In northern Wisconsin and many other rural areas, taking a hunter education course is an important rite of passage. The kids are generally highly motivated to pass the class, and it’s fun to watch them demonstrate their knowledge of the material. For example, in the practical exam, they’re expected to show how they would knock on a door and ask permission to hunt on someone’s private property. 

In the real world, finding the right door to knock on isn’t all that simple. Farmland may be owned, occupied, and used by different people with relationships that can reach back generations. The ties are often emotional as well as business-related. And all of the parties involved can have a reason for wanting a say in who hunts where and when. 

This is nothing new. When my dad got out of the Army, he worked as a farm manager until he found a farm to rent. I was three months old when we moved to that dairy farm, which was owned by a woman I remember only as “the widow.” When my parents could afford to buy a farm of their own, they did — and both also worked off the farm to pay for it. When my grandfather died, my dad also handled the affairs of that farm for his mother. Fields were rented to a cousin, who farmed them for years until the land was finally sold to the airport (but that’s another story). I don’t have any memory of anyone ever asking permission to hunt on any of those farms. But back then, the game was scarce in those parts of Indiana.

In the past 30 years, I’ve spent many happy hours on farmland in Iowa. Friends let us hunt pheasants on their property, and often on land they rented as well. One of those rented farms had been worked by our friend’s family since his father farmed it. 

Many arrangements like that begin when a farmer dies or retires and no one in the family is willing or able to take over. But they still have ties to the land. Our friends in Iowa knew whose kids or grandkids still hunted on family lands and always asked permission for us to hunt there if it wouldn’t interfere with the family’s use. And they always appreciated knowing when family members would be hunting. When you’re working a field or moving grain to and from bins or planning to spread ammonia or manure, it can be disconcerting to find strange vehicles parked or hear gunshots where you’re not expecting them.

Every farmer I know has a story about someone they encountered hunting on their land telling them they had permission from the owner to do so. One friend had that happen with coyote hunters. Because of a personal relationship, they had given permission to hunt to one person. It’s hard enough for a female farmer working open ground to find a private place to cop a squat. When you’re surprised with your pants around your ankles by unfamiliar vehicles and none of the group is the person you gave permission to? To clarify, being the friend of a friend of a friend is not having permission to hunt.

My husband and I once found ourselves on the wrong side of a similar situation. We were hunting on a friend’s farm, with that friend. Mid-morning, other friends of our friend joined us and we moved to a different place. When Bill asked a question about the field, we realized it was owned and farmed by someone who didn’t live nearby. “They won’t know” is not permission. That and the unexpectedly large size of the hunting party made us reluctant to hunt with that person again.

That’s not some half-cocked attempt at virtue signaling. On the contrary, it’s completely self-serving to be respectful of boundaries and to have bona fide permission to hunt. 

According to the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture, more than half of America’s farmers intentionally provide habitat for wildlife. If you want to hunt in that habitat, you need permission. 

There’s nothing wrong with knocking on a door to ask, but maybe the question you start with should be, “Can you tell me who I should ask and how to contact them?”

The name and address of the person or entity (like a farm corporation or family trust) that pays taxes on a piece of property is a matter of public record. You can generally get that information at the county clerk’s office. That sounds easier than it is for lands that don’t have an address, though. So you probably need a plat book to make sure you are correctly identifying the area.

Another option is to use an app that integrates public records and maps. For example, OnX Hunt is a GPS mapping app that shows property boundaries. You can tap on a parcel to view the name and address from the owner of the record’s tax information. That’s enough information to write a letter asking for permission to hunt.

Bowhunters United offers some excellent tips on what to include in a letter. I suggest you also include a request for the owner’s phone number and contact information for any other owner, tenant, family member, or caretaker who would appreciate a call or text when you will be on that land with permission.

Some places require written permission to hunt on some lands. If you’re sending a letter, include your state’s required permission form if necessary or something like this, and a self-addressed stamped return envelope as a courtesy.

Each year, about 2% of U.S. farmland changes hands. By 2035, we can expect transfers of ownership on an estimated 40% of the 991 million acres of farm and ranch lands in the contiguous 48 states. In Iowa, at least, about half of that farmland is rented or leased from someone else. So the time to start tracking down permission to hunt is sooner rather than later.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin. Because of Covid-19, her state’s Hunter Education program has allowed students of any age to take an online-only course to receive hunter ed safety certification. But she hopes that will return to normal soon. “The program’s volunteer instructors help expand what kids learn beyond the book and beyond family traditions,” she says, “and give the kids valuable field experience. It’s a great program.”