No Place To Hunt

Your hunting lease is gone. Now what? Here are some options for staying in the game.

Daryl Kirby | June 22, 2007

Spend a quarter century hunting a piece of ground, and it becomes a big part of your life. Countless hunting clubs across Georgia have played out the same scenes over the years — gathering at the skinning pole to share the successes and the near-misses, the fellowship around the campfire at night.

These hunters spend enough autumn weekends together that they become part of an extended family. They watch each others’ kids learn to hunt, they watch them grow up. Then, in the blink of an eye, one day those kids drag their own kids into camp for the first time.

The people are special, but the allure of a hunting club is not just the folks at camp. It’s the connection with the land that develops after several years — every deer stand has a name, every creek crossing or swamp is named for someone from the hunting club.

The tragedy is that big tracts of land and hunt camps — and the hunters who prefer this type of hunting experience — are Georgia’s most endangered species, only we don’t qualify for millions of federal dollars. If you want to have a place to hunt in the future, don’t expect it to be handed to you. You’re going to have to do the work, but the rewards can make new memories to rival those of the past.

Thousands of deer hunters who grew accustomed to the hunt-camp way of life already had the rug pulled out from under them when more than a million acres of timber-company land was sold in Georgia.
Weyerhaeuser alone sold 304,000 acres of land in Georgia in 2004. The buyers were four big investment companies, which quickly split up their holdings and sold individual tracts overnight. Some tracts changed hands two or three times in a day.

Newspapers that even bothered to cover the Weyerhaeuser sale reported on it like it was some big, sterile chunk of timberland. We know painfully well that it was smaller tracts — 450 acres in Crawford County, 320 acres in Hancock County, 900 acres in Macon County. Many of the tracts have been split up, then subdivided again. Most now carry for-sale signs. They also carry the echoes of hunters past, sportsmen who cared for the land like it was their own for so many years.

Tim Butler of Hawkinsville is part of a Putnam County hunting club.
“The club is over 25 years old,” Tim said. “I’ve been in it since I was 18.”

Like most who leased timber-company land, Tim and his buddies never thought about losing the lease. They took care of it, and timber-company leases were only pulled if the hunters caused problems. But the tract was owned by Weyerhaeuser, and it was sold.

“You spend so much time and money and effort on it. It gets in your blood,” Tim said.

“Some new people bought it, and whoever bought it leased it back to us. But it’s back up for sale now,” he said.

For the past three seasons, Tim and the club members have leased the land knowing that the inevitable will eventually happen — the land will sell.

“At this point we just take what we can get. If we lose it, we lose it,” Tim said. “Luckily I have some other options to hunt, some small private tracts of land. And I’ve hunted public land. There’s some good hunting on public land, it’s just different.”

Be Flexible, and Compromise
“There’s some good hunting… it’s just different.”

Tim’s statement about public land applies to private land as well. If you won’t consider a tract unless it’s so deep in the woods that the only sounds you can hear are Papa Jim snoring in his camper and ivory-billed woodpeckers down in the swamp, it’ll be a long time before you get to experience daybreak in a deer stand again.

Instead, adapt. Don’t look for what you’ve had, look for what’s available — and compromise. When a neighborhood is built, the deer adapt just fine.

Suburban hunters willing to adapt, specifically those willing to hunt exclusively with a bow or crossbow, can find some of the best hunting Georgia has to offer. Getting access without knowing a landowner personally will be tough, but the small pockets of habitat and wooded drainages in suburban areas offer two huge advantages to bowhunters willing to compromise their desire to hunt “wild” places.

First, these often overlooked little pockets of habitat are growing huge bucks — the best buck in the state last year was taken by a crossbow hunter in Fulton County within the city limits of Roswell. Another giant 150-class buck was killed by a bowhunter in Cobb County near the Marietta city limits. Bucks of this caliber have become the norm for suburban areas, even urban areas.

The second huge advantage to suburban hunting is that the big, mature bucks are killable. The houses, subdivisions and busy roads make the deer easy to pattern, similar to why the Midwest is so productive for bowhunters. It’s not just that Iowa has big bucks, but the farmland and narrow necks of woods create natural funnels that make the bucks killable. Suburban Georgia has a similar landscape, only the funnels are man-made.

Public land is another option, but it’s a compromise some hunters won’t make, usually because they’re afraid of getting shot. Hunters do get shot — rarely — but pay attention to an important detail of each incident. Where do accidental, hunting-related shootings occur? The answer is private land. Hunting is a safe recreation, and that’s equally if not more true on public land where hunters know there are others sharing the woods.

Georgia’s Wildlife Management Area (WMA) system has some true gems. Many of the best firearms hunts are quota and require rejection points to get selected. Start playing the quota-hunt game, and save your rejections to make the every-third-year trip to Ossabaw Island, River Creek, Joe Kurz or Flint River. There are also very good firearms hunts that aren’t quota, and your source for those is coming in next month’s GON in the WMA Special. Bowhunters have an advantage on public land as well, with open access to almost all of the areas with far less hunting pressure.

No, hunting public land is not the same as hunting your long-time deer lease, where you could have ladder stands and shooting lanes and your own food plots. But the deer hunting on public land is often very good, and it’s certainly an option that hunters should consider before buying golf clubs.

