Access, Access, Access: A Deer Hunter’s Mantra
Location, location, location. That’s the mantra in real estate, and many deer hunters would agree that location is incredibly important in consistently sighting and harvesting mature bucks. But, I would modify the realtor’s mantra slightly to better-suit deer hunters. The key to success for most hunters is access, access, access.
It’s no secret that the number of deer hunters in the United States is declining. This is partly attributed to a lack of access to land on which to hunt. However, I would argue that the deficit is that of easy access. Private lands have been subdivided and posted, and the loss of a farm hunted for generations can be discouraging. But, I’m here to give you the good news: plenty of good (note: I didn’t say easy) access is available for those willing to put in a little extra effort. So, where do you start?
The easiest places to start are publicly-owned lands, such as state game lands, state forests, state parks and state wildlife refuges. The federal versions of these are fair game, too. But with ease of access comes crowds, and you’re likely to run into other hunters and quickly become discouraged. So, you need think outside the box. The Army Corps of Engineers is a good place to look. This federal agency owns blocks of land that are generally open to the public for hunting and fishing. Parcels near you can quickly be found via a quick internet search. I found a few hundred acres within a 20-minute drive of home that looks to be quite promising. The best part is – its not a parcel that’s obviously open to public hunting, and this means less hunting pressure. These are the kinds of spots you’re looking for.
Similarly, many state wildlife management agencies offer programs that incentivize private landowners to open their land to public hunting. These lands are generally marked in some form, but they're not always obvious from the road. My home state of Pennsylvania offers the Hunter Access Program, which includes an online geographic information system (GIS) map that shows the location of properties enrolled in the program. To gain access, all you need to do is let the landowner know you’ll be hunting the property. Similar systems exist across the country, but these systems are generally more well known among western big game hunters. Eastern deer hunters would be wise to take advantage of this system, too. In fact, I gained access to a property enrolled in Pennsylvania’s program this summer, and it’s looking like it could be one of the best properties I can hunt.
These next types properties take a little more effort to find, but they're still not hidden by any means. I find that just a little bit of extra effort can separate a serious hunter from the traditional weekend-warrior. Lands owned by the local municipality or local utilities/industries often provide opportunities for hunting and/or recreation. When looking for utility/industry lands, think water authorities, power companies, oil or gas companies and timber companies. The easiest way to find out about these lands is via local knowledge. Municipal lands might be marked as such, but not always. Knowing someone who works for the local municipality or for a utility can be an extremely useful place to begin.
If you lack local knowledge or a local connection, you’re not out of the game. A good mapping application is all you need. Many counties provide an online GIS map that shows property lines, property ownership, and a variety of other helpful layers. If your county doesn’t offer this service, you can go to the local municipal office to retrieve this info (sometimes for a fee), or you can stay in the modern-age and use a third-party mapping app. Both the paid and free versions work, but I rely on onXmaps for all of my access scouting. These apps often provide more information on what land may or may not be open to hunting.
While doing some digital scouting this spring, I found a parcel owned by the local township. I called the township office to inquire about hunting the property, and they told me that the parcel is open to hunting, but that hunters must sign a liability waiver and provide their hunting license info. Easy enough – another 150 acres of access. Further, the property is posted, so I expect hunting pressure to be low. Similarly, digital scouting last year showed a property owned by a natural gas company. After a quick phone call to the company’s land department, I was told that any lands owned by that company that aren’t posted are open to public hunting. That particular piece was 1,500 acres that, again, was not obviously open to public hunting! I ended up harvesting a really nice 10 point off of that property last December and hunting pressure was low.
The last type of property to gain access on is the type that many hunters dread: straight-up, knock-on-the door and ask-permission private property. While I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get some nerves walking up to a stranger’s door to attempt to gain hunting access, I have learned to embrace the opportunity and the challenge. Just because a property is privately-owned and posted doesn’t mean that it’s not huntable. The key is to know your audience and to tailor your presentation accordingly.
The first step is finding a parcel that you’re interested in hunting. Again, I primarily use onXmaps for this. I find a property that meets the criteria I’m looking for, and I can often find the name of the owner(s) via the mapping app. Then you can formulate a game-plan. Time of day, and even time of year are important. I generally try to knock on doors midsummer, and I like to do so sometime after normal dinner hours but before it’s too late to expect visitors. Further, I wear clothes that don’t immediately indicate I’m a hunter.
After you knock, there’s no turning back, so make the best of it. I generally open with a handshake and an intro, and then I make it a point to compliment the landowner on their home or land. Next, I’ll look to make a connection. That could be showing an interest in the dog that accompanies the owner to the door, or commenting about a classic car sitting in the driveway. It doesn’t matter what the connection is, but try to find something that connects you to the landowner beyond hunting.
Then, clearly state the purpose for your visit. I always express that I’m flexible to the landowners wishes: when I can or can’t hunt, if I can harvest bucks and/or does, where I should park my vehicle, if I can place treestands or trail cameras on the property, etc. Each landowner is different, and I have different rules to follow on each property I’ve gained permission to hunt.
Flexibility is key if you’re serious about gaining access. Often times, rules will relax after a year or two of hunting the property as you gain the landowner’s trust. Currently, my knock-on-door permission success rate is around 75%, and landowners who decline either simply don’t allow hunting or already have hunters (oftentimes, family) using the property. I’ve gained access to a couple hundred acres just by knocking on doors. The hardest part is simply working up the courage.
So, remember the hunter’s mantra: access, access, access. While easy access, such as state-owned property may be overcrowded or unproductive, multiple forms of other access exist for those willing to put in a little extra effort. Local knowledge and some time spent in front of a computer screen can go a long way. And remember to think outside the box. You’re not looking for obvious access – you’re look for good access that others don’t know about or aren’t willing to find. By utilizing these tools, I’ve been able to gather over 2,000 acres of good access in the last two years alone. I’m finding that hunting for access is almost as fun as hunting the deer themselves. Almost.
Guest writer Torin Miller is a government affairs intern for National Deer Alliance. He has a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from the Pennsylvania State University where he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the same field, while also being a juris doctor candidate seeking a law degree with a specialization in environmental law.