In the old days of waterfowl hunting, you could knock on almost any farmer’s door and get permission to hunt for the day with nothing more than a handshake and a smile. Or at least, that’s what I’m told. I’m too young to have been around for those good old days. My duck hunting reality is a little more of a toss up: There are many farmers who will grant duck or goose hunting access, but there are also plenty who won’t.
The landowners who do allow access are usually well known by local hunters, so there’s often competition for their fields or sloughs. It takes real effort (or serious cash) to get good waterfowl hunting permission on private land these days. But it can still be done. Don’t let viral videos of landowners berating hunters discourage you. Most farmers and ranchers are great people, and those epic hunts with greenheads tornadoing down into a cut cornfield can still be had by a polite freelance hunter.
So, if you want to have more success getting permission and avoid pissing off the local farmers, ranchers, and hunters, follow these guidelines.
Make Connections and Act Like a Local
Getting permission to waterfowl hunt on private land is going to be harder in some regions of the country than in others. Duck hunting is more popular in Louisiana than it is in, say, Oregon, which means that a waterfowler in Lafayette will have a lot more competition for private spots than a hunter in Salem. Every region also has its own cultural quirks and differences. Being aware of these and blending in with the locals will serve you well in your quest to find a productive field or marsh.
Regardless of whether you’re eyeing a cornfield in the Midwest or a timber hole in the Southeast, however, having some sort of connection with the landowner will greatly increase your odds of getting access.
“If you don’t have relationships with the people there, and you’re not from the area, it makes it really difficult to get access,” says Joe Genzel, a longtime Midwestern waterfowler, communications director for Ducks Unlimited, and former Outdoor Life senior editor.
Making connections with other landowners and hunters in the area will help you a lot more than just poring over maps and knocking on doors at random. If you or a friend knows another farmer in a specific area, take advantage of that connection and see if they can introduce you to the landowner you’re seeking permission from. You can also network with other like-minded hunters by joining clubs or Facebook groups and introducing yourself to people who might have more connections than you do.
“That relationship part of it is really key,” Genzel says, “and I think sometimes you have to set up that framework before you start asking for permission. Finding a way in before you go directly to that landowner and ask will definitely benefit you.”
Know Who You’re Talking To
Does this mean you should give up on asking landowners for permission if you’re from out of state and don’t know anybody in the area? Of course not. It just means you might have to work a little harder to convince a landowner to let you through their gate.
As an example, Genzel brings up a small tract of private land that he found in Ohio last year. Some Canada geese were loafing around the place, but he also noticed cows on the property. Knowing that the landowner probably wouldn’t want him hunting around their livestock, Genzel brought the issue up at the forefront and asked if he could hunt some morning when the cows weren’t around.
“She ended up letting me hunt and told me there was a day that they wouldn’t have cattle on it,” Genzel says. “Stuff like that—taking notice of what the property owner has on their land, what’s going on and what kind of farmer they are. All that is important. If you just walk up and say, ‘Hey there’s ducks on your pond and I’d like to hunt them,’ most people are gonna say ‘no.’”
Hunters can also greatly increase their odds of success by finding some common ground with a landowner right away. Being able to ask about their crops, chat about the weather, and just shoot the breeze with a farmer are all part of this. Picking up on simple cues is another way to buddy up with a farmer who doesn’t know you from Adam.
“It’s easy for me because I do pest control, so I’m kind of embedded with farmers,” says Todd Gifford, a Minnesota hunter who’s spent years mastering the art of asking for permission. “But if you pull in and notice there’s a Donald Trump sign in the driveway, then you know what you’re gonna be talking about.”
Avoid Deer Gun Seasons
If the farmer doesn’t deer hunt his own property, you can bet that his kids, grandkids, neighbors, or buddies do. And farmers don’t want waterfowlers in their field while they’re trying to deer hunt. You can improve your odds of getting permission by simply avoiding rifle or shotgun seasons in serious whitetail states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and the Dakotas. On the upside, firearm seasons are typically much shorter than waterfowl season.
Be Polite, Confident, and Sociable
Politeness is obviously key when you’re asking a stranger for permission to hunt their land. Say “sir” or “ma’am,” be humble, and stay respectful. In the right circumstance, you might as well pretend you’re speaking with someone’s grandmother in church. But the way Gifford sees it, acting confident and sociable with a landowner are just as important as being polite.
