Pitfall Prevention: Have a Happy Hunting Lease

Around this time last summer, my hunting partner, Shane, and I secured a very nice hunting lease in northern Missouri—or so we thought. We had always wanted to lease a piece of property in deer country. Plans were made to make several trips to hunt deer. Having exclusive hunting rights, the turkey hunting was a huge bonus. During our second trip to the property to hang stands, things didn’t go so well.

Here is what happened, starting at the beginning:

Shane was talking with a friend of his, who happens to be a guy I went to school with years ago, about leasing hunting land out of state—let’s call our friend “John.” He is a seasonal deer hunting guide at a reputable outfitter that provides hunts to clients in northern Missouri and southern Iowa, and John is an honest and trustworthy person. John recommended and put us in contact with a fellow guide that’s employed with him at the outfitter. This fellow, who we can call “the Joker,” has a sideline business that leases hunting rights from landowners and subleases them out to hunters. He is sort of a middleman and he operates in northwest Missouri.

We talked with the Joker about what we were looking for and he emailed us several different property maps to look over, but highly recommended one in particular that he claimed was his personal lease last year, but due to financial situations he had to lease it out. It was just inside Missouri and only 200 yards from the Iowa line. It looked great from the aerial map.

Shane and I picked out four farms we were interested in and made the 12-hour drive on a June weekend and met the Joker and looked them over. We decided to lease the 250-acre farm he recommended. Handshakes were made, lease agreements were signed, and checks were cut. To the best of our knowledge, we had a fine place leased with exclusive hunting rights for one year and the option to renew each year thereafter. We set up three deer cameras on the farm before heading back home.

We put in hours studying satellite maps, aerial views, and topo maps of the property. Stand locations were plotted out, taking into consideration different wind directions and approaches to and from stands. By August, we had a good plan and decided to make a trip to hang stands and trim shooting lanes. We planned on an early season archery hunt, an archery hunt during the rut, then a hunt during firearms season.

After the long drive with a trailer loaded down with stands and an ATV, we made it to the farm on a Thursday afternoon, unloaded and pulled the cards out of our cameras to view at our hotel that evening. The deer cameras revealed what we had hoped for—lots of deer, and more than a couple shooter bucks. There were also several turkeys on the pictures as well. We knew we had leased a good place.

We spent the next day and a half hanging stands and trimming shooting lanes. We set up six stands in excellent locations for different winds and set our cameras out with fresh batteries. We were all set for opening day of archery season in September.

It was Saturday and almost lunch time, so we started driving out to grab a bite to eat before we loaded up the trailer and ATV for the drive home the next day. The lease is land locked, with one long way in and out. We had driven half way out when, passing the landowner’s camp house, we noticed a vehicle there. We decided to stop and introduce ourselves and meet the landowner.

The Joker had told us that the landowner lived a few hours away and was rarely around. When we got out of our truck, the guy had already walked out of his camp and met us halfway. We shook hands and introduced ourselves as the hunters who had leased his property. The landowner had a puzzled look on his face that we immediately noticed. He asked directly did we lease the land from the Joker. We said that we had.

The landowner told us that he was very sorry, but he had already leased the land to some hunters from Michigan and that he had told the Joker months ago that he would lease the place to someone else besides him and that he did not want the Joker back on his property.

Apologizing for being on his property, we explained everything as we knew it to the landowner. He was sympathetic and even offered to let us hunt his place at no charge after the Michigan guys left. We told him that we appreciated the offer, but we would rather take our stands back down and gather our cameras after lunch. He said that we were more than welcome to go back and get our things. He was very nice considering the circumstances.

We went into the nearby town, where the Joker lives and gave him a call—we told him we were in the area hanging stands and asked if he would meet us for lunch. He gave us directions to where he was working that day, so we made a short drive and found him.

I calmly explained everything that had taken place when we met the landowner. The Joker acted like there had simply been a misunderstanding and wanted to make things right with us. He offered us a property next to that one, which is twice the acreage—or any other farm that we had been interested in. I declined and Shane was in agreement. We just requested our money back.

Reluctantly, the Joker wrote each of us a check. We wanted cash, for obvious reasons. But, it was Saturday and he couldn’t get that much cash together. I gave him a stern warning of consequences if the checks were no good.

