As I drove across the property, it was love at first sight. The location was ideal - less than five miles outside town from my home. The habitat was a mixture of hardwoods, pine ridges, ponds, creeks, and open pasture interspersed among a network of timber islands. The place could not have been laid out better for deer hunting.

A walk-around tour revealed ample sign of whitetail deer - and evidence of wild turkeys, too. I was immediately smitten and signed on, completing a three-way partnership.

Hunting the land now for four seasons, I have had the pleasure to observe plenty of deer. I counted 18 in one group on a cool December afternoon last year. I haven't taken a big buck yet, but he is out there.

Each spring, I have taken turkey on the place. Riding my young daughter around on our ATV is an added benefit. All this, and it's a lease. Though I partner with another hunting land-ownership project, this lease offers the best of everything. Besides, I can leave my house and be sitting in a tree stand in 20 minutes.

That's hard to beat at any price.

The upside of leasing

The next best thing to owning private hunting land is to lease it. Signing a lease on a quality parcel of land can be a good compromise venture with many advantages over sole ownership. Leasing hunting land can be a positive experience, leading to a fully satisfying way to have a private place to hunt without the worries of ownership.

"No way could I afford to buy land now. I'm working a new job, trying to figure out a way to finish college and cover my bills at the same time. Owning private land was out of the question," said Chris Clifton of Madison. "I was lucky to run across a landowner in Hinds County that had been leasing his land to a bunch of guys that shot everything they saw and trashed the property. I was able to work out a deal to take over the lease, and all I needed was two other partners to help cover the costs."

Land ownership presents a number of obvious attributes, but it is wrought with headaches, too. For many hunters, land leases make a good fit. They allow the access to private land for recreational activities based on an annual lease payment. By becoming a sole lease holder or putting together a group, the idea is to escape crowded public lands - but also to have the opportunity to play a role in managing the land to enhance wildlife and hunting. The aspects of privacy and added hunter safety are also a real plus for many hunters. A good lease partnership can accomplish this.

Some landowners today, especially non-hunters, are not interested enough in their own land to see that it has the proper oversight focusing on the wildlife resources. Such situations can open up great involvement by a hunting group to assist the owner with such goals. Then, help out to perform the tasks necessary to achieve the wildlife goals. The owner may even be willing to share in the expenses of creating wildlife food plots, trail access routes, erecting hunting stands or bringing in professional wildlife assistance.

Lease holders can treat the land under a lease virtually as though they owned it. Depending on the provisions of the agreement, it should provide full and open access 12 months out of the year. Keys should be provided for all gates and locks, allowing hunters to come and go at will with landowner permission. This allows the lease holder to plan and scout for upcoming hunting seasons, conduct habitat enhancement projects or just enjoy the place. Most landowners like this situation because it gives their property added security monitoring.

A pay-for-land-use lease can be the answer to fulfill a deer hunter's dreams of roaming undisturbed on private property. The satisfaction of helping to guide and work to create a topnotch hunting domain cannot be measured. Developing a solid landowner relationship can lead to a long term opportunity for quality hunting experiences.

Pre-lease planning

If this sounds like a good deal, keep it in perspective as you search for a good lease arrangement. Leasing land for hunting purposes is not to be entered into lightly or without doing a lot of necessary homework in advance. Hopefully, this section will heighten awareness, answer some questions and pose others that should be asked before signing any agreement.

If done in a proper and organized manner, taking the time to match desired land features with established wildlife resources along with a layout potential to maximize deer hunting, obtaining a quality hunting lease requires a concentrated effort.

There can be a lot of details to consider or openly negotiate with a landowner, so you have to know what you want before you go looking for it. Begin by jotting down what features you want in a hunting property. If you don't know, you need to talk to other hunters and ask questions. How many acres can you handle? Do you want to hunt thick woods, timber wrapped around farm lands, open pastures, along creeks, or pine ridges? Are you a still hunter, dog hunter, or do you like to sit for hours in a tree stand overlooking a hot trail or a food plot? What total budget with annual expenses can you afford?

Once you have an overall idea, you can set about trying to locate the right property in the right place.

Searching for a lease

A lot of good resources exist for locating available hunting leases, but sometimes, a lot of sand has to be sifted in order to find a real diamond.

