I’ll start this with a point of clarity: I have spent more money than I care to remember leasing ground to hunt. I’ve leased ground in my home state of Michigan as well as in about five other states. For the most part, I don’t regret it but, at the same time, I can’t say that I was really better off for having done so.
Leasing is a fickle kind of thing, in my experience. These days, I’ve learned from those experiences and have adopted a simple set of rules that guide my whitetail efforts.In some cases, a lease makes sense. And that’s the point of this piece, to outline this hunter’s views on the leasing game and under what conditions I’m willing to participate.
I don’t pretend to be an especially gifted deer hunter. I’ve tagged some big deer simply because I’ve spent a lot of time chasing them, and I’m willing to do things not many others are willing to. I’ve messed up on far more mature bucks than I’ve killed and understand that I will make a certain number of mistakes before I find success.
It takes time to learn whether an area even holds the type of bucks I’m looking to hunt and even more time to figure out exactly how to hunt that property to put myself in position for a shot at one of them. This is why losing a property hurts so much. I didn’t just lose the future potential of that property; I’ve also lost the amount of time invested in learning it. That’s information that does not always readily apply to another property. Thus, I simply will not invest the time and resources into a property that I don’t have reasonable assurances of being able to hunt again in the future.
In some places that I hunt, it’s not the potential loss of land that is of primary concern. It’s the potential to hunt there consistently that is limiting. Here’s an example. This fall, if all goes as planned, I’ll draw an Iowa nonresident deer tag. If I pull that tag, I know it’ll be at least another three years—and more likely four or five—before I can hunt there again simply because I will not be able to draw a license to do so.
In this instance, I’m not focused on finding a property I can learn, adapt to, and build a stable of experience for future success. There is no need to because my options to hunt there in the future are extremely limited. Instead, I’m most focused on making sure I have a quality place that’s available to hunt, holds the type of bucks I’ve been building preference points for, and will provide me with the most enjoyable experience possible. My focus is on maximizing my time for a single season rather than trying to develop a program that can last multiple seasons.
Iowa nonresident licenses aren’t cheap, and waiting for years to draw one isn’t easy. In this situation, a lease makes sense. Securing exclusive access to private ground can help make my available hunting time more productive. I love hunting public land. But it’s anything but easy. And, truth be told, the increased focus on public land over the past couple of years has made it extremely difficult to locate any area that has the type of limited hunting pressure needed to consistently produce the type of bucks I’m looking to hunt. It certainly can be done, but it requires a lot of time and adjusting. By focusing on private land, I limit the amount of time needed to really dial things in and I don’t have to worry nearly as much about interference from other hunters.
Understand this: Leasing ground in this instance is not an investment because it has almost no ability to produce long-term returns. It’s a fee that will be paid once for an opportunity to hunt that will last a single season. An Iowa tag, is essentially a one-and-done affair. I know I won’t be able to apply the lessons I learn hunting an Iowa lease this fall to future seasons. But, the tradeoff is that I know I’ll have a place to hunt without pressure (assuming, of course, the lease agreement is honored and the access is indeed exclusive).
Now, let’s contrast the above to a more common scenario in my hunting world. Whether it’s my home state of Michigan or another Midwest states that offers over-the-counter licenses, I know that every lesson I learn, every experience I tuck away can be used again in the future so long as I’m hunting property that I “own.”
For me, owned property includes public land. I do not personally own any hunting land. This doesn’t mean I don’t or won’t hunt any private land this fall. I will if I can gain permission to do so. But it does mean that I won’t pay to lease any, at least not in a place where I expect to hunt on a regular basis in the coming years.
Again, I’m not an exceptional hunter. I plod along, make mistakes, learn from them and eventually figure out enough to find success. I cannot (will not) invest my time, money, and energy into learning a place that I could lose access to. To me, that simply defies logic and any place that I don’t own is a place that I can lose access to at any time.
So in those states where tags are available every season, I choose instead to invest my resources into properties I know will be available to me for seasons to come. Yes, public land is crowded, that isn’t going to change any time soon. But there is still some fine hunting to be had if you know what to look for and how to approach it. The option of buying and owning your own land, of course, is always there and I would strongly encourage anyone who has been leasing hunting ground on a regular basis to do some math and see if the cost of land ownership truly is that much more than your annual lease fees. I think you might be surprised at the results.
If there is publicly owned options near where you live, or if you’re able to do some budgeting and determine that land ownership is an option, I can think of no good reason to lease. And I’m not making a blind statement here—I leased property in my home state for many years—I’ve done the math. I’ve reflected on what was gained and what was lost, and the numbers were not in my favor.
I realize I am likely a different type of deer hunter than many. My goals, methods, and tactics are likely different. But I think my overall goal is the same as many others: I want to hunt mature bucks as often as I can for as long as I can.
After many years of thinking that this was best done by leasing “prime” ground and attempting to pay my way to success, I learned a hard lesson. There are no shortcuts. The best path to success is a repeatable one. Once you learn how to target mature deer in an area, that is virtually priceless information. When you lose access to a property, which will happen if it’s a property you don’t own, you lose an asset that simply can’t be replaced.
Today, I don’t try to change those facts. Instead, I focus my time and energy on ground I can always return to. In those rare instances where my opportunity to return is restricted, I maximize my investment by making sure I can make the most of my available time. In that situation, a private lease makes sense. In others, it simply doesn’t.