Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.
Thirty years ago, I rarely encountered problems when I wanted to hunt on private land.
I was taught early in my hunting career that it was proper etiquette to gain permission before hunting on another person's property, which I always did.
But often as not, if the landowner said it was OK for me to hunt, I also was told to "Come back and hunt any time you like; no need to stop and ask."
Back then it was rare to see a "No Trespassing" or "No Hunting" sign. And folks didn't seem to worry much if a youngster with a shotgun was traipsing around their property chasing small game. Most of us back then figured it would always be that way.
It's not that way now, however. Times have changed, and it's hard to find private property where good hunting opportunities are available that's not posted. Often as not, if a landowner is willing to talk to a prospective hunter at all, it's only to inform him that hunting isn't allowed.
Despite the reluctance of many landowners to allow hunting on their property, however, I still do most of my hunting on private lands. Usually, I'm on land owned by someone who's known me for years.
But on many occasions, I've received permission to hunt in woods and fields owned by people I've only recently met. The types of game I've been allowed to pursue include everything from cottontails and bobwhites to deer and snipe.
In case you didn't know, about 60 percent (1.28 billion acres) of all land in the 48 contiguous states is privately owned. In some states, private ownership is closer to 90 percent.
It then stands to reason that many of the best hunting opportunities are on private land.
And as the limited acreage encompassed by public hunting grounds becomes more and more crowded (not only with hunters, but with birders, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, campers and other outdoor recreationists, as well), more of us will be seeking ways to gain access to private hunting areas.
Whether or not we succeed in those attempts will depend on our ability to befriend the landowner and gain his or her confidence and trust.
Knocking on a landowner's door and asking permission to hunt each time you visit is common courtesy. But what makes you different from the many other people who come to the landowner's door each year asking the same favor? The answer to that question may determine whether or not you're granted access for hunting.
In my experience, you must show the property owner you're a friend, and not just someone asking a favor, if you expect to have any chance of obtaining hunting permission. Too often, hunters show up with no previous introductions or at inopportune times. Worse yet, many don't show up at all, choosing instead the impersonal phone call as a means for asking permission.
Put yourself in the landowner's place:
You've worked hard to manage the wildlife on your property. You've invested thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of time. Now, a stranger shows up, or calls, and asks permission to hunt the game on your land. You've never met the person before, don't know anything about him and here he wants to walk around on your property carrying a gun. What would you do?
Now, imagine another scenario:
You're the landowner, and you're on the back forty one morning stacking brush to make cover for cottontails and quail. Your friend Tom drives up with a stranger in the seat beside him.
"John, I'd like you to meet Jerry," your friend says. "We attend the same church, and Jerry told me he's been looking for a place to hunt rabbits. I told him you had quite a few cottontails on your property, and if the two of you got acquainted, maybe you'd be willing to let him hunt on your place now and then."
Following the introductions, Tom and Jerry pitch in to help you with the brush piles. You chat for several hours as you work, getting better acquainted with Jerry. And when it's time to quit, Jerry asks if you and your wife might let him treat you to dinner at the local restaurant sometime.
In this situation, don't you imagine you'd be more inclined to grant hunting permission to Jerry than you would if he showed up out of the blue on your doorstep?
The true sportsman becomes a real friend to the landowner and not just a beggar hoping for a handout. In some cases, your contribution might be nothing more than a willingness to spend a little time visiting or an invitation to join you for a meal.
In other instances, it may be something more concrete, like helping build a new fence or even offering to pay for the privilege to hunt.
You won't gain hunting permission every time you ask, even if you are a friend. Some people still worry about liability. Some reserve hunting privileges for family and close friends. Some prefer not to allow hunting on their land at all; they manage their property so wildlife can be seen but not killed.
The ethical outdoorsman realizes this may happen, and takes it in stride, remaining ever so polite and showing gratefulness for the landowner's time.
Leaving a good impression is important, no matter what happens, because word travels fast through the grapevine. Rude or inconsiderate people will find themselves blacklisted, with no place to hunt.
The thoughtful, polite individual, on the other hand, may find himself receiving hunting invitations from people he hasn't even met.
If you are given an opportunity to hunt on someone else's property, it also is important to show you're appreciative of that gesture.
The first way to do that is to show respect for the landowner's property:
Always pick up spent shells and litter, including items left by other visitors.
Hunt only where the landowner wants you to, keeping safely away from his house, barns and livestock, and respecting his crops.
Don't stretch or break fences you cross, and latch gates securely when you pass through.
Leave everything as you found it, and follow any special guidelines the property owner gives you. For example, some landowners might request that you avoid shooting any quail you might see while hunting other game. You should assure the owner you'll follow all the guidelines you are given, then keep that promise.
As important as everything else is what you do after you hunt.
Never leave without stopping back by and saying thanks. Offer to share any game you killed, and ask the owner if you could come back to help around the place sometime in the near future. Let your good manners show.
When you get home, find ways to show the landowner you're not just a hunting-season friend. Send a gift at Christmas and for birthdays. Write a letter now and then, or phone to say hello. Invite your host to eat at your home and meet your family. Ask them to a special event. Stay in touch year-round, and show that you really are a friend.
Finally, send a thank-you note, and do so every time you visit. You'll be surprised how much such a simple gesture means to people. And you'll be pleased when you have a new friend who enjoys your visits as much as you.