First, investigate the obvious sources - hunting acquaintances at work, school, church, or other hunter gathering places. Sometimes, local hunting-supply retailers have heard of a good property for lease, so be sure to ask. Check with game wardens, wildlife biologists, county agriculture agents and soil conservation personnel. Even rural postmen are tuned in to such things.

A variety of publications circulated on newsstands across Mississippi list hunting land leases. Check the pages of this magazine for classified ads. Local newspapers are a source, too. Be sure to look in several sections under hunting, land or rural property listings.

Other publications and creative sources should be scanned as well. Some of these include farm journals, livestock newspapers, rural real estate guides, farm sale flyers, farm equipment auctions and such. One never knows where information on a good hunting lease might turn up, so it is critically important to turn over every rock possible.

Today's ultra-max warp speed computer age has revolutionized information research from any number of World Wide Web sites that could potentially offer listings of hunting lands to lease.

For example, I conducted a simple search via the Google search engine by typing in "hunting leases in Mississippi." More listings popped up than one person could delve into in an entire evening of surfing those sites alone. Better plan on lots of time spent to narrow down choices for further investigation. Be sure to add the sites that interest you the most in your "favorites" box, so you don't inadvertently lose or delete them.

Of course, some licensed real estate agencies dealing specifically in rural lands may also have listings for hunting leases. Check with prominent sources such as Mossy Oak Properties offices in your area; that goes for other real estate companies as well. In some cases, a piece of land might be for sale, but is not showing any particular interest to buyers. The owner might consider a good revenue-generating lease if he or she could sign on a good individual or respectful group of hunters. Working every angle is worth a try if it ultimately results in securing a really great place to hunt.

Making a good deal

Locking down the provisions of a hunting lease should be considered a two-way agreement subject to the parties working out details. Be careful to "lease" any land without a formal lease agreement. Handshakes are fine, but they seldom seem to work out in the long run. Avoid confusion, disappointments, or arguments by getting it all in writing before you commit. If you're really particular, have an attorney look over any contract you are considering; that is not out of line these days.

Some landowners who have leased lands in the past or on a regular basis such as corporate entities like Anderson-Tully or International Paper Company have lease documents fully detailed in advance. Their legal eagles have spelled out every infinite detail about what hunting clubs can do and cannot do, plus they normally retain rights for doing anything they want on their lands at any time. I have even heard of timber cutting operations starting right in the middle of hunting season or hunters driving out to their lease in late summer only to find the timber already gone. Be absolutely sure you read every word of the fine print.

On the other end of the spectrum, individual landowners may not be that sophisticated. Still, get all the details important to you in writing before sign. Depending on your personal preferences, be sure to detail basic provisions like the length of the lease, access rights, game that can be hunted, harvest restrictions and the number of hunters allowed -including any guests. Detail roads to use or not, warnings about livestock on the property, gates that may or may not be left open, no-hunt zones around houses, or farm buildings.

Know about the allowed use of ATVs, possible camping on site, campfires, tree-stand placement, and if they need to be removed at the end of the season, setting up an informal sight-in range, etc. Think of everything you might want, but realize that everything might not be agreed to -so be prepared to compromise.

Also, fully expect the landowners to chime in with some demands of their own. This might include items for cost share on liability insurance, fencing, or gates for example. Coming to a common ground on a lease should be a give and take situation.

Paying the band

My dad always said, "Son, if you want to dance, you have to pay the band." Hunting is a big-time orchestra, and most hunters are holding a dance card with a lot of lines on it.

"Quality hunting leases are not cheap. Years ago, it was common to find tracts for $1.50 to $25 an acre. Some timber companies leased lands for $3 an acre. With dedicated searching reasonable leases can still be located," says Gary Starkey of www.findahuntingclub.com.

The lease I joined goes for about $8 an acre. This tells me that there are places that can be leased for a reasonable amount. Then, be prepared to spend additional funds on approved enhancements like food plots, and hunting stands. Time for work projects has to be budgeted, too. Money is not the only cost for a hunting lease.

Is a hunting lease a viable alternative to buying land? You bet, especially if that is your only option to hunt private property. It takes some extra effort and time to nail down just the right situation, but the payoff in terms of personal satisfaction can pay big dividends.