Open House for Hunters

Looking for a good place to hunt? Check out company land.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

One crisp day last November I stalked and shot a big, wide-racked eight-pointer that had been chasing a doe around a clover field not far from my home. Another morning five months later I stood on a high rock wall and listened to the gobbling of 20 wild toms scattered throughout the woods below. I slipped down through the forest at sunrise, scratched out a few yelps and nailed a 22-pounder.

I'll let you in on my little secret: These great hunts didn't take place on a managed private tract where access is limited to a chosen few. I shot the buck and the bird on reclaimed coal lands where public hunting is allowed. I got free permits from the companies just by filling out a little paperwork. And believe me, the hunting was worth the small amount of effort it took.

**Possibilities Aplenty **
Chances are you already know about wildlife management areas, national wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management properties and the like. But energy and timber companies also own tens of millions of acres across rural America that are accessible to hunters. You can roam most of the land with bow or gun without paying a cent for access. For example, 98 percent of International Paper's 9 million acres is open to hunting and other outdoor activites. Boise Cascade, Peabody Energy, Mead Westvaco and others offer similar opportunities on huge chunks of ground.

It's not just the mega corporations that open their land to hunters. Some of my best hunting takes place on strip mine property owned and reclaimed by an independent coal operator in southern Virginia. Some giant bucks and gaggles of turkeys and grouse live there. Check the Internet and the Yellow Pages to learn about companies near you. One call might lead you to some great new hunting spots.

[pagebreak] Good Game Country
In the last few decades, loggers and miners have become better land stewards. They've bowed to environmental groups in some cases, and they've been forced to follow strict new air and water regulations everywhere. To improve their image, many major corporations have pumped manpower and money into wildlife programs. This is especially true of mining operations. The result is better game habitat than can be found on most agency-managed public areas, and better than you'll find on private lands where no wildlife management is practiced.

Even if there isn't a concerted effort to improve wildlife habitat on timber or paper company land, it's sort of a byproduct of the process of harvesting trees. Consider a typical timberland. Pines and hardwoods are thinned and removed at various intervals for pulpwood and saw logs. New roads and log landings are cut into the forest to facilitate the harvest process. Once the machinery is gone and the forest is replanted, good things happen for wildlife. Planted pines grow dog-hair thick. Huge numbers of whitetails browse along the edges and in the regenerating clear-cuts. New bedding cover is created.

Years ago you might've driven past an old strip mine that looked like a war zone. Not today. Thanks to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 and subsequent environmental laws, some 2.5 million coal-mined acres have been restored for wildlife habitat. Once mines are closed, companies are obliged to grade high walls, fill pits and clean up acid drainage. They bulldoze windrows and plant clearings with grass, clover and trees. The new landscapes attract plenty of deer, turkeys and small game. The manager of one property I hunt recently told me that so many whitetails have poured onto the reclaimed ground in the past two years that the company would soon permit more archery hunting to thin the herd. That's the kind of new opportunity to look for, and a good place to start looking is on the Internet. Visit the Web sites of various companies. Usually a visitor will be directed to an area that lists various recreational opportunities proovided by the company, and how to take advantage of them.

[pagebreak] Hunt Options
If, as I have, you've lost many of the farms and woodlands you grew up roaming as a kid, it's time you looked into company land. From Alabama to Michigan to Maine, there are literally thousands of opportunities for day- and season-long permits, which are easier to get than ever. For example, American Electric Power and the Ohio DNR hooked up to open deer hunting on a 7,400-acre tract in Muskingum County, a spot famous for giant bucks. Key in a page on the company's Web site (the direct url is aep.com/environ mental/stewardship/recland/deer hunt.htm), download a free access pass and map and you're good to go. Who knows, the company that owns the land might even let you build a makeshift hunting camp at a designated campgrounds. (It doesn't hurt to ask.) Once the season is over, of course, you'll be expected to break camp and leave the site in good shape.

As for hunting, the only drawback to the permit system is that you'll have to share the land. Pressure on some properties can get pretty intense, especially during opening week of whitetail season. If you expect to be successful consistently, you'll have to develop strategies that take into account the presence of other hunters. If deer season is your main concern, that means scouting farther away from main roads and considering how other hunters will affect deer movement.

Land for Rent?
A more intriguing option for deer hunters is to rent land from a timber company. While organized clubs have leased land for decades, interest in leasing corporate ground is greater than ever as access to private farms and woods continues to dwindle. Club leases are important sources of revenue for all the large timber companies and especially their wildlife programs. If nothing else, the amount of money paid to a company for a hunting lease helps to defray tax bills.

[pagebreak] Annual lease rates vary across the country, depending on the scarcity of hunting land, and even on how varied the hunting opportunities are. Then too, different companies have different pricing structures, depending on their business strategies, but the rates usually are reasonable compared to renting an individual's private property.

"International Paper has more than nine thousand hunting and campsite leases in the South and another thousand or so in northern states," says Jimmy Bullock, manager of wildlife programs and policy for the company. "We've got clubs that have been on our lands for more than seventy-five years. We like to get the right group in place and keep it there."

If you can get a yearly lease and keep renewing it, you can do some cool things with the property. While timber companies do not mandate Quality Deer Management (QDM) on their lands, "we find that clubs interested in QDM are more likely to invest the time and energy necessary to make the land the best it can be," says Bullock. To that end, foresters and wildlife professionals might work with a club to set aside spots for food plots, thickets for sanctuaries and strips for travel corridors.

For the past six years David Hale of Knight & Hale Game Calls has leased 1,000 acres from Mead Westvaco near his home in western Kentucky. "Though I haven't really managed the land, the number of deer and the quality of the racks keep getting better and better than on the nearby public areas," says Hale. The logged tract is basically one giant sanctuary, something Hale likes. One November day not long ago he nailed a 160-inch 10-pointer that dove for the pine thickets to flee the rifles on surrounding lands. Do a little research, get a permit or a lease and you might score big, too.