I came from a nonhunting family. In fact, my parents wouldn’t even let me own a gun. I’m not sure if the concern was more about the gun, or about the thought of me with a gun. At any rate, I bought a bow when I was 14 years old and it changed my life. This was the 1970s and, in Iowa where we lived, all I had to do was ask a few farmers for permission to hunt and I had access to more land than I could possibly hunt before and after school.
Those days are long gone. Today, unless a kid grows up in a hunting family or, even better, one that owns property; he’s going to have a hard time finding a place to shoot his first deer. Good deer hunting property is leased or owned for hunting. While going out to ask for permission can still open a few gates, the success rate has become so low it’s not even worth trying in many areas. I hate the idea that deer hunting has become very difficult to get into for a youngster without a place to hunt.
Some areas have abundant public-hunting land, but those options are limited in the eastern half of the U.S. In many eastern and southern states, up to 95 percent of the land is privately owned. Many of these landowners are transplants from suburban areas who have little or no background with the outdoor lifestyle, so they are not at all receptive to someone who comes knocking for permission to kill their deer.
Private Land Open to Sportsmen
Where are the kids going to hunt? And for many of us who do not own property, where are we going to hunt?
My first introduction to access programs designed to open private land to sportsmen took place on a Kansas deer hunt a few years ago. I was driving back to where my travel trailer was parked, when a doe ran across the remote gravel road in front of me. I slammed on my brakes just in time to miss the huge buck that was following her. I grabbed my binoculars and watched them race over a hill in the tall grass prairie. He was the kind of buck that makes your heart pound in your ears.
I spun around in the road and headed to the other side of the section to see where they might come out, but I found that they had disappeared into a brushy draw in the middle of the section. There was a white sign on the fence that stated “WIHA.” I was fully aware of the Walk in Hunting Access (WIHA) lands, because I had seen the pheasant and quail hunters working it with their dogs. But clearly I had been missing out on the deer hunting opportunities.
Midwest Private Land Programs
Kansas’ Walk in Hunting Access program is geared toward bird hunters, but the amount of excellent deer hunting to be found on these lands is mouth-watering. And it’s mostly overlooked. I have hunted Kansas many times since that trip. Before I go, I spend some time going over the WIHA brochure and the map of WIHA lands on the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’s website.
I have since killed a nice buck on land in North Dakota designated Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS), and other states that have similar programs. Most states in the Midwest now have a program that offers the landowners some compensation for allowing the public to hunt the land. In the Midwest and western whitetail states, these lands are primarily grasslands that provide bird hunting. But there’s amazing deer-hunting habitat on these properties and, in many cases, the deer-hunting pressure is minimal.
Northeast Private Land Programs
In the Northeast, the programs are growing by leaps and bounds with more and more land being enrolled each year. About half the states in the northeastern U.S. have a program of some sort that allows hunter access. These are not geared as much toward the shotgun-toting crowd, and many of these parcels offer excellent deer and turkey hunting. With so much of the East being privately owned, the public lands can be utterly overrun with hunters. Yet the Voluntary Public Access lands are little known and lightly hunted in many areas.
Western Private Land Programs
In the Western states, these lands often fall under the heading of Block Management programs. Montana has tens of thousands of acres enrolled. Wyoming’s Private Land Public Wildlife (PLPW) is much the same. Much of the land in these two states is sagebrush with small creek bottoms running through it. You will really have to spend some time with a list of lands and aerial photos picking through these properties. If diligent, you might find a gem of a property to hunt.
Southeast Private Land Programs
The Southeast is lagging behind in the availability of private land that’s open to public hunting. Texas and Louisiana each have a program, as does Georgia. The Peach State kicked off its private land access program thanks to a $993,000 grant from the Federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. In the last two years, Georgia has partnered in 19 contracts for several thousand acres of public access. In a part of the nation where much of the land is tied up in private ownership, timber leases where hunting is restricted, hunting clubs and urban sprawl, many more states should follow Georgia’s lead.
Identifying and Scouting Private Land Open to Hunting
Most state wildlife agencies have a section of their website dedicated to these access programs, and many have print brochures, maps and guidebooks to locating these lands.
With the increasing number of sources for aerial photos online, hunters can often go to a state agency’s website and look at aerial photos of each of the properties. If they do not have aerial photos included, hunters can go to Google Earth or Bing Maps and analyze each of these properties for likely-looking habitat that might hold whitetails.
Although there is no substitute for boots on the ground when it comes to scouting, you can eliminate the unproductive areas beforehand and focus on the stuff that looks good. Chances are, if it looks good, it is good. It’s been my experience that these private land access parcels aren’t nearly as heavily targeted by deer hunters as the more well-known public lands.
Private Land Access Is “Foot Traffic Only”
One of the advantages, if you want to look at it that way, is that nearly all of these programs require foot traffic only. That means no motorized vehicles are allowed. I have found places a mile or more from the
road that I am convinced I am the only deer hunter who sets foot in it prior to the gun season. Even then, it gets little pressure. That’s partly because these places aren’t public knowledge and partly because it’s so darned hard to get a dead deer out of there. But if I find myself with a big buck on the ground, I am happy to figure out a way to get it back to the road. I carry a large plastic sled and a two-wheeled deer cart with me. I will use either one depending on the terrain and density of the cover.
And remember, this is private land and the landowner can make it as easy or as hard as he wants. In one case in North Dakota, I was hoofing it out of a large pasture with a stand, climbing sticks, my bow and a backpack full of gear when the landowner happened to be going by. He opened the gate when he saw me and allowed me to drive in, “just this once” to retrieve my gear. He seemed genuinely excited that I was out there trying to shoot one of those crop-raiding deer.
Landowners have a lot to gain by allowing hunters on their land. Reducing crop depredation by deer is one of the reasons. This is especially true in the Midwest. In the South and East, some property owners just like the thought that a responsible hunter is keeping an eye on the place for them.
And therein lies one of the biggest advantages of all for both hunters and landowners. The programs build strong communities and allow neighbors to be neighborly. These programs give hunters a chance to put on their best behavior and cast hunting in a positive light to a world that has mostly lost touch with consumptive use of wildlife.
Featured photo: Bernie Barringer