Most deer hunters over the age of 40 can remember a time when it was easy to find a prime hunting area where pressure was almost non-existent.

Unfortunately, that is no longer the case here in the Magnolia State. Today, finding a quality piece of property to lease for deer hunting can be a formidable task.

As a youngster, I recall my father telling me, "Son, land is one of the safest investments out there. It will always increase in value, because they're not making any more of it."

And while I am certain deer hunting was the last thing on his mind when he made that statement, hunters would be wise to heed his advice.

However, not everyone has the good fortune or financial capital to buy prime hunting land. For those of us who don't own a place to deer hunt and prefer to avoid the record numbers of hunters crowding public lands, leasing is the affordable alternative.

All wildlife, including deer, belongs to the American public, and the state fish and wildlife agencies manage these resources for the good of the public. Since wildlife belongs to the people of Mississippi, landowners cannot sell the game animals on their land. However, landowners are allowed to sell access to the land for hunting purposes.

In Mississippi, a state trespass law (Mississippi Code 97-17-93) forbids all persons from entering private lands without permission from the landowner. Hunting, fishing or trapping in Mississippi without the permission of the landowner is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and imprisonment. This law strengthened the landowners' control over hunting access issues and resulted in increased opportunities for landowners to generate income through "leasing" hunting rights.

In its simplest form, a hunting lease is an agreement between the landowner (lessor) and the hunter (lessee) that grants the hunter access rights for hunting game animals on the landowner's property for a specified period of time. In most cases, hunters pay an agreed-upon dollar amount per acre or per hunter. However, in some leases, the landowner may agree to a reduced combination of dollars per acre or per hunter with a written agreement that the hunter perform some service in exchange for the privilege of hunting access.

Hunting leases in Mississippi may have become more prominent in recent years, but that doesn't mean they haven't been around for a long time. In 1922, Anderson Tully Company, a timber firm with extensive land holdings along the Mississippi River, granted a hunting lease to Merigold Hunting Club. For a fee of $1, Merigold leased the recreation rights to over 15,000 acres of prime hunting land.

Over the last few decades, with passage of the trespass law and increased demand for quality outdoor recreation, leasing hunting rights has become commonplace among non-industrial and industrial private landowners statewide.

"Leasing the hunting privileges to land provides landowners a way to raise revenue and help protect the value of the land," said Chad Dacus, deer program coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "Many landowners who lease hunting rights generate enough revenue to cover property taxes and still make a profit."

Lease prices vary greatly across the Magnolia State, from as little as $2 per acre for the less-desirable sites in the southeast portion of the state to as much as $35 per acre for the prime bottomland deer habitat found along the Mississippi River.

However, the quality of the hunting isn't the only factor that determines what hunters end up paying for a hunting lease. For example, one hunting club in the Delta pays $60 per acre for 16th section land that lies in the heart of their hunting property.

"Much of the privately owned land in Mississippi is controlled by absentee landowners," said Dacus. "Leasing hunting rights to the land gives someone besides the landowner a vested interest in the care of the land. Because hunters pay to use the land, they are willing to maintain roads and help control trespassing. They may also help improve the wildlife population on the land, which increases the land's value.

"Oftentimes, landowners will reduce the price of the lease based on the amount of sweat equity hunters are willing to invest in the property."

More hunters are becoming aware of the fact that they can save themselves a great deal of time, money and aggravation by doing their homework on the front end of a hunting lease. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of doing your homework is that you have identified most of your hurdles or challenges before signing the lease.

But don't wait until September to begin looking for your next deer lease. Now is the time to get started scouting for potential hunting property.

Here is a checklist that will help you identify properties that have the potential to meet your deer hunting needs. Although there are many questions to answer before locking in a deer lease, these key considerations will provide you with an advantage over those who fail to do their homework.

Location, location

Your first goal is to narrow your search to a particular region of the state and then to a specific county. Travel time is extremely important when making this decision. Each year, deer hunters invest large amounts of time and money on hunting lease improvements such as food plot establishment, native habitat enhancement, deer stand construction, road maintenance and more. I have seen hunters lease exceptional deer lands only to realize a year later they don't have enough time to travel to their leases for habitat projects, let alone hunting.

It is important to understand your time and travel tolerance up front. For some hunters, 30 miles may be their limit, while others won't think twice about traveling three or four hours to their hunting leases. Think realistically, and make sure you will be able to spend plenty of time enjoying your deer lease.

Size matters

One of the most common questions about leasing hunting land relates to the minimum acreage necessary to manage for quality deer and deer hunting.

