Friday, May 11, 2018

Hunting Club or Public Land?

Recently I have had a lot of conversations with people who are looking for clubs to join for deer and turkey hunting. (I am sure they will hunt other things also, but this is the primary focus). In these conversations, a lot of things have been discussed. We have discussed, the pro's and con's of hunting clubs along with the pro's and con's of hunting public land. It has been interesting to hear all of the different perspectives. In listening to these, it seems a common thread is emerging. People want a place of their own to hunt. A place no one else will mess with, a place they can scout, set up a stand, bait, plant etc and no one else will mess with it.

Having their own little slice of undisturbed land is the main reason people tell me they join clubs. This desire is getting people to pay large sums of money for that opportunity. Even with tens of thousands of acres of public land available, people are paying big bucks to join hunting clubs.

The dichotomy for me is this; I can use the public land that my license dollars are paying for and have access to tens of thousands of acres - albeit public land. Or I can pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars more for a very small piece of land that is shared - with less people, but still shared.

In querying different clubs and discussing their  bylaws rules and regulations the common thread is that all members of the club have access to all of the property. Meaning that if your club has X number of acres, by paying your dues, you have access to X number of acres - along with every other member. Making it more like semi-public land.

There is still the limitation on your little piece of heaven. When I asked about private stands or private areas, three of the clubs I had some rules for each member can designate ONE stand to be private. No other stand can be within 200 yards of that stand and no one can hunt that stand without your consent. (the details varied, but this is close to what other were). One club that allows baiting, allowed members to bait a stand and no one else could hunt it, but there were no restrictions on how close other stands could be. This seems like a fight waiting to happen.

Some clubs put limits on what you can shoot. Others are a free for all. Some have antler restrictions, age restrictions and and daily and season limits, others are "if its brown its down." Some allow your fees to include turkey season, others sub lease to rabbit hunters, hog hunters, duck hunters and turkey hunters. Some clubs do not allow any small game hunting at all, even after deer season. Others allow hunting of anything that is in season. All clubs asked that have any type of restrictions have strict punishment and fines for members that break these rules. Almost all clubs have a "NO GUEST" policy. In other words, you have to pay to play.

Rates varied widely based on location. Here in my home state of South Carolina, rates are based on a per acre fee scale. Some -albeit poor land goes for $5/acre while prime land will rent for as much as $30/acre. The average being around $15-$18/acre. Regardless of the size of the parcel. Clubs with as little as 200 acres are paying an average of $15/acre and clubs with 2500 acres are paying the same amount on average. Most clubs use the yearly dues to cover land rental and insurance only. Costs for food plots, bait, mowing, road maintenance, stands, clubhouse expenses, etc, are gathered on an as needed, or in a yearly assessment. For many these fees can add up to as much as or more than the yearly dues.

The average dues paid my the clubs I questioned was $1,250 annually. This did not include their portion for extra expenses, or stands they are required to purchase and install.

As you can see, there is a wide array of opportunities. There seems to be a style of club for most everyone. If you are willing to pay, and drive - and put up with the rules, you can find a club that will let you watch deer grow and hope you can kill one one day.

But one thing I have learned about the few clubs I have been in, you will not get along with everyone, and not everyone hunts the same way you do. There will be moments when you have been waiting to hunt a particular stand all season for the right wind, and you get there and there are candy wrappers, and cigarette butts on the stand. You will have members who are retired and will hunt four or five days a week, and others who work and only hunt Saturday's. You will find some clubs that only allow stand hunting, and others that allow stand, stalking and dog running. Some allow you to hunt all season, others allow only certain days of the week and never on Sunday. Some will limit your weapon, and others don't care - as long at it is a rifle and at least a .30 caliber. I have seen some clubs that have so many rules, it is hard to know if you are in compliance or not. And a few that only want you to close the gate when you go through it.

Personally, I do not see any difference in hunting in a club and public land. Both have rules we hate, both have property that is shared and will have a few misguided participants. Both will have some who will not follow the rules. But by choosing public land, I can save a ton of money.

It has been several years since I last paid to be a member of a hunting club. It cost me $800 dollars, I had to put up two stands and I could have one private spot. We had somewhere around 1000 acres. I do not remember the number of members, but it seems it was around 10-12. I was in this club for two years and never pulled the trigger on a deer. Why? Because I could only kill deer of a certain size. I saw deer, but never one that qualified. Then it dawned on me. I can pay $800 dollars and not kill a deer. Or I can not pay $800 and not kill a deer. I chose to save my money and go hunt public land.

Since then I have been able to acquire my own land and now I hunt there. With only a select few friends and my children. It's not a lot of land, but we enjoy it and have a good time hunting what ever we want when we want.

I still hunt some public land, because it is closer than the land I own. I seldom see any hunters in the woods. In fact, one piece of public land I have hunted for almost a decade, I have never seen another hunter while I was there, during deer season, or small game. I have almost 1,700 acres to myself - all public land. It seems so many people avoid public land that more and more of the public land is available to hunt undisturbed.

Public land or hunting club? It seems to me a hunting club is like a labor union. It had its place, but the longer it goes on the less effective it is. You get to pay dues so you can be restricted in what you can do, where you can hunt and what you can kill. You are paying for a small piece of land that you get to share with a few other people. All under the disguise of benefiting the membership.

For my money here in South Carolina,  stick to to public land, it is cheaper, and the hunting is just as good. If you want to spend thousands of dollars at a chance of killing a big deer - save your club money and go hunt Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or a host of any others and hunt their public land. The hunting is easier, the deer are plentiful much bigger than any deer you will find here.

If its camaraderie you're after, by all means, join that club and have a great time sharing your hunting with your friends and family.

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