Oct 10, 2010

Hunting, Part 6: Over the River and Through the Woods

In Part 5, we loaded our pockets.

So, gun in hand, it's time to head out... but where do you find a place to hunt?!

It's a tough question in many areas. Suburban sprawl has eliminated many areas that used to be game-rich fields and forests; now they're game-rich subdivisions*. Many farmers are trying to make a little money in the off season and lease their land to hunters. Private land is almost always posted. Landowners are worried about liability issues and reluctant to open their property to strangers.

There are still options, though. Public land is open to sporting uses - and this includes hunting - in almost every state. Check your laws, of course, or contact your local DEC office for advice on what areas are open. Many state parks will allow hunting in some form. For instance, there are several state parks within a half-hour drive of my house. All of them allow bow hunting but not gun hunting. State and national forests are open to hunting. Again, within a half-hour of my home, there are upwards of 20,000 acres of state forest land. Some wildlife conservation areas can be hunted, usually on very limited terms and on a lottery basis.

Public land is just that: public. You don't have any more or less right to it than anyone else out there, which comes with some interesting benefits and penalties. You may be out there hunting, and someone could ride their horse up the trail you followed in. It's entirely possible to encounter someone who is vehemently anti-hunting. You may find a drunk idiot out there with his .577Tyrannosaur just waiting for Bambi to step out. These are generally negatives.

On the plus side, no one can tell you to leave. If an anti-hunter is trying to goad you into doing something stupid - don't. Walk away, get a license plate if you can, and call the local DEC office. Harrassing hunters is illegal in most states. Don't yell, scream, swear, or unsling your gun. Write off the day and hope that DEC catches up with them with a couple love notes.

Also to the good, public land tends to be hunted hardest on the fringes. As deer are pressured, they move to lower-pressure areas. Most hunters are lazy and won't walk more than 4-600 yards from the closest road. In a large management area, it's possible to go a mile or two in from a road and hunt land that hasn't seen a hunter in years. The deer may well be relatively un-panicked, and large. You'll have to drag your trophy buck back that whole distance, but there are those who would argue that it's worth it...

In other words, don't write off public land.

Of course, the real joy is having private land to work. Being able to hang stands and clear lanes at your own discretion, spend enough time there to find the honey holes, that sort of thing. Not many of us are lucky enough to own enough land to be functional hunting grounds. (10-15 acres is a rough minimum, IMHO.) So where do you find it?

Ask around! The worst thing someone can say is, "No."

If someone is teaching you to hunt, hopefully they're taking you on land that they're familiar with. The man who taught me most of the hunting I know married into a family with a large chunk of land; he is generous enough to let me continue hunting it each year. He's allowed me to hang a couple stands or adjust his, clear shooting lanes, and essentially have run of his land at my convenience. Of course, this comes with a cost: I made a friend for life, help him cut firewood a few days a year, and occasionally have to suffer through drinking a six-pack with him. Terrible, I tell ya.

If you live in a rural area, ask around at some of the farms around you. Don't show up the week before hunting season, either. Show up in late winter, before the farmers are in the spring planting rush. Introduce yourself, be polite, ask if you can arrange some kind of a barter. Do you have a skill worth something to them? Carpentry? Electrical work? Maybe they would be happy to have some help baling hay in mid-summer. If it costs you a sunburn and a couple days pitching bales in order to hunt some prime land, it's worth every hour. Offer to share some of the meat you take with them.

Perhaps you've got family with some land. I was lucky; MrsZ's family raises beef cattle about two hours away from us and has nearly a half a square mile of land that I have free access to. I have to share it with some other hunters (they came with the property when her folks bought it), but it's full of BIG deer.

Another option, which may require a bit of careful thinking on your part, is a classified ad on Craigslist or a local bulletin board (try the feed store). Explain who you are in general terms, offer a barter for meat or labor, etc. I did this a few years ago and got a great response from one couple - there are now three of us who hunt a 40-acre parcel. I share a bit of meat with the owners each year and always offer to help with their homestead chores.

The last option, of course, is to buy your own hunting property. It may not be a cheap option, but land is generally a solid purchase if you can afford it. Heck, get together four or five close friends and buy a slightly larger piece; build a small cabin and turn it into deer camp. Undeveloped land can be found for very reasonable prices if you're willing to drive a bit.

I just looked at a real estate site that specializes in land, and these grabbed my eye:
- 20 acres, adjacent to state forest, $35,995
- 42 acres with new cabin, $69,995
- 97 acres, adjacent to state forest, $119,995

Inexpensive? Not at all. Worth it? That's up to you. But it's a great way to know you'll have a place to hunt as long as you want it. (Six people putting in $25,000 each would buy that last one and put in a fairly nice cabin.)

Also, keep an eye out for an "ASK" sticker. It may look like this one, or similar. Most state game agencies are promoting this kind of thing with landowners who are open to hunting but still post their land. (Hunting on posted land is legal, with the landowner's permission.) Call them at a reasonable time and you may be surprised at the reception you get.

Wherever you end up hunting, it's a good idea to ask the landowner to sign a short statement saying that you have permission to hunt the property you're on. If a DEC officer chats with you, it removes any question about trespassing. You should also offer to sign a liability waiver for the landowner. It's not their fault if you slip and hurt yourself, and they shouldn't worry about what an injured hunter might do to their insurance premiums.

Once you have permission to hunt an area, try to do some off-season scouting. Deer don't change their movement patterns much over the year, only the time that they move. Farmers in particular should be able to point you in the direction of the hot spots. My father-in-law can point to four or five spots around their property where deer can be seen just about every day, and tell you what time they'll be there.

Look for tracks in mud, worn paths in the leaves, and as fall gets closer, scrapes in the dirt and rubs on trees. Oval-shaped spots of flattened hay or grain are a dead giveaway for a bedding area. Sit on the edge of a field at dawn and dusk, and you'll see the deer filtering in and out of the fringes of woods. Once you've done some off-season scouting, you know where to start looking when the season opens.

* - Driving to work one night I nearly hit a deer standing in the road in an affluent neighborhood. He stood there and watched me while I counted fourteen points (typical), then ambled off to munch on some ornamental shrubbery. I've never seen that many points on a live deer, nor such a spindly rack. No mass to it, just spread and points. Commenting to a hunting friend, he laughed and said, "Well, it's hard to bulk up on rhododendrons!"


Anonymous said...

If you don't mind sharing, what real estate site were you using?

ZerCool said...

I did a quick google and picked one near the top, in this case it was landandcamps.com. Not sure if they're NY-focused or national.

Regardless, there are LOTS of similar sites out there.