You spent a thousand dollars on a lease and hundreds more on food plots, and your deer herd is producing some giant bucks. But as you walk to your stand one afternoon, there it is — a fresh gut pile from what appears to be a very large buck. It’s almost like walking into your home and realizing you’ve been robbed. Someone’s not only trespassing on your land, but they are taking the very thing you’ve worked so hard to accomplish. It’s too late to get that deer back, but it’s never too late to prevent others from stealing what is rightfully and legally yours.

As soon as you find evidence of poaching, call your local wildlife officer and let him know something is going on, says Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency law enforcement training supervisor Fred Funte.

“We certainly can’t babysit your land, but we can offer some ways to help prevent it in the future,” he says.

Step One: Post And Lock It

It might sound patently obvious, but the first thing any landowner or club should do, insists Funte, is place posted sings around the entire property, no matter how big it is or how remote some boundaries might be. Surprisingly, many hunters don’t do this. It’s like leaving the front door of a bank wide open after business hours. It’s actually legal to hunt on unposted, private property in a handful of states, but most states require landowner permission and a few even require written permission. Virginia, for example, requires written permission, but only if the land is posted. Otherwise, oral permission is acceptable.

By posting your land, you send a clear message to anyone who might consider trespassing, and you remove any chance of accidental trespass by hunters who don’t know their own property boundaries. In some cases, it’s an honest mistake — but not always. Some poachers use the “but it’s not posted” excuse and willingly cross fences. They’ll even drive down ungated roads and trails.

“Put up gates with locks at all the entryways,” Funte says.

Gates will keep people from driving into your land, but it can’t prevent them from cruising the public roads at night and shining a spotlight onto your fields. The obvious solution is to avoid planting food plots within sight of a public road. That’s not always an option, of course, so the next best thing is to establish a screen of shrubs or trees that will eventually grow tall enough to prevent road-hunting and spotlighting activity.

Step Two: Be There

One of the best ways to keep poachers at bay is to be a frequent visitor to the land you hunt. In states that don’t have a high number of non-resident hunters, most poachers tend to live close to the property they hunt illegally. By spending plenty of time on your land, locals will be far more reluctant to trespass if they figure someone else will be there.

If you simply can’t hunt on a regular basis, consider giving permission to a trusted neighbor with the stipulation that he keeps an eye out for illegal activity. It’s a fair trade that might cost you a deer or two, but will help your management efforts in the long run.

Step Three: Communicate

Funte also suggests talking with the local game warden well before the season starts and giving him a list of vehicles that belong to legal hunters. He also recommends displaying your permission slip on your dashboard.

“The easier it is for a wildlife officer to determine legal activity, the more time he can devote to catching poachers,” he says.

Don’t just consult with the local wildlife officer. Talk directly with neighboring landowners before the season, making it clear that the farm you own, lease or otherwise have permission to hunt is off-limits. Funte says trespassers often cross from neighboring lands, either intentionally or accidentally, and spreading the word that your land is no longer a public hunting area can reduce illegal activity.

Step 4: Prosecute!

Even with all the efforts to poacher-proof your property, some outlaws just don’t care. A boundary of Posted signs is nothing more than a challenge to them. If you actually catch someone trespassing, Funte says it’s a bad idea to confront them. If the guy is willing to break one law, there’s no telling how far he’ll go to avoid face time with a game warden.

“Get a description of the individual or a vehicle if you find one on your property and call your local wildlife officer and let him handle it,” he says. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Surprisingly, many hunters and landowners are unwilling to actually testify in court or press charges when a game warden catches a trespasser. Funte says the first question the dispatcher asks when they receive a call about illegal activity is, “Are you willing to prosecute?”

“If the answer is no, then we won’t come out and investigate,” he says. “Our time is very limited, and there’s no reason to investigate a crime if the landowner has no intention of following through on the charges.”

Supporting a game warden in every way possible not only lets the officer know you mean business, but it also lets the local poachers know you won’t tolerate illegal activity. Once one gets slapped with a hefty fine, there’s a good chance the word will get out that your land is no place to test the long arm of the law. Take some simple steps to protect what is yours and chances are the only gut piles you’ll encounter will be from the bucks you kill.