I know, I know. You just want a little piece of land where you can hunt deer and walk the woods and not worry about all the regulatory, bureaucratic, office-politics garbage that sometimes comes with hunting on a deer lease. I’m with you. But if you think you can run a deer lease without some hard-and-fast rules, you’ve got another thing coming. Nobody wants a straight-jacket approach to a hunt club, but without a clear understanding of a few expectations and responsibilities, even the best of friends can fall to fighting over the nit-pickingest details of running a deer lease.
Far better to hammer out some answers up front. Some decisions are as easy as a yes-or-no answer. Can you smoke inside the camp? Do you have to lock the gates behind you? Others are fraught with potential personality conflicts and varying approaches to hunting. Here are 10 trouble spots that need pre-season legislation in order to make the season run smoothly.
Who's the Boss?
Early on, decide on a governmental system for your lease, and stick with it. Maybe it’s purely democratic — decisions are put to a vote, and the majority wins. Maybe it’s more republican — a board of directors is named, and they make the hard calls. There’s even a good argument for running a deer lease like a benevolent dictatorship: The guy who’s done the hard work of lining up the land gets to make the rules and articulate them clearly. Then prospective members can decide if it’s a good fit. All of these work, but one thing that won’t work is a system in which the rules change for no good reason.
Hammer Out a Guest Policy
One of the great pleasures of hunting is sharing time with a buddy, no question. But pin down a solid guest policy or you risk aggravating fellow lease members when you show up with your extended family during rut week. I’m in a club that limits guests to four per year with a $50 fee per guest, and another that stipulates a does-only policy for guests.
There are no givens when it comes to a guest policy, except for this one: Without one, somebody’s gonna get mad.
How you manage treestand use is critical to keeping feathers unruffled. Many clubs have “public” stands that are available on a first-come, first-served basis, while allowing members to have one or more “private” stands that are inviolate without the owner’s permission. A good idea. And a good idea, as well, to have a conversation prior to pre-season scouting about honoring each other’s stand sites.
I’ve had hunters put up stands between my stand and bedding cover, effectively cutting me off from the deer I’m hunting. A little bit of common sense goes a long way, but a little bit of upfront conversation goes even farther.
Here’s one that sets a hunter’s teeth on edge: Weeks before the opener you erect a ladder stand within bow range of a big white oak. And a day before archery season opens, your gun-hunting buddy tells of his all-day scouting mission smack in the middle of your honey hole. There goes your surprise assault.
Short-circuit this kind of nonsense with a few simple guidelines. No scouting, say, three days before each season opener. And once the season’s in, no scouting except between 11 and 2 p.m. Just ideas to start with, but the idea is to keep those lazy, last-minute scouters from screwing up the hard work you put into the woods weeks before the season.
What About Mr. Squirrel?
This is a tough one. I’m a quite adulterous hunter — deer, ducks and squirrels each turn my head. I’ve had lease experiences ruined by rabbit hunters running their hounds through my deer ground. And truth be told, I’ve ruined a few deer hunters’ dawns by waking up the woods with volleys from my duck gun. The only way to deal with this is figure it out well before anyone sends in a check. Is the lease for deer only? Can waterfowlers hunt on certain days? Is squirrel hunting allowed? There are no wrong answers. But some answers will be more right than others for your situation.
Oh, boy. Now we’re really getting into each other’s business. In states that allow baiting for deer — be it corn, beets, apples or oats — feeding deer is a thorny issue. I’ll not pass judgment here on whether or not I agree with the practice, but this much I do know: If there’s not agreement on a baiting policy on your deer lease, you’d better pack punching gloves along with your pruning shears.
Pin it down early, because baiting changes deer movement patterns on a far larger scale than the piece of ground around the bait pile. A pile of corn or carrots in front of one blind will negatively — or positively — impact other blinds. And for some folks, any bait at all in the woods where they hunt will be a problem. Make it clear before the checks clear how baiting will be handled on the lease.
For many hunters, a hunt club is as much a place to sit in a tree alone as an excuse to socialize and get to know a bunch of like-minded individuals all year long. Other folks have to scrap for every bit of time off work or away from pressing family responsibilities, and working on the lease during the off-season is an issue. Again, neither approach is wrong, but a clear understanding of expectations is important to make a club run smoothly. If you need to stipulate a certain number of required work days per year, do it. If you don’t, don’t hold it against a lease member if all he wants to do is shimmy up a sweetgum and try to put some meat in the freezer.
This is different from work days. This is more menial, less fun. Who’s turn is it to cook dinner? To wash the dishes? To haul firewood? To feed the woodstove in the middle of the night? To take down the camo netting, replace the rusted locks, send a Christmas gift to the landowners, sweep the porch? OK, you never sweep the porch at a deer camp.
But there are 1,001 little jobs that need to be done, so it’s best to divvy them up and figure out a fair way to distribute.
I like the system put in place at a remote Michigan camp I hunted. Two- to three-person “teams” rotated daily duties. One night, team A cooked, team B cleaned up, and team C sat on their fat butts. Duties were rotated daily. Set up a simple chart with teams and duties and rotations, and no one will wonder who to yell at when the woodstove burns out in the middle of a sub-freezing night.
Horns of Plenty
One man’s “quality” deer is a buck so large its mounted head causes wall studs to buckle. Another’s is a two-and-a-half year-old doe with a long back. And what about your kid’s first shot at a decent forkhorn? That’s a quality deer he’ll remember forever.
Point is, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for antler restrictions — and there may be no point at all for antler restrictions on smaller leases. But get it down in writing, so no one can claim they weren’t aware. And figure out what the consequences will be for hunters who break the buck rules. Some camps assess fines. Others just good-natured ribbing.
Here’s one that’s more serious than a buck rule: How to handle alcohol on your lease or in your camp. It should go without saying that there should be absolutely no alcohol consumption prior to or during a hunt. But what about an after-stalk cocktail or poker game beer? One camp I hunted with had a rule that no alcohol could come out until all guns were cleaned and — literally — locked away. That seems pretty smart to me.