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How to Get (and Keep) Permission to Hunt Private Land

Simple, yet successful strategies to employ before, during, and after the hunt.

How to Get (and Keep) Permission to Hunt Private Land

Every day in the field is a gift. If you show your appreciation, you are likely to be invited back to hunt again. (Photo By: Josh Tatman)

As I drove down the long gravel lane to the ranch house, pheasants poured out of the hayfield and into the trees. It was about nine o’clock when I pulled into the yard. I walked over to the humble mobile home porch and knocked loudly. “Come in!” bellowed a voice from inside. I opened the door and stepped into the mud room. In the next room, Al sat on the bed in his underwear, stiffly pulling pants over legs that had been hardened by seven decades of working the land.  

I was embarrassed by my intrusion, but if Al was, he didn’t show it. This was my second time meeting him in person. I had also spoken to him on the phone a half dozen times. The reason for my visit was obvious, but I asked anyway. “Do you think I might be able to hunt your pheasants today?” Al gave me the same old answer. “I’ve got family coming out this weekend to hunt, so maybe another time.” I thanked him and left.  

After barging in on him in his undies, I thought I’d never get permission to hunt. But, a few weeks later, I stopped by again. Al was drinking coffee with a neighbor. He met me with a big smile. “Today is YOUR day!” he said. “Go have fun.” That was the only time Al ever gave me permission to hunt, but I relished all ten minutes it took me to shoot my limit.  

I’ve been asking for permission to access private land for thirty years. I still get nervous when I knock on a new door or make that first phone call. Even if a landowner has given me permission before, it is easy for me to get flustered. I’m not a natural when it comes to social interactions, but over the years I’ve found a few strategies that guide me when asking permission to hunt private land.  


Before the Hunt

Just like a well-trained bird dog and a clean shotgun, obtaining private land access starts long before you hit the field. I begin to plan months or even years before it’s time to go hunting. I find it useful to break down my planning efforts into three stages. 

Stage 1: Research

It is pointless to ask permission to hunt where birds don't live. Start by identifying properties that look promising to hunt. Whether it's a regenerating clear-cut in the Maine woods or a shelter belt on the Nebraska prairie, start with places that you already know have good bird numbers. Then, scout on the ground for properties with similar habitat. As a rule, more vegetation diversity means more upland birds. Connectivity between ice-free water bodies means more waterfowl. If you don't have time to drive the back roads, take advantage of the opportunity to scout digitally.  

Google Earth, mapping applications like OnX Hunt, and other geospatial resources give today's hunters a huge advantage that previous generations never had. Scour aerial images for landforms and vegetation communities that are similar to places that you've had success. With practice, you'll be surprised by how many of your 'check here' pins verify as good bird spots on the ground.  

onx hunt digital scouting app on cell phone
Once you've identified where you want to hunt, find out who owns it. OnX has an ownership layer that allows you to easily identify landowners. (Photo By: Josh Tatman)

Many counties also have digitized plat maps.  Look for these on your county assessor's website. You can always go down to the courthouse and look over paper maps as well. 

Finding a phone number for a landowner can be challenging, especially with fewer people using landlines. Start with a simple internet search. If that doesn't work, hunt up an old-fashioned phone book. Plat maps sometimes list a corporation name, even for smaller farms and ranches.  For these, see if your county or state maintains a searchable tax status database. These will list the agent who is the land manager or owner. 

Some larger resource extraction companies like timber or mining firms have personnel who manage recreation and hunting inquiries. Especially in the west, an increasing number of agricultural properties are owned by absentee investors. These folks can be especially hard to contact. Try to find a local farm or ranch manager who can at least provide a good phone number to call.  

Familiarize yourself with the access laws in the state you wish to hunt. Some states don’t even require permission unless a property is “posted” or marked “no trespassing.” Other states require permission from a leasee or land board even to access state-owned lands. Most states have hunter management or walk-in programs that allow for private land access on some parcels without explicit permission.  

Stage 2: Initial Contact

Prepare for an initial contact with a landowner the same way you would for a telephone interview for a job. You should be in a quiet place and have ample time to chat. Avoid calling at mealtimes or too early or late in the day.  

Have a notebook with talking points in case you get nervous. You should have an intelligible description of the places that you'd like to hunt, as well as a time you want to go. For example, you could say, "I'm calling to see if it might be possible to hunt pheasants along the creek south of your farm this Saturday." 

