Hello, sir," I began. "My name is Todd Pridemore, and I just moved to this area." Those few words of introduction started a 15-minute phone conversation that ended as I hoped it would.
"Sure," the landowner concluded, "I don't have any problem with you hunting on my property."
I had never talked to the man before, but that phone call opened the door for me to bowhunt on some prime whitetail habitat on his 400-acre farm. I couldn't have been happier!
If you're not fortunate enough to own or lease your own hunting ground, you can often gain permission to hunt private farms by investing some time with the property owners. But the most important word in that sentence is time -- the kind of time investment that emphasizes building relationships and using good people skills. If you're looking for a privately owned area to hunt this fall, follow these tips about building relationships with strangers. From my experience, I've found that they work.
1) Start Early: Don't wait until the weekend before the season opener to make phone calls or knock on doors. By then, there's a good chance that someone else has already beat you to the opportunity. Ideally, you should seek permission to access private land in the early spring, when you can do some post-season scouting and possibly even discover a shed antler or two. If you wait too long to ask, chances are you'll miss out.
2) Get Your Foot In: If you have a feeling that the property owner might be resistant to your request, think of another way to "get your foot in the door." It might be that they own a fishing pond and would allow you to take your family fishing there in the spring. If they enjoy fish, share some of your catch with them (if they give you permission to keep what you catch).
Another angle could be that you're new to the area, and you simply would enjoy getting to know them. As you get to know them, subtly look for the right time to ask if anyone hunts on their land. If someone else already has that privilege, you might casually let the landowner know that you've been looking for a place to hunt and can't wait until you find it.
This kind of relationship building with new neighbors is increasingly rare, and older generations in particular appreciate this kind of "neighborly kindness." More often than not, a landowner who gets to know you first as a "neighbor" is much more likely to give you permission to hunt later. Always be genuine. Most landowners can see through the facade if you are not sincere.
3) Make A Great First Impression: The first impression you make on the landowner will determine a lot about whether or not he'll help you out. Never show up on a stranger's door unannounced -- that usually puts people on the defensive. Instead, find their number and give them a call first. Introduce yourself politely, and let them know that you'd like to stop by and introduce yourself in person when it's convenient. Some people will respond with a flat "No," but many people will cautiously be open to meeting you at their place.
When you do have the opportunity to introduce yourself in person, don't arrive early or late; be right on time. Also, make sure your appearance doesn't send any negative signals to the property owners. You don't have to wear a three-piece suit, but look presentable. The goal here is to present the image that you are a responsible person -- someone they can trust. Also, make sure you have written down your name and contact information clearly on an index card, so you can give it to the landowner on the first visit.
4) Don't Be Greedy: When I first considered calling the landowner I mentioned earlier, I fantasized about hunting his entire 400-acre farm. However, I knew that there were already other family members and neighbors who he allowed to hunt different sections of it. With that in mind, I strategically asked for permission to only hunt a secluded 15-acre area along one boundary of his property, far away from any residence or easy access. Since I asked only to hunt on a relatively small piece of his farm, I received the answer I had hoped for. (I'm certain I would have been told I couldn't hunt at all if I had asked for rights to hunt the entire farm.)
If your first request to actually hunt on the private property results in the word "no," think about asking for permission to do something that they might say "yes" to -- especially if you feel that the property is prime whitetail real estate. For example, if they tell you that you cannot hunt on the property, ask if it would be OK to search for shed antlers in the late winter, mushrooms in the spring, or blackberries in the summer.
The reason it is often worthwhile to walk the land during the non-hunting season is that you will have the opportunity to scout for deer sign. If you discover some sizeable buck rubs from the past fall or a giant shed antler, you might want to continue seeking a way to gain permission to hunt. On the other hand, if your off-season scouting efforts are fruitless, you'll know that the property isn't worth hunting.
Greediness also involves how much time you ask permission to hunt. For example, you might want to ask permission to hunt for the entire length of the rifle season, but an approach that will give you a better chance of receiving permission would be to ask for "only a few days" to hunt during that season. When I talk with a landowner, I initially ask only for bowhunting privileges. If I later discover that I can gun hunt on that property as well, that's a bonus. The bottom line is that you want to ask in a way that makes it look like you're just requesting a small favor instead of a huge obligation.
5) Offer to Help Out: Another good way to build trust with the landowner is offering to provide some "free" help around their property when needed. Mowing, fence mending, wood cutting, snow shoveling, and cattle wrangling are just a few of the ways you could offer to help out when there is a need. I recently heard of a man who just happened to meet the owner of a large farm on the afternoon the farmer was butchering hogs. The stranger quickly jumped in and began to help with the butchering that afternoon. He not only made a life-long friend that day, but he established the foundation for years of hunting rights on that farmer's land.
6) Show Your Thanks: After you've talked with the landowner -- even if you did not receive permission to hunt this season -- make sure you send him a "thank you" note in the mail. Again, include an offer to help out when needed, along with your phone number. Also, it doesn't hurt to add property owners like this to your Christmas letter or card list.
In fact, you might even want to stop by an owner's place during the holidays and drop off a small gift that he and his family will enjoy. Then, later on when you talk to him again in the spring about gaining access to his land, he'll be more likely to want to return the favor by granting you permission to hunt.