Believe it or not, there are still some options for leasing timber-company tracts in Georgia. Plum Creek has leases available — in fact the Hunting Land Special (available only in the print edition of GON) includes almost 100 Plum Creek tracts that were still available at presstime. They won’t last long, however. The compromise hunters will have to make is that lease prices for Plum Creek tracts have gone up, which might be why some tracts are still available. Another option is Temple-Inland, which has timberland tracts mostly in northwest Georgia. The compromise there is that Temple-Inland now uses a bidding system to lease tracts.

Otherwise, finding private land to lease is a matter of networking in local areas and getting very lucky. A technique I’ve seen work is to spend time in a county tax-assessor’s office in the area you would like to have a lease and record landowners’ names and addresses. Send a nice, brief letter explaining your desire to lease hunting rights, along with your “resume” explaining why you’d make a good lessor. Expect 100 no responses, but it only takes one landowner willing to give you a chance to make the effort worthwhile.

Hunting clubs are still an option. It may seem daunting, and it may take some trial-and-error, but joining a new hunting club can pay off with excellent deer hunting. The Hunting Land Special is full of hunt-club listings. Just do the research and ask for references before spending your money.

The Hunter Migration… Go Midwest, Young Man
Before he founded the Republican Party, editor Horace Greeley told his New York Tribune readers in the mid 1800s to, “Go west, young man.”

Georgia hunters — a lot of them — are taking a page from Greeley’s famous quote and going to the Midwest farm belt to hunt deer, big deer. Illinois, Iowa, Kansas — that’s where more and more Georgia hunters are heading with the realization they can spend a week or two up there and have an excellent chance of killing a super buck.

Mark Knight of McDonough is one of them.

“I started hunting up there in 1998,” Mark said. “I went to Illinois and hunted with an outfitter. I had gotten into bowhunting, and when I went up there the first time, I was hooked.”

Mark had spent years trying to kill good bucks in Georgia, even trying to manage property.

“I just felt like the quality of deer in Georgia wasn’t as good as what I saw up there. I had killed 120-inch deer in Georgia, but I personally couldn’t break that barrier.

“I planned one trip a year. We’d hunt a solid week up there and shoot a 140- to 150-inch deer every year. The amount we were paying was about the same as what we had been paying for a lease in Georgia with the money we were spending on food plots.”

Mark and some friends eventually found an Illinois farm to lease and formed a hunting club.

“We had 20 people in the hunting club and 20 people on the waiting list,” Mark said. “The demand from Georgians wanting to hunt up there got to be so big we had to do something.”

Mark and a partner formed an outfitting business, Midwest Whitetail Adventures, which is one of several Georgia-based outfitters who provide hunting opportunities in the Midwest.

“Our hunters are about 85 percent from Georgia,” Mark said.

The typical hunter from Georgia?

“We’re getting the guy that may go to Canada around Thanksgiving, and he’ll come hunt with us for a week. Instead of investing in a lease in Georgia they plan on a couple of hunts with outfitters. Mark said he expects the interest in Midwest and travel hunts in general to increase as finding good places to hunt in Georgia gets more difficult.

Another option many hunters are taking is day-hunts on one of many Georgia plantations, most of which are intensively managed and often produce very good bucks. Whether it’s a day-hunt or weekend at a Georgia plantation or a week in Illinois, the “travel trips” keep some hunters in the game who might have given up hunting.

Buy It… Now!
The surest way to secure your hunting future in Georgia is to bite the bullet and purchase your own property. But for raw land, the standard down payment is a knee-staggering 25 percent down with a 15-year note. For a 100-acre tract that sells for $3,500 an acre, that’s a down payment of $87,500.

If that kind of money isn’t sitting in your savings account, there are options. One is to consider your retirement funds. Money managers never recommend cashing-out early from a retirement plan because of the penalties, but for those who did five years ago and put that money into land, their net worth has risen far more than what they could have made in the stock market or in mutual funds — early withdrawal penalties be darned.

The value of timber is another factor. A select cut or even a clearcut might not be what you have in mind, but at least you’ll own the dirt, and the money from the timber can offset costs of the land, sometimes substantially.

If working a deal for your own tract isn’t a viable option, then consider a partnership. The key is to find the right group who have the same goals, whether it be investment or pure recreational land with the same ideals for wildlife management. The bigger key is to not trust friendships or emotions to carry a partnership, but have a detailed, written and mutually agreed upon operating agreement — along with professional advice from an attorney and an accountant. The operation agreement should clearly define the goals of the partners, how expenses will be handled, how long everyone expects to keep their holding, how the partnership will be handled if someone wants out — a myriad of details should be considered up front.

Then form an LLC, or Limited Liability Corporation, which limits your personal risk if there are financial problems in the future, and the LLC should include the operating agreement. You could also split the deed on a tract with a partner, or survey a tract and split it into separate tracts.

The situation for Georgia deer hunters who have lost or are about to lose leases is not good. The options we’ve talked about here require compromise — in your wallet, with your time, with your standards and ideals about where you might hunt. The alternative is to give up.

“I’ve seen people who have stayed in a club for 15 or 20 years, they’ve given up hunting altogether,” said Tim Butler. “My in-laws are talking about that. They’ve had a lease forever. It started out as about 900 acres, but they’re steadily losing property every couple of years. They’re talking about quitting hunting altogether.”

I’ll sit in a climbing stand overlooking the Wal-Mart parking lot before I give up. Luckily, it hasn’t come to that. We have options, some good ones at that.

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