When is it OK to Hunt a Property Line?

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Situations vary, and this tricky question boils down to personal ethics

Hunting close to property lines is a complicated thing. Image by Bill Konway

One October day, my buddy Steve barged into the camp house, face red as a blood moon. 

“Some dang guy is fence-sitting down on the south side,” he said, spittle flying. “Put a stand 10 yards off our line. I’m gonna go over there and tear it down!” 

“You’ll do no such thing,” I replied. As camp master of our little club, I have to nip these things in the bud.

“I’ll call the game warden then,” Steve said. 

That made me laugh out loud, and that annoyed him even more.

Hunting property lines is a hot topic, but it's one worth discussing. Image by Paul Winterman

Property Line Law and Ethics

Legally, provided a hunter has secured permission from the neighboring landowner, he can hang one, five or 20 treestands across and near the line that separates your property. He can walk around or drive a UTV there as much as he wants. Heck, he can pop up a tent and make deer camp. Property law is simple: You stay on your side of the line, and I’ll stay on mine.

But step a boot across the boundary line without permission, and that’s obviously trespassing. If you go over and tear down a treestand like my fuming buddy Steve suggested — and what many of you would want to do in a similar situation — you’ll pile on the misdemeanor of petty theft or destruction of property.

Call a game warden? Please. A property line dispute between deer hunters is not as much a matter of law as it is a matter of ethics.

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Twitter Poll

I always assumed every hunter dislikes or downright despises a fence-sitter. But every hunter’s code of ethics is different, so I wanted to be open-minded. I polled my Twitter followers on the topic, hoping for maybe a dozen responses. I received more than 100. Property-line hunting is more of a hot-button issue than I thought.

Here’s a cross-section of comments from the poll. I was only going to list five or six, but the responses are so thought-provoking that I listed a dozen.

“If you crowd the fence, expect people on the other side to do the same.”

“As long as the deer you shoot are on your side of the line, it doesn't matter.”

“I set up 80 to 100 yards from a property line. I want that buffer to avoid a deer I shoot running off and dying on the neighbor’s land.”

“Two occasions, we found stands right on the line. Called the neighbor and told him if they trespass or shoot an animal across the line, I will know, and I will prosecute. They moved the stands.”

“If a hunter has the proper permission, respects our borders and asks to recover an animal, I have no issues.”

“If archery hunting, that deer is going to run. How far and in what direction? Better to stay back from the line.”

“I suggest a conversation with the neighbors to understand each other’s plans on hunting near the line.”

“If you are close enough to shoot a deer on somebody else’s property, you’re hunting too close.”

“Hunting etiquette says people ought to keep their stands away from each other. Not only for safety but for the hunt as well. You can scare each other’s deer if you hunt too close.”

“One of our neighbors doesn’t hunt and allows no hunting, so we have several stands within 50 yards of that border.”

“I think fence-sitting is OK. The deer don’t know the property lines. Need to be respectful and obey laws, but after that, it’s fair game.”

“We hunt right on one line, but both farms have talked, and we have an agreement that we can hunt close and trail a deer onto the other’s property. If you don’t have such an agreement, stay off the line. Keeping good neighbors is [critical].”

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Knowing how to hunt property lines in a fair, ethical manner is very important. Image by Betty Shelton

Guidelines for Hunting the Line

There was one constant in the poll, and it didn’t surprise me. More than 50% of hunters commented that all things considered, they set a stand and hide it 100 yards or more off a property line and well within the land where they have permission.

“Who wants to hunt where you can see another guy’s stand or even the hunter?” someone tweeted. “I don’t want to hunt near some guy on the other side. Who knows if he’s safe or ethical, or even what he’s doing?” another wrote. My favorite: “I don’t want to hunt the same deer as some fence-sitter. I go find a better spot on my side, where I feel safe and comfortable.”

In most situations, backing a reasonable distance off a property line is good etiquette and sensible for hunters on both sides of the fence. But I can think of a couple of scenarios when hugging a line is acceptable and even smart.

The first is if the neighboring property is tightly posted, the other landowner doesn’t hunt and he doesn’t give anybody permission.

Let’s say you get a cam image and know a good 10-pointer is coming off nearby posted land and working along a ridge toward a corn patch on your side. In essence, the posted property across the fence is one big sanctuary for deer.

If the best spot for a stand was a high, flat spot on my side, 40 or 50 yards off the line, I wouldn’t hesitate to post up there. I’d be shrewd about it and position my stand for a broadside or quartering-away shot as a buck comes off the posted land in the afternoon. If I shoot a deer with a bow or rifle, it’s almost 100% that he will run deeper inside my land and pile up. Perfect.

Even if I knew a 160-inch buck was working that ridge, I would not be tempted to sit that stand in the morning, however. If I spot the giant coming back from the corn and walking toward the posted property, a shot would not be ethical. A buck shot through the lungs with arrow or bullet would almost certainly run 50 yards onto the posted land. Not perfect, and you’d be in a pickle.

If you decide to hunt within 50 yards or so of a private property line, keep these things in mind: stand positioning on a tree, deer patterns, safe shooting lines and where a buck might run if you shoot him. That’s good hunting decorum. If you shoot a doe or buck and it pulls a fishhook and runs bleeding across a property line, you must call or run down the neighbor and get permission before crossing the line and tracking the animal.

If you hunt a private tract that borders a state wildlife management area or other public land, hang your stand close as you dare to the property line. It’s legal to watch for and even shoot a deer across the line on the public ground. Of course, the closer you set up to the boundary of a public area, the more likely it is you’ll see other hunters.

That’s why my buddy David waits until the November rifle opener to hunt a 50-acre tract he owns that borders a public area in in western Tennessee. In the pre-dawn, he creeps toward his treestand, which is 70 yards off the property line and facing straight away from the public ground.

When dawn breaks, he looks down into the deep, thick drainage and picks out his open shooting lanes. A little later, the rifles start booming behind him, and then he hears the hooves of deer coming and sees them piling into the drainage. Doe, doe, small buck, shooter. Old Dave shoots a buck there most every year. The last one scored 152. Sometimes, you can use a property line to your advantage.

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