He told us to give him a call after the checks went through and he would “make it right” by putting us on a good deer hunt at a minimal price for our troubles. We agreed.

The checks were good and the Joker offered us a seven-day hunt on the adjacent property for a small fee. Because the checks were good, we thought maybe the whole thing was a misunderstanding. Still, I declined the offer. Shane, though, accepted the offer on one condition: that he could bring his uncle Tommy. The Joker gladly agreed. Checks for the hunting fees were mailed and their hunt was set.

Shane and his uncle went on the hunt opening day of Missouri gun season and planned on seven days of hunting. The property had to be accessed through a right-of-way that went beside the original place we had thought we had leased—the same road where the landowner had his camp house.

Four days into the hunt, Shane and his uncle were driving out for lunch and saw the landowner of the “lease gone bad” at his camp. They stopped in to talk and told him where they were hunting. The guy just laughed and said that that land had been sold and that he didn’t think the Joker had it leased; in fact, he believed that there was supposed to be no one hunting the place. He said he would make some calls and find out for sure.

That was indeed the case. The land had been sold and was posted with no hunting signs. The folks who bought it were going to manage it for quality deer. My hunting partner could not believe that an individual could do what the joker had done. His phone calls and texts went unanswered, so they packed it up and drove back home. Our friend, John, was dismayed as well.

Sadly, things like this happen to hunters leasing hunting properties. It usually befalls hunters that are leasing properties out of state or at least several hours drive away, setting up a situation where the property cannot be regularly accessed by the lease holder.

Protecting yourself
After this happened to us, I’ve heard of other hunters being taken advantage of by middlemen like our Joker in a couple ways. First, properties were leased from the middleman who didn’t have the hunting rights. Secondly, exclusive hunting rights were leased out to multiple groups of hunters for the same hunting grounds—hoping that they would not show up to hunt at the same time. I even heard of one occasion where the legitimate landowner did similar things. These types of scams are nothing more than fraud and I am sure legal action could be taken, but it would be a hassle. Here are a few things that you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

Don’t lease a property without looking at it. Go out to the property and meet the person you will pay for hunting rights. GPS the land and save the coordinates. If it’s possible take a photo of the person you’re dealing with and write down their vehicle’s license plate number. Don’t immediately pay for the lease without doing a little research; tell the person you’ve met with that you’ll need a day to think it over. Take your GPS coordinates and find the property on satellite imagery or street view maps—this is easily done thanks to modern technology. In fact, you can often do it on your smartphone while at the property.

Once you find the property on a map, take a trip to the county seat and look at land ownership maps. This will affirm who’s the landowner. You can even get the landowner’s phone number and address here. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask the county personnel for help.

Contact the landowner. Talk to him or her to confirm that everything you’ve been told about leasing the property is authentic. Whether you are dealing with a middleman or a person who claims to be the landowner, this type of research needs to be done. If everything is legitimate and you like the property—you now have a lease with validity.

Prepping for your hunt
Once deals are made on the hunting lease, hang a few game cameras. Put them in locations to capture photos of people instead of deer. Put them looking at access places, logging roads, trails, parking places, or anywhere someone would travel on the property. Try to hide them as much as possible. I’ve found that if you put them above eight feet on a tree and angled down, they are usually not noticed. We’ve even purchased a couple cameras that immediately text or email photos once they’re taken. Placing several cameras across the property will help keep a watch on who’s accessing the property if you’re hours away.

Make random visits to your lease. Show up unannounced during weekdays if possible. If you have a hunting partner or more, split that duty up so multiple trips can be made. Be suspicious if the landowner or middleman tells you to let them know when you’re coming to the property. You’ll always want to arrive when no one knows you’re coming. Befriend any local residents that live nearby, and take time to talk with other hunters you notice in the area. They might give you valuable information and/or history about your lease.

I hope nothing ever happens to you like it did with my hunting partner and me. Be proactive and do your research before you lease any hunting property. If anything seems fishy, it’s always better to back out. Don’t do like I did and learn the hard way. It can cost you a lot of money, a lot of valuable time, and on top of that, you can easily end up on the outside of the fence on opening day.