposition and are more willing to grant your request.
Walk up to the tractor in a place where it's convenient to stop, then apologize for bothering the person. Shake his or her hand as you introduce yourself. Make your request brief and to the point. If you're asking to bowhunt, say so. Say what you want to hunt and where.
2. Show Respect
Remember: You're often asking to use property on which other people make their living. And, that acreage might have been passed down through the family for several generations. As a result, the people who own it feel they owe it a lot, and they value it more than you can imagine.
It never hurts to say things like, "I'm a conscientious hunter; I will not drive on the ground when it's wet, and I am careful to close gates and respect the crops." That shows concern for what concerns landowners, especially those who work the ground and/or have livestock. Conversely, if you don't respect them or their land, that also will come through loud and clear.
The words you use mean a lot. I learned early on never to ask for the "right" to hunt someone else's property. Hunting their land isn't a right — it's a privilege. And that's the word they want to hear. If you politely ask for the privilege, you're more likely to get a positive response.
3. Clean Up
A big part of earning a landowner's respect and showing your own respect is found in your appearance. Look respectable in both your dress and overall appearance. Look the person in the eye and listen carefully to what he or she says; it will give you clues that will help you understand any concerns and might help overcome rejection.
Respect has to be earned, and you start earning it the moment you walk up and start talking. The importance of the way you look can't be overstated. A perfect example is a friend of mine who went to ask permission on a place where he'd seen a few bucks feeding in the soybeans. He headed out after he got off his work as a mechanic, all grubby with a three-day beard.
He walked up to the house, and the farmer's wife answered the door. He bluntly asked if he could go out and try to kill one of those bucks. She turned him down flat, of course. I think she might have been genuinely scared of him. When he told me about it I shook my head because it's basically a case study in how to do it wrong at every level.
Cleaning up includes your vehicle. A truck with mud all over it screams, This guy is going to be doing donuts in my fields! A bad impression can begin before you ever turn off the engine.
4. Offer to Help Out
One reason I got permission to trap on all of those farms was that I presented myself as offering a service. My typical approach would be something like, "I see the beavers are knocking down a lot of corn and the muskrats are causing the sides of the drainage ditch to collapse." Or, "I happened to be driving by the other day and saw a coyote out in your sheep pasture." Of course, you have to be honest in what you say.
A deer hunter has something to offer as well. Deer depredation on crops is a serious problem for some farmers, so offering something of value might be found in taking out some of the deer. Offer to fill a couple doe tags in addition to taking a buck.
Help of course also extends to actual labor. I've helped load bales of hay onto a conveyor, fed chickens while the farmer was on vacation and even helped get some cattle back through a broken fence when I happened upon that situation.
A friend once helped an older woman carry in her groceries from the car. He then offered to shovel snow off her sidewalk. He didn't get hunting permission that day, but he did when he came back.
5. Build a Relationship
Of course, getting permission to hunt is just half the battle. Keeping it takes work, too.
I like to send a Christmas card with a personal "thank you" note inside. If it's a piece of property I really value and want to keep hunting, I might include a $50 gift card for a nice local steakhouse. I've also offered to drop off venison steaks or sausage, and that offer often is met with a positive response.
If you treat the land and the landowner well, the person usually will become loyal to you. Look at the relationship as mutually beneficial and treat it that way. I once was very surprised to hear one of my landowners had turned down a lease offer from an outfitter. His rationale? With me hunting there, he knew what he had. He trusted me. And in the end, he chose that over taking money for the unknown. That's how important the right relationship can be.
The worst thing that can happen when you ask for hunting permission is the person will say, "No." I consider myself to be that salesman who looks at the first rejection as just one more step toward the next, "Yes." If rejected, I respectfully ask for their reasons and go from there. Sometimes it's obviously a dead end, but often there's a simple objection that can be overcome.
There are fewer places to hunt on a handshake these days, but for the DIY whitetail hunter willing to look for them, such opportunities still exist. And some of them are real gems. Follow my strategy, and you could end up with a great new hunting spot for the 2015 season — and perhaps even far beyond.