Sometimes you gotta pay to play
A sign posted at the farm’s driveway told Neal Rafferty all he needed to know. His hunting days were limited and the “For Sale” sign was an ominous reminder that nothing, not even long-standing permission to hunt, lasts forever.
“The landowner was getting older, his kids didn’t live nearby and he was ready for a change. He said I was welcome to continue hunting until it sold, but the farm went under contract within a few weeks,” said Rafferty, a software engineer from Fairfax, Va. “Hunting season was almost over, but I needed to find something for the following season.”
His solution? He plunked down a sizeable chunk of his bank account for a place to hunt. Rafferty didn’t buy land; he leased it.
Whether you love the idea, hate it or just aren’t sure, leasing hunting rights is a popular way to secure a place to hunt.
Highs and lows
Leasing has a numerous benefits. You get exclusive hunting rights without forking over a sizeable down payment. There’s no monthly mortgage when hunting season ends. You don’t have to worry about upkeep or other issues that go with ownership, either.
But money spent on a lease is money you’ll never see again. A lease is never permanent and you may be kicked out if someone else offers the landowner more money. You can’t plant food plots, thin timber or otherwise improve the land for wildlife, which, as Rafferty learned, can be an issue. His farmer doesn’t plant crops. Instead, he runs cattle on part of the land and cuts hay off the rest of the open ground.
“There isn’t much to hold deer or turkeys on the property. He didn’t want us planting food plots, so we are limited to the wood lots and the pastures,” Rafferty said. “That’s fine, but I wonder about the hunting potential if we could plant food plots and do other habitat projects.”
That’s not to say some landowners won’t be open to some sort of improvement. But, it may cost extra.
Lease rates vary by state, region and property. A 500-acre Virginia farm with crops, mixed forest and access to a tidal marsh will likely fetch more money than a similar-sized parcel of planted pines bordered by an interstate. More game, more opportunities and bigger deer translate to more money. That’s why some properties in the monster buck regions of Iowa and Illinois can lease for $50 or more per acre. Farmland located within a short drive of large population bases will also command more money.
So how much should you offer? The answer depends on a number of factors, but start by researching the going rate for neighboring farms. If you still can’t figure out a fair price, visit hunting lease websites. Some require you to register to see listing lease rates while one or two only take bids. A few are not password protected and include prices with the property description.
“I just asked the farmer what he wanted,” said Rafferty. “He told me an amount and I ran it by my friends.”
Look before you leap
None of the four men wrote a check until they walked the property. They looked for tracks, buck rubs, turkey scratchings and other game sign, and examined property boundaries and access. They also determined how many hunters the property could support. The farm was about 200 acres, but much of it was open pasture. Ultimately, they liked what they saw and ended up paying a total of $4,000, or about $20 per acre.
A lease is a contract and it’s not a bad idea to get something in writing. However, farmers often seal a deal with a handshake. Not sure? Ask the landowner if he wants something in writing and don’t hesitate to make sure everyone knows the rules. Will the farmer’s family hunt? What about farmhands and neighbors? Ask lots of questions and clarify all the unknowns.
“A thousand bucks each seems like a lot of money, but the land has deer, turkeys, geese and small game. It even has a pond the landowner lets us fish in the summer and I’ve camped there with my kids,” said Rafferty. “Based on where I live, the time I have to hunt and the things this farm offers, it’s worth every penny.”
A hard hunt
He admits he was lucky. The farmer who sold his land directed Rafferty to a neighbor who was willing to lease his land. Finding the perfect place to hunt isn’t so easy for most hunters. It can take lots of time, effort and luck. Networking with other hunters is a good start, but you may have to figure it out on your own.
Knocking on doors could work, but that may take an endless amount of time. Instead, consider posting flyers in small town convenience stores and other local hangouts. Rafferty heard of one group of hunters who placed ads in local newspapers.
“I can’t verify it, but I heard they got calls from a couple of landowners. I know the hunters found a place, so it seems to have worked,” he said.
Web-based lease agents also can help you find a place of your own. However, those leases may cost more since agents must make a living, too. Google “hunting leases” and you’ll find numerous websites dedicated to leases. Even Craigslist has a good number of leases listed by landowners.
Even if you hate the idea of paying someone to hunt his or her land, once a gobbler struts into range, you may decide leasing isn’t so bad after all.
Do you need insurance?
Hunting is safe, but bad things can happen. That’s why it’s a good idea to get liability insurance.
“Once the landowner accepts money, he has a higher level of culpability,” said Outdoor Underwriters account executive Tom Skaggs. “Many landowners require clubs and individuals to get insurance when they lease the hunting rights.”
A liability lease from NWTF partner Outdoor Underwriters covers you and your guests for negligent acts such as accidental shootings and other injuries or property damage as a result of negligent acts. It does not cover treestand-related incidents or property theft. Policies are inexpensive, running about $150 per year, for NWTF members.