The Land-Lease Conundrum

Land-Lease Conundrum | Shooting Sportsman Magazine
Illustration by Gordon Allen

What happened to me has probably happened to you, especially if you also live east of the Mississippi. A local place I called the Pheasant Fen was an 80-acre farm whose widowed owner always let me hunt. When the owner rented to an agribusiness, well, you know the outcome.

Another sweet spot I hunted sprouted “No Trespassing” signs soon after the owner leased the property to a group of deer hunters.

And then there was the Muck Farm, full of pheasants due to enrollment in the state’s set-aside program for wetlands protection. The owner withdrew from the program and rented the ground to grow onions and celery for a major food packer. With the score now three to nothing, I shot my last local ringneck 10 years ago.

You can’t blame a tax-paying landowner for squeezing every dollar out of his or her property, but short of winning the Powerball and leasing our own land with the money, what can the average hunter do about it? We can start by accepting the reality that diminished access to private land for hunting is simply a sign of the times.
Some history. Our grandfathers had to stop market hunting when new conservation laws defined bag limits and hunting seasons. Our fathers ushered in mandates for hunter-safety certification and hunter-orange clothing. Finding private land to hunt always has been problematic—it’s just getting more so.

So do some homework. Your state may have land open to public hunting that you don’t know about. For example, the Hunter Access Program (HAP) in Michigan pays downstate landowners for access. The state’s Commercial Forest Act lowers property taxes in lieu of public access for outdoor recreation, including hunting. That’s a big reason why half of the Upper Peninsula is open to hunting.

That no-trespassing deer-hunting group may be willing to sublease to bird hunters or duck hunters. You won’t know until you ask.

And get proactive. There is a conservation organization for every kind of bird hunter. Joining a local chapter of Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Woodcock Limited or Ducks Unlimited adds another voice to species growth, including access to enhanced habitat. Today I mailed a letter of support encouraging our DNR to buy a tract of local land being sold by a family who wants to keep it from being developed. I wrote it because every bit helps.

Will Rogers’ advice a century ago to buy land because “they ain’t making any more of the stuff” is more relevant than ever. (For sales listings, go to An encouraging thought: Humans are spread out over only 20 percent of the Earth’s landmass. If that estimate is correct, we still have places to hunt.

Tom Huggler’s Grouse of North America and A Fall of Woodcock won national acclaim and are now collectible. His Quail Hunting in America (Stackpole) is still in print. A Fall of Woodcock was reprinted recently by Skyhorse Publishing.

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