Over the years, I've heard dozens of stories from deer hunters about dreams they have of owning their own place to hunt. I cannot imagine any truly serious deer hunter who would not fall all over themselves at the chance to have a privately owned place to call their own to hunt and to enjoy the great outdoors with family and friends.
Sometimes, though, reality sets in, and hunters have to be careful what they ask for because they just may get it. As far as carving out a little place on Planet Earth to own or use as private hunting land, that is indeed a laudable goal. However, such a lofty goal is best approached with eyes, ears, minds and wallets wide open.
Begging, borrowing or buying
"I grew up in Mississippi," says Jason Pope. "I went to high school in Clinton, attended Mississippi State University and did my MBA at Mississippi College. Now I live in Madison, but work at Hinds Community College in Raymond. This is my home, and I dearly wanted a place of my own to hunt. I have done the public-land thing and will continue to. I've also been a partner in hunting leases, too, but would rather not go that route again. I have dreamed of my own place I could build into a great hunting property on my own, at my own pace."
Paul Ellis took a different route.
"I wasn't in a position to buy something of my own just yet, but I had access to family land in Hinds County," he said. "My uncle owns a place northwest of Clinton that was perfect for hunting, but he was never terribly interested in making any improvements that would enhance the hunting.
"I convinced him that if I would do the majority of the work he would approve my plan and let me deer hunt on the property. That's the plan I have initiated to have a place for me and my wife to deer hunt this year."
In the case of Pope, he patiently shopped land for sale in an area with a good reputation for producing quality deer and something that was as pristine as possible. He finally located a small parcel within his designated budget in Madison County west of Flora.
"I looked at land for a couple years before finding a small piece with the kind of deer hunting potential I wanted," said Pope. "Better yet, it was surrounded by additional quality habitat, but had little hunting pressure from the adjacent landowners.
"It was perfect for my hunting plan."
Certainly there are advantages of buying one's own land to create a good place to hunt, but also establishing agreements to use family land can be viable as well. Either angle gives a measure of privacy and opportunity to transform the land into a quality hunting situation. Once you buy or borrow hunting land, then the real work starts.
"Before I signed on the dotted line to buy my little piece of virgin land, I walked it over numerous times," Pope said. "I thought I had a good sense of the land layout and the topographic features it contained.
"After the purchase and the more I walked the property from an owner's point of view, I really began to see the land in a different light. In fact, the more time I spent walking every corner of the place, the more I liked its potential. And the more it became apparent all the work it needed to make it into a really super hunting property.
"Immediately I started making mental notes on the layout. There were some old abandoned logging trails that needed reestablishment. A long rather flat ridge top would make a perfect place for a food plot and an east-west shooting lane. I identified a perfect spot to build an elevated shooting house with great views. Several high ridges with long points overlooked deep ravines laden with deer sign.
"Early in the summer, I hung a trail camera with some corn to see what the game was like on the place. It quickly became apparent that I had a lot of work to do, but it was also encouraging that my labor could have some tremendous payoffs."
Ellis already had somewhat of a headstart.
"I knew my uncle's land pretty well having walked it many times," he said. "It was mainly pasture land with blocks of interspersed timber.
"My uncle is a pilot, and he has built a grass landing strip right down the middle of the place that he keeps mowed regularly. There were several ponds on the place surrounded by cover. To the east was an old cutover, not on his property, but certainly a great hiding place for deer. A large creek drainage ran down one property line serving as an excellent access route.
"I just had to figure out where to put several small food plots and where to post hunting stands.
"In scouting the property after last season, I would find considerable old sign, especially rubs and scrapes, but was never quite sure what to make of it in terms of patterning the deer movement on the land. It took a while, but it is all beginning to come together.
"One thing that helped was looking at an aerial photo of the place. This gave me a whole new perspective on the layout of the land. I was able to see narrow funnels between different habitat edges and the shapes of the forested areas for the first time. I found one narrow spot between the woods and one of the ponds I never really noticed before. Gathering all this information really helped me establish an overall profile of the property."
So whether buying your own land or using somebody else's land to hunt, you have to figure out what you have in order to turn a virgin piece of land into a true hunting haven. How are the land features laid out? Is there water? Where does it come and go? Do trails exist or do they have to be created or cleaned up? Ditto this on potential food plot sites. Where exactly are the property lines and does anybody hunt on the other side of them? Are these property lines secured? Is there natural browse and what type? What about mast trees on the place? Be prepared to ask all these questions and more as you develop your hunting plan.
After all the hikes are done, maps drawn or examined and project lists made, it's time to go to work. Most first-time land buyers or those borrowing land from family to hunt may have limited budgets or different motivations for what kind of money to spend on various enhancement projects.
Personal time might also become an issue. Work, family and other commitments have a way of edging out recreational pursuits. Hunting quite often falls very high up on the hit list.
Just pace yourself and the work load. Involve family members in the process at whatever level they can feel comfortable to participate. Family buy-in is always a smart approach to hunting camp work projects. Give the kids or the wife jobs, too, so they will appreciate the effort.
This is the critical time to begin setting priorities, to evaluate timelines and to calculate budgets. If your plan is to hunt on the property as soon as possible, then that might well direct your project choices. Depending on your work ethic, it might be possible to juggle more than one on-going project subject to time and financial availability.
"I planned to deer hunt the first year of my land ownership, so my initial projects were to get hunting areas cleared out, access improvements completed and then to set up hunting stands," Pope said. "I spent a month or so hacking down bushes, clearing out shooting lanes, opening up several old grown-over trails and marking off spots for a couple of food plots.
"I brought in a couple of old stands I already owned, then I contacted the carpentry shop at the local community college where I work to buy a small shooting house constructed by their career-tech class. I hauled it out to the property in my own pickup and got it set up looking down a shooting lane I cut on both sides of a huge drainage creek.
"Then I started work on building a tower condo shooting house up on the ridge top so I could see both east and west. That was quite a job hauling in lumber, 4x4 treated poles, bags of quick-set concrete and all the hardware plus the tools. With all that, I had my first experience of thinking maybe I had taken on too much, but I got through it."
"While I was working on projects I could do myself on weekends, I had to contract some services to get big projects done. First of all, the huge creek just inside my property line basically cut me off from the rest of the land. I had to bridge that gap. I did a bit of research on some ideas for this project, and finally bought a commercial haul flatbed trailer. I hired a heavy equipment operator to cable the trailer across the creek and set it into place on the banks of each side then shore it up. That was one scary project, but we got it done. Now I can drive my pickup across if I want, a tractor or the caterpillar I needed to clear out my biggest wildlife food plot."
Ellis explained his project priorities.
"The property I am able to hunt just basically needed to be cleaned up and put back in decent shape to maximize its habitat potential and accessibility to its prime hunting spots," he said. "I started out by doing a lot of mowing on both sides of the landing airstrip and along the property lines, around the ponds and along established trails. Several areas had grown up pretty high in tough brush I had to cut down. I cleaned up the wooded areas adjacent to one of the ponds where I intended to plant a food plot.
"Next I started putting up stands where the positions offered the best avenues of visibility to travel routes, open lanes and food plots. When this coming season rolls around, I'll finally get to see if all this work and expense were worth it."