The Well-Mannered Hunter
Most hunters know to ask permission before hunting on private land, but etiquette extends far beyond that.
By Bill Klein
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 bow-hunting 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 has 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 for deer sign now?"
"Chuck," I said, "I'm paying you by the job, not by the hour. Have at it."
Unknowingly, or perhaps knowingly, Chuck had hit all of 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've been granting or denying hunters access to my small farm in northern Washington County. And for many more years, I've been asking for permission to hunt all across Minnesota. I've made some mistakes, especially early in my hunting career. And I've learned from them. I've seen hunters who do—and hunters who don't—get the direct connection between their behavior and their access to private land.
Here are 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 the DNR Wildlife office or the DNR Information Center (see page 63). Then plan one or more scouting trips at least a month in advance of the season opener.
Take along 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 book provides the landowner's name, then you can use the telephone directory or Internet to look up a phone number or mailing address to contact the owner later. At county offices, you can purchase plat maps of individual townships (6 square miles) or a plat map book of all townships in a county.
Talk to the landowner.
Whenever possible, ask for hunting permission face to face. It's much easier for a landowner to say no over the phone.
When you meet the landowner, light up your face with your warmest smile and state who you are. Begin the discussion by referring to the plat map. The map labels you a serious hunter intent on not trespassing, and it enables you to show the owner where you would like to hunt. Specify when and for what species you plan to hunt. Be candid about how many hunters will 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 of the card has my name, address, and phone number, and a picture of my dog and me. The flip side has my hunter 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 for permission. This experience serves as a good example for young hunters, and their presence enhances your chance 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 truck 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 any 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've arrived, and then walk—don't drive—to the hunting ground. Walking is one of the joys of hunting. And it assures 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 away from cats and other temptations. Remember, how you and the other members of your hunting party conduct yourselves will dictate whether you will be welcomed back—or not.
Stick to your stated time and quarry.
A yes from a landowner doesn't mean carte blanche to hunt anything anytime. Agree on what quarry you will hunt and when you will hunt. Never assume permission to hunt is for any other day than that 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 shooting 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 shooting lanes, get the landowner's approval before whacking away.
If you are camping overnight on the property, a campfire is nice; but first ask if you may build one. 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 hunting 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. Expensive? Yes, but consider the money you have invested in your hunting equipment. 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 the Henry Spohnholtz farm near Morris. Henry stopped baling 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.
This was the beginning of a long and warm friendship between Henry and Helen Spohnholtz and me. 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.
For more tips like these, visit the Hunting Private Lands page.
Bill Klein is a lifelong hunter and a freelance writer. He recently retired from a career in marketing at AT&T.