The answer to this question varies greatly based upon a number of factors: How many hunters will be hunting the lease? What is the habitat diversity of the property? What type of habitat exists on adjoining properties? Are there agricultural fields present? What type of terrain exists on the property?

Aerial photographs and topographic maps are great tools in helping you answer many of these questions.

"With deer leases of any size, but especially small acreages, the size, number and location of neighboring properties can work for or against you," says Jason Snavely, a wildlife biologist with extensive experience in locating productive deer leases for his clients. "Small property owners will have more success if they can establish deer management cooperatives with their neighbors. But the more neighbors you have, the more difficult it will be to form and manage the cooperatives. The best scenario is a handful of neighbors controlling larger tracts of land."

Property that is bordered on several sides by a hunting club that is well known for their quality deer management program is far more valuable than if the adjoining club has a reputation for harvesting young bucks and not allowing does to be harvested.

The local wildlife conservation officer can offer insight into the management habits of hunting clubs in the area. The officer will also be able to identify the areas where game-law violations are a problem.

Water availability

Although deer have the ability to get much of their water requirements from vegetation, this varies with the time of year and the specific location of the property. A permanent water source, in the form of a swamp, a pond, a stream or a river, is beneficial to any deer-management program. Fortunately, Mississippi has an abundance of surface water available year round.

However, you can also have too much of a good thing. This is especially true for bottomland found along the numerous rivers and streams that traverse the Magnolia State. Flood waters can limit access to otherwise prime deer hunting property, sometimes for extended periods of time.

Having hunted in a number of clubs with holdings along the Mississippi River, I have seen high flood waters shut down deer hunting for days and even weeks at a time. It would be very beneficial to know if a potential lease is prone to flooding during the hunting season.

Forest vs. fields

Another common question of many deer hunters is in regard to the optimum percentage of open pastureland/fields in relation to forested land on a particular deer lease. While there are many rules of thumb, the answer varies with the characteristics of the property, its geographic location and a number of other factors.

"I feel comfortable with as much as 50 to 60 percent open land and the balance in forested cover," said Snavely. "Properties under 200 acres are more difficult to manage once the percentage of open land is greater than 65 percent simply due to a lack of adequate security and winter cover to hold deer year round.

"The composition of the surrounding properties will also determine how far you can push this rule of thumb. If you have high-quality agricultural crops and food plots as well as quality bedding cover, and surrounding properties don't, then your property will serve as the local whitetail 'bed-and-breakfast.' High-quality food plots will help you keep more deer at home where open land dominates forest cover."

Great expectations

One of the biggest mistakes hunters make when buying a deer lease is starting out with unrealistic expectations of the quality of hunting available on a particular property. Very few deer leases in the Magnolia State have the potential to produce Boone & Crockett class deer. So if your expectations are to harvest a record-book buck from your deer lease, more likely than not you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

A little research will go a long way in determining whether or not a prospective deer lease has trophy potential. One of the best places to start is with a detailed search of the record books. The Boone & Crockett, Pope & Young and Magnolia Records Program record books can provide detail about the trophy potential of a particular property based upon the number of record-book bucks harvested in that county.

It is also important to find out if the prospective property has been leased in the past. If so, find out who leased it and why it is no longer being leased. Talking to those who leased the property previously will provide additional information to help you make your decision.

Oftentimes clubs cannot maintain a lease for more than a year or two without internal problems splitting up the group. In some cases, the landowners do not make good partnerships, regardless of how accommodating the hunters are. A quick check on the past history of the property that has been leased can help you in making an informed decision.

Finally, visit with adjacent property owners and lease holders. Find out what kind of land and deer management practices they are implementing, if any. And ask if poaching and trespassing are serious problems. Their answers could impact your final decision.

A common mistake made by many hunters is leasing the first property that becomes available. Disappointment usually isn't far behind when they find little game or problems with poaching, trespassing or access. That is why it's so important to thoroughly check out a potential deer lease in order to ensure it meets or exceeds your expectations.

Finding the right piece of property in Mississippi to lease for deer hunting can be difficult. If you're willing to make the extra effort, however, it is possible to find your own slice of blue ribbon deer hunting paradise. It takes a lot of legwork to locate prime deer hunting leases, but they do exist. Don't be afraid to advertise your desire or knock on a few doors. You might be surprised at the results.

Finding the right deer lease is one of the best ways to be assured a quality hunting experience away from the crowds. But don't let your drive to acquire a successful hunting spot turn into a chore. After all, isn't hunting really about spending quality time outdoors with family and friends?

Just remember to have fun.