The square-jawed rancher knew he had me. He glanced over his shoulder and, as I exited my truck and stepped onto his property to introduce myself, a wry smile creased his wind-burned face as he tended to his broken barbed-wire cattle fence.
“Hello, sir. My name is …”
Minutes before, sitting in my truck, I watched in bewildered awe as a seemingly endless procession of pheasants flew from a nearby cornfield into the rancher’s square-mile section of prairie grass and wetlands. I was salivating, as was my aging Lab, who witnessed the spectacle riding shotgun.
“Let me guess: You want to hunt my pheasants,” the rancher inquired, playing the game and me. “Well, my question for you is this: Just how badly do you want to hunt my pheasants?”
Minnesota is blessed to have thousands upon thousands of acres of public land (state and federal) open to hunting. Still, in my experience, the best hunting opportunities almost always occur on private ground. But getting access to it, especially in this era of fee-based hunting, leases and overall high demand, is no easy task. Yet savvy hunters who employ common sense can tip the balance sheet in their favor, and that sometimes begins by dealing with the past sins of other unscrupulous hunters.
Several years ago, craning my head inside the cab of a farmer’s combine, I asked if I could hunt his partly flooded cornfield the following morning. It was near dusk, and mallards aplenty were pouring into it. I was ready to get on my knees and beg for access, if that’s what the hunting gods required.
The good news: I didn’t have to beg. The bad news: I didn’t have to beg. The upshot: He rebuffed my honeyed words and Irish charms quickly and coldly.
“No chance,” he said tersely. “Too many problems with other hunters over the years. Can’t do it. Won’t do it.”
In retrospect, I can’t say that I blamed him. The farmer had a list of grievances — from hunters leaving gates open to tearing asunder his muddy farm fields and minimum-maintenance roads to telling him outright lies about which species they intended to hunt — large enough to fill a hard drive.
Here’s the deal: The majority of landowners, in my experience, are willing more often than not to let you hunt their ground, so long as you follow their rules and treat their land with respect. But they also have long memories, especially if they’ve had a bad experience or two. Don’t muddy the waters for the next eager hunter by going rogue.
First impressions matter. Always be courteous and polite and never be duplicitous about your intentions. If you say you want to hunt ducks, hunt ducks. If you say you’d like to hunt with two other friends, don’t bring a third. If you’re asked to steer clear of all livestock, steer clear of all livestock.
Don’t contact a landowner in the wee hours of the morning, either. Wait for a decent hour before you pull into his driveway (or make a call) and ask for access. In person, greet the landowner owner warmly and look him straight in the eye. Extend your hand in friendship and make sure your grip is firm, not flaccid. If you get turned down (which you undoubtedly will on occasion), say thank you and move on.
Reward landowner generosity by being generous yourself. One example: Share in the spoils of your hunt. Farmers are busy with harvest during the hunting season, and they genuinely appreciate being given (or at least offered) part of your bag limit. For me, it’s typically a freshly cleaned pheasant or duck. Bottom line: It’s a nice gesture and promotes good will down the road.
Over the years, I’ve developed numerous landowner friendships, most of which transcend my own vested interest in hunting. While those friendships have allowed me to hunt their land again in subsequent years, I’ve also paid it forward by helping them with chores and other assorted duties — butchering chickens, cleaning stalls, canning tomatoes and more. Access or no access, I wouldn’t trade those relationships for the world.
As for that rancher, he had cheap labor on his mind, and I had pheasant on the brain. He knew he had me, so he made me an offer he knew I couldn’t refuse. “Hunt my pheasants tonight, then come back tomorrow and help me fix my fence,” he said, that same wry smile creasing his wind-burned face. “Do we have a deal?”
Indeed we did.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.