Much like an interview, you should also be ready to 'sell' yourself. Find an opportunity during the conversation to tell the landowner about your history, where you live, what you enjoy about hunting, and your ethics in the field. Although it seems like a crutch, be sure to mention if you plan to hunt with your kids. Many landowners are very interested in sharing the outdoors with children.   

plat map book on tailgate
The more planning you can get done during the off-season means more time afield during the bird hunting season. (Photo By: Josh Tatman)

If you want to hunt where livestock are grazed, ask if you can hunt when a specific parcel is vacant. This shows the landowner that you care about their property and livelihood. If you hunt with a dog, explain to the landowner what measures you have taken to prevent livestock conflicts. Oftentimes, bird hunting seasons and big game seasons overlap. Some landowners might not want you out during deer season, but are amenable to you hunting at another time.  

It may take many attempts before you can actually reach your contact. I generally don't leave voicemails, as most landowners don't have time to call back on every inquiry. Initial contacts can also be done in person, but in my experience most landowners prefer a phone call first, rather than a stranger showing up unexpectedly on their property. In some places, showing up unannounced could be downright dangerous.  

I usually call two to four weeks before I want to hunt. If the landowner gives me permission or is undecided, I offer to follow up the day before or morning of the hunt, either with a phone call or in person. If they are undecided, I also offer to supply a reference, especially in agricultural communities where everyone knows each other. If I’ve hunted the neighbor’s place for years, that shows that I am trustworthy.  

Stage 3: Secondary Contact

The secondary contact is just as important as the first. If you are meeting the landowner in person, dress in clean field clothes. Don't show up with a truck full of buddies if you only asked permission for yourself. Park far enough from their house or business that your barking dogs aren't a distraction.  

At the secondary contact, ask for more details. Where exactly can you hunt, and what areas should you avoid? Are property boundaries marked on the ground? Are there any hazards to be aware of? I always ask if there are any traps on the property that could pose a hazard to my dog.  

Find out if the landowner wants to use a written permission slip. This can defuse a conflict if another family member or employee finds you on the property unexpectedly. Some landowners will want you to sign a liability waiver. Regardless, offer to check in when you leave the property so they know you are safe.    

During the Hunt

The big day has come and you are finally out hunting that new cover! Hopefully all your homework will pay off with a day of exciting wingshooting. Regardless of your hunting experience, let the golden rule guide all of your actions.  

Treat a property like it's your own, and you are likely to be invited back. Park where you don't block gates or access. Don't drive off-road, or even on muddy roads. Pick up all of your spent shells and make sure no litter escapes your vest. Give living spaces a wide berth. Never shoot toward structures or livestock. Having someone fire a gun toward you is an unpleasant feeling, even if it's a shotgun hundreds of yards away. I never shoot off-game that I don't have permission to, even those often considered vermin by bird hunters, like coyotes or porcupines. I don't presume to know how a landowner prefers to manage these species. I also abstain from collecting shed antlers, rocks, or anything else that I don't specifically have permission to take.  

two bird hunters hiking hill in the desert
Other than the occasional report of your shotgun, be a ghost and leave no sign of your passing. (Photo By: Josh Tatman)

After the Hunt

Even if the property is owned by a friend or family member, I never assume that it's okay to return to hunt again automatically. Even if the landowner has given me unconditional access permission, it never hurts to check in. After all, they may have given someone else permission for the day, or they might have work in the area that would conflict with my hunt. 

I also never underestimate the value of private access. Landowners could easily lock up their hunting by leasing to an outfitter. In fact, with narrowing profit margins in agricultural enterprises, many are doing just that. Consider that a landowner could be selling access for hundreds of dollars a day. They are also trusting you with what is likely the dearest thing in the world to them other than their family.  

Even if you lack the financial resources to repay this generosity, you can still volunteer to help on projects. This is especially appropriate after you become more acquainted with a landowner. Volunteer to run lunches out to the field during planting season or help with spring branding. Fixing broken fences is a never-ending job that requires no specialized training.   

bird hunter and dog standing in snow-covered field
Whether you had a banner day or got busted, be sure to thank the landowner in some way to show your gratitude for their permission for you to hunt their property—doing so is one of the easiest ways to secure a second visit. (Photo By: Josh Tatman)

Gifts also go a long way to show your gratitude. A nice bottle of wine or whiskey, good chocolate, or a box of fresh donuts are just a few tokens of appreciation. Most landowners enjoy game meat that’s been taken from their land, so share a few birds from a successful day. Even better, process the birds and present them during your next visit. At minimum, a thank-you card will show a landowner that you appreciate them.  

Like all things in life, access to good private land hunting doesn’t last forever. Property is sold or inherited. A farmer may choose to till up prime quail cover. A forest cut will grow over and your great grouse spot will be gone. Remember, every day in the field is a gift. If you show your appreciation, you are likely to be invited back to hunt again.  


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