Why I Stopped Looking for a Deer Lease

Why I Stopped Looking for a Deer Lease

On a brisk weekend in October, I had an epiphany. After three seasons of shivering, sweating, waiting, watching, and throwing the occasional hissyfit—I was standing over a mature, nine-point deer. Was it a record-breaker? No. Did it come at a high price? Yes and no.

This particular instance worked like perfection. The arrow hit right where I wanted it, from about 25 yards. It was a quick, clean kill. I even had the self-control to resist shooting a doe moments before so I could hold out for what I hoped was a buck behind it. This was more than a buck; it was me growing up as a hunter.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. As any public land bowhunter knows, for every successful hunt, there are probably 10 to 20 (or more) unsuccessful hunts. In fact, I spent the previous evening sitting through a thunderstorm in my tree saddle, eventually realizing that it wasn’t going to let up until well after dark. The deer were bedded before I even got up in the tree.

The previous season? Zero deer with my bow. The season before that? Zero deer with my bow.

But this deer lying in front of me was different. It wasn’t dumb luck. I wasn’t relying on insider information. I scouted this area, picked the perfect conditions, and played it to a tee. There’s no feeling like it, and I would give up anything to get there again—including my search for a deer lease.

This is not an anti-hunting-lease manifesto. It’s also not a pretentious “doesn’t count if it’s not on public land” rant, either. If I do my job right, I’m hoping more hunters can simply know what they’re looking for, even if that search leads to a lease.

Lease-less in Texas

There seems to be a prevalent notion in the regions I hunt—Texas, Oklahoma, and some Midwestern states—that the pinnacle of whitetail hunting begins and ends with a private lease. People seem to believe that everything else is a pale imitation, public land included.

To me, it comes down to how you want to hunt more than where you want to hunt.

I’ve had two hunting leases over the past decade or so—one ended up not being a good fit, and the other was a great fit until the land was sold and I no longer had access. For the majority of those seasons in between, I’ve been hunting for a hunting lease—using the same methods that I’m sure thousands of other hunters are employing as we speak.

Then, money got a little tight. It tends to happen when you have three children in four years, and a hunting lease simply wasn’t an option. I stopped looking for leases and instead started looking for new opportunities in the form of public land, lottery draws, and tags out west.

After three years of duking it out on public land, applying for hunts, and saving up my points, we return to my moment—me standing over my hard-earned nine-point buck. Just a few weeks later, still basking in the glow of success, I did something I thought I’d never do—pass up a hunting lease opportunity.

Now that deer season is over—“lease season” begins in earnest around my part of the world, where hunters scramble to forums and social media and any extended family they haven’t alienated over the past few years, all in an effort to find their holy grail. For the first time in my life, I’m bowing out—and I think there are more hunters like me who just don’t know it yet.

Hidden in Plain Sight

This is the moment when hunters will be divided. The majority of private land in my area is hunted the same way—corn feeders and blinds. Of course, this is a generalization, but in most cases, hunters manage their land to be so attractive to whitetail that they’ll get shot opportunities at mature deer.

What I found is that the leasing ground is more about land management than it is about hunting deer. Even further, surrounding properties are a notable factor when everyone puts up corn feeders. It shifts travel corridors, bedding areas, and all of a sudden, you’re playing a chess match with other landowners instead of that 10-point you’ve been eyeing all season.

I feel compelled to say this once again—I’m not anti-hunting leases—and I see why whitetail hunters enjoy managing a property for optimal hunting conditions. That being said, during those three years when I couldn’t afford a deer lease, I started looking for other options, and what I found wasn’t as bad as what I’d heard so many times before.

After some digging and help from onX, I discovered that there were nearly 250,000 acres of public hunting land within three hours of my home. So, I started hunting new areas, and found that so much of the “there’s no public land” woes you read about online are based on assumption. I’m not saying this is true across the board—and some areas are certainly more limited than others—but it’s certainly true in my area, and I’m sure it’s true in many areas across many states.

So, before you start shelling out $3,000 to $10,000 a year for a lease, ask yourself this question: Have you tried hunting the public land in your area? Or are you relying on the unsolicited input from strangers online?

The School of Hard Nocks

This season, I shot three deer on public land with my compound bow. I also shot a 250-pound hog, some quail, and more than a few doves. But let me make this clear—it wasn’t always pretty. I’m in my third season of bowhunting, and the first two were rough, so much so that even drawing my bow with a whitetail doe in shooting range was a massive success for me. There was one season where I could count on one hand how many deer I even saw, much less considered shooting.

But, this season, it dawned on me. I’ve learned an incredible amount about hunting in just three seasons with my bow, and I attribute a big part of that to hunting public land. This is true for a few reasons:

First, you can pivot to new areas that look different, learning how deer move through different settings and under different pressure.

Second, you’re not limited to any rules other than your local game laws. Both of my leases had stipulations for how many deer I could shoot, how mature they had to be, and even when I had access to the property.

Third, public land is bigger. Unless you’re Ted Turner, there’s no affordable lease out there that can offer the sheer quantity of land that public land does. My first lease was 200 acres. My second lease was 180 acres. If there weren’t deer around, you were out of luck. On public land, I know for a fact that there are mature deer on the WMA—it’s just a matter of finding them.

Recently, I was down on a ranch in South Texas and struck up a conversation with an outfitter. He was talking about the different types of clients he has and who’s best suited for his style of low-fence, free-range hunting on a large section of property—about 12,000 acres. He started listing off different categories—beginners, professional hunters, and your typical whitetail hunters. He told me that he lumps the typical whitetail hunter and the beginners into the same category because their exposure to animal behavior and hunting tactics is so limited. Their experience begins and ends with a feeder.

I’m aware that this isn’t true across the board, but it is worth noting. I’d been hunting whitetails for about six years with a rifle over corn feeders, but I learned more about animal behavior and whitetail patterns in just one hunt on public land. Is it much harder? Sure. Am I a better hunter for it? Yes.

One Man’s Trash…

The last point I’ll make is this: There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one kind of whitetail hunter. It took me way too long to figure that out. So, what do you want to do? It’s an important question to ask yourself and once you know the answer, it’ll guide every decision you make moving forward.

My answer told me that leasing private land was a waste of money. Over the past few years, I’ve fallen in love with the “chess match.” There’s nothing more thrilling than walking up to a 15,000-acre chunk of land with a bow and a tree saddle, nothing stopping you from tagging your trophy but…you. There are deer there. Big ones. It’s up to you—and only you—to be in a position to take the shot. When that lease was dropped in my lap, I couldn’t help but think, “Why would I give up what I have for something I enjoy less—and also pay 10 to 15 times the cost?”

Make no mistake, your answer may be different. While I like the physical challenge, the grind, and the reward that comes with public land hunting, you may enjoy managing a property—creating food plots, bedding areas, and travel corridors—to bring in that buck of a lifetime. In that case, private land is the way to go.

Either way, just know that your hunting happiness is up to you. Ignore anyone who’s complaining about hunting pressure, overcrowding, high prices, and listing off the reasons why everything sucks. You know what sucks more? Sitting on your ass instead of getting out in the woods where the deer are. Go find out for yourself. It’ll make it that much sweeter when you’re field-dressing your own success story.

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