The 10-pointer was bedded on an oak hillside, 40 yards from a sign along the roadside that read 33 Acres for Sale by Owner. I dialed the number listed and asked the owner if I could take a walk around. The rolling terrain and scads of deer sign told me all I needed to know. My wife and I had been shopping for a place of our own for a year—and now we’d found it. We closed in spring, and she killed her best buck ever there two seasons later.
O.K., so you probably can’t count on seeing a buck bedded next to a For Sale sign, but you can find your own dream hunting property this summer if you follow these steps.
A real estate agent can help you find ground through the local Multiple Listing Service (MLS), as well as help coordinate showings and assist with the closing. But you’ll want to research properties and their hunting prospects yourself, too. That’s half the fun. For this, the OnXMaps Hunt app is an invaluable tool. With a $30 subscription (per year, per state), it provides satellite maps that give you a bird’s-eye view of the land. It also details property boundaries and lists neighboring landowner information.
Check Out the Guys Next Door
Small farms come with neighbors that can have a huge impact on your management efforts. It’s worth meeting them ahead of time. Should you discover a junked-out homestead with 30 forkhorn racks nailed to the barn, an ATV trail leading into your potential property, and a pickup with an If It’s Brown, It’s Down sticker on the back glass…well, that land may not be so dreamy. If, on the other hand, the neighbor is a soybean farmer who doesn’t allow hunting, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Look for Trouble
Buying land with easy access and a clear title makes things simple, but you can save big money if you’re willing to jump a few hurdles. Land that’s owned by absentee owners or multiple heirs, or landlocked and accessed via an easement, can discourage many buyers. In some rare instances, you can even acquire abandoned land by paying out owed back taxes. Of course, you can expect some headaches and additional attorney’s fees for such transactions, but if the property is good, those inconveniences will seem minor as you’re watching a big buck amble toward your stand.
Take a Hike
Once you find a promising parcel, contact the landowner, either directly or through your agent, and get permission to walk the place over. Then let your hunting instincts kick in. Does it have food, cover, and water? Is there tillable ground for food plots and good trees for stands? All the while, keep in mind that changing the character of a piece of land takes a big investment of time, effort, and cash. No place will have everything you’re looking for, but make sure the one you buy already has most of it.
You Can Afford It
Many hunters assume they can’t afford their own place—and many of them are wrong. There are several ways to save money and offset costs. Here are three.
Getting the best terms on a loan is just like getting the best price on a new car. It pays to shop around. Tell your story to several loan officers, because the local banker who hunts and fishes might be more inclined to approve your loan, on better terms, than one who doesn’t. It’s also a good idea to get a loan prequalification letter before you begin shopping for land. That way, you know what you can afford and what you can’t, and no one’s time is wasted.
Cut the Timber
It doesn’t take a big down payment to secure most home loans these days, but when it comes to land, banks typically want you to bring at least 20 percent of the sale price to the closing table. That cash is the biggest hurdle for most buyers, but there are ways to quickly offset it. Timber is a huge consideration in the East. A select cut of mature oaks may well cover the down payment—and maybe the whole note—and improve the habitat in the process. If the seller allows it, spend a few hundred bucks on a timber appraisal before buying.
Get Paid to Manage
Renting your fields to a farmer can provide steady, long-term income. The local USDA Farm Service Agency should be able to provide a report on the property’s tillable acreage and current crop-rental rates. Also look into subsidies for various conservation improvements you might be planning to do anyway. The NRCS EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) pays qualified landowners for things like planting trees, sowing native grasses, select-cutting timber, and even establishing certain types of food plots. Property evaluation for eligibility in these programs is free.
With the right combination of cutting, renting, and conservation subsidies, it’s very possible to make money off your hunting land.
Get to Work
You can start making your new place a deer paradise before hunting season begins. Here are three simple projects you can do right now. Yes, they’re work, but they’re fun work.
Plot It Out
It’s best to hunt a property for at least a season before investing big money in perennial food plots. Instead, for this first year, plant a few small openings, roadbeds, and firebreaks with winter wheat, oats, or brassicas. All of these are cheap and easy to grow, they last only one season, and they will attract deer.
Get Your Licks
Putting a trail camera on a mineral lick (where legal) is a great way to take a quick inventory of potential shooter bucks in the area. No mineral I’ve tried works as quickly or is easier to use than Big & J Meltdown. Simply pour a bottle of water into the bag of mix, shake it up, let it get hot, and pour it into cleared dirt on the ground. I’ve had bucks find it overnight.
Make the Cuts
Some trees do nothing for wildlife except pull resources away from good, mast-producing species. Learn what these trees look like, and get rid of them. You can make instant cover by felling or hinge-cutting them in strategic places. But you don’t have to cut them down. It’s a lot quicker to simply cut a shallow ring around the trunk with a chain saw (called girdling), and spray the ring with a shot of properly mixed Garlon 4 herbicide.
Burn It Down
Prescribed fires are a lot less work than mowing, and they promote quick new growth of desirable forbs, which make up the bulk of a whitetail’s year-round diet. Before burning, ensure that safe firebreaks are in place. Firebreaks are simply strips of bare ground that are twice as wide as the anticipated flame height (so if the brush you’re burning is over your head, breaks need to be at least 12 feet wide). Typically, firebreaks are made with a tractor and disc, but on especially rough ground, you might need to hire a bulldozer and operator for a few hours.
Most burns, especially in the growing season, are relatively slow and uneventful—but remember that you’re on the hook should a fire get out of control. Study the burning laws and permit requirements in your state, and only burn when you have a steady 10- to 15-mph wind and relative humidity between 25 and 50 percent. When in doubt, bring extra buddies for help, preferably a few with some prescribed fire experience.
You’ll need safety gear, rakes, flappers, backpack sprayers with water, and extra water in tanks. You’ll also need something to light the fire. You can impress your buddies by using an X15 Flame Thrower ($1,600; throwflame.com), like the one I demoed last spring. But if just getting the job done is more your style, a 2-gallon hand sprayer filled with a 75:25 mix of diesel fuel and gasoline and a grill lighter works just as well and might cost you $25, plus fuel.
Get the Basic Tools
If you get serious about managing your land, you’ll end up building a new shed to hold all of your equipment. For now, you can stay plenty busy all summer with these key items
1. Chain Saw
Maybe the most important tool you can own for managing habitat. Wear chaps and safety gear, and don’t cut your leg off.
2. Backpack Sprayer
From putting out errant flames on a controlled burn to applying herbicide to food plots, a backpack sprayer is a must-have.
These have beds for hauling tools and dead deer. They are four-wheel-drive, and most have plenty of power for pulling small implements.
4. Plant ID Guide
Dr. Craig Harper’s A Guide to Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants is an excellent resource when you’re deciding what to plant and whether to kill a weed or wait for a deer to eat it.
5. Tractor and Implements
To do any serious food plotting, you simply must have a tractor and basic implements. A used, sub-40-hp diesel model in fair condition with a rotary cutter and tiller can be had for less than $10K if you shop carefully. Eventually you’ll want a spreader, sprayer, and cultipacker to go with it, too. —W.B.