“You gotta be super confident about what you’re gonna do,” Gifford says. “Be forthcoming right when you get to the door. They’ll either say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and if it’s a ‘no,’ be just as grateful as if it was a ‘yes.’ Just think of [their land] as a refuge. And who knows, a lot of times they’ll say ‘no,’ but then I strike up a conversation and they’ll say ‘yes’ later.”
Gifford has learned over the years that most farmers, ranchers, and rural landowners are social creatures who are happy to take a break for a conversation with a stranger. Take advantage of this fact and don’t be afraid to spend time chit-chatting. Maybe they don’t give you permission at the end of the conversation, but the next time they run into their neighbor down at the local café, they just might put in a good word for you.
“Just get to know ‘em. If you build that rapport, it’s gonna help you with other people. All that just builds on itself,” Gifford says. “And it carries over. If you get confident with your area permissions, your confidence when you leave the state is just as high. Even if the permission doesn’t work out, I’d rather just talk to those people and find out what’s going on with them. It’s just good for you to talk to people, and a lot of times it leads to McDonald saying, ‘Well you know what, I’m not really fond of hunting, but I know the Chamberlains have a great marsh. Here, come on in the house and let me get them on the line.’”
Bring a Kid and a Gift
Sometimes when you’re knocking on doors, the people you’re with are just as important as the things you say. Genzel, for one, has found that his odds of getting a “yes” go up significantly whenever he brings his son along.
“It always seems like if you just go with two guys, it’s almost always a ‘no,’” Genzel says. “But I would say I’ve had the most success door-knocking when I take my son with me. And honestly, I’ve had a good amount of success when there’s a woman hunting with me, too. It lets people know that I’m doing this to get my son into hunting or to hunt with a friend. Think about who you’re going up to that door with and how you’re presenting yourself to that person.”
If you don’t have kids and can’t borrow a buddy’s son for the day, you can still help your chances by being self-aware and genuine with the landowner. The last person they want on their property is a selfish, ego-driven hunter who’s only interested in killing birds.
On that note, one of the best ways to prove that you’re worthy of hunting their property is to bring along a gift or suggest a trade to the landowner. They may turn down your offer to mow their lawn or string fence and let you hunt anyway. If they do take you up on it, then a chore isn’t a bad price to pay for a good hunt.
If you are lucky enough to secure permission, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t bring the landowner a gift of some kind after you’re done hunting. Offer to take the farmer or his grandson hunting with you, or simply leave a few (cleaned) ducks behind at the end of the day. A case of beer or bottle of whiskey never hurts, either. Even just stopping by to say hello and thanks again after your hunt will help your chances of getting invited back for another shoot.
“Weird things happen when you’re kind like that,” Gifford says. “He’ll stop you on the road afterwards and ask you how your hunt went. Everybody’s happy, and it’s not this weird, anti-social thing where you’re walking on eggshells. It’s the old-school way.”
Build and Maintain Good Relationships
The worst thing you can do after you get permission from a landowner is to piss them off and burn that bridge. This kills your chances of ever hunting there again. It also makes that landowner less likely to grant access to other hunters in the future. When hunters collectively lose permission on a large property, that only puts more pressure on surrounding properties. One bad experience with a hunter can be all it takes for a landowner to close hunting opportunities for good.
Getting clear directions from the landowner from the get-go will help with this, and one of the most important questions you can ask them is where you can drive and where you should park. Rutting up a field, blocking a road, or leaving a gate open are some of the biggest mistakes you can make when driving on private land for the first time.
Other steps you can take to ensure you’ll be invited back:
- Pick up spent shells and leave the property better than you found it.
- Don’t shoot near livestock, buildings, main roads, or neighbors.
- Play nice with other hunters who might have permission, too. (You want to avoid conflict and complaints to the farmer at all costs. They don’t want to deal with B.S.)
- Stay out of unharvested crops.
- Remember to leave some token of appreciation after the hunt.
At the end of the day, getting permission to hunt on private land is more about building relationships with other people than finding the best holding spots for birds. This is just as important when interacting with other hunters as it is when approaching landowners.
“The waterfowl community is pretty small, and it becomes even smaller at a local level, so keeping your reputation pristine is really important to access,” says Genzel.
Gifford agrees. And even though he admits that the whole process of asking for permission can be a chore, he’s come to appreciate the humble door knock as an essential part of scouting for birds.
“I mean, it’s what we have to do. Getting access is the main issue before we even get after ‘em,” he says. “But to be honest, I think scouting, talking to people, and doing that part is almost as good as the chase.”