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The New Leasing Landscape

The game is changing, but advice from these outfitters will help you get, and keep, great land. By Andrew McKean
Dec 18, 2022

Many longtime outfitters who lease private land place a premium on maintaining relationships with landowners—relationships based on mutual trust. A newer generation of landowners, however, prefers formal, legally binding relationships with the highest bidders.

Photo: Lee Thomas Kjos / The Raw Spirit

Toward the end of every hunting season, Eric Albus visits the owners of the private land he leases. He often drops by with a check, but he also leaves these farmers and ranchers with an open-ended invitation.

“If you aren’t happy with how things went this year, just tell me and I’ll settle up and be gone,” Albus tells the landowners. “But if you are happy, expect to see me next year.”

In nearly 30 years of outfitting across eastern Montana, Albus has never had a landowner disinvite him.

“I’m not saying that I haven’t lost ground,” said Albus, owner of Milk River Outfitters in Hinsdale. “You always have properties that change hands because an owner dies or a new generation takes over, but I’ve never had a landowner want out of a lease because of something I did or didn’t do.”

Albus, along with most outfitters who lease private ground for hunting, said that maintaining good relations with landowners is among the most critical elements of running a modern guiding business, whether for elk in Colorado, mule deer in Montana, or whitetails in Illinois.

“You can run other elements of your business more or less like a business,” he said.
“You can balance income with expenses or you can review your marketing or whatever it is you do to promote yourself. But when it comes to finding land and keeping leases, that can be the most labor- and time-intensive part of the job, because each relationship you have with a landowner is unique.”

The payoff, though, is that the strength of the personal relationship adds resiliency to the financial and business relationship.

“I know I’m a throwback,” said Albus, “but I haven’t had a signed contract with any of my landowners. Ever. When we had epizootic hemorrhagic disease come through the Milk River and kill ninety-five percent of our whitetails, I lost about 10 years of revenue. During that time, I had landowners tell me that I didn’t owe them anything. ‘You can’t pay for something that’s not there,’ they told me, even though they were probably banking on a lease payment. That’s not something that you work out in a contract. That’s an outcome of a good relationship.”

Brett Homer also considers himself something of a throwback. The owner of Backwoods Whitetails Outfitters in western Illinois, Homer doesn’t actively solicit landowners. Instead, most find him because of his reputation for caring for the land and his low-impact outfitting.

“I have good relationships with most of my landowners,” he said. “Many of them find me because they’ve had a bad experience. But I would never in a million years not have a contract. The reason is that it protects them just as much as it does me, and it gives me some predictability from one year to the next.”

Homer said ideally he likes to formalize his lease arrangements at least a year in advance of a hunting season, but a couple of years is even better, at least for the best properties.

“Things change, and I think everybody understands that, but it’s sort of a seller’s market when it comes to land. In my area, if it’s a good place that’s not under contract, I’m in danger of losing it to another outfitter or to out-of-area hunters willing to pay more than the going rate. But I’m different in that I don’t pay a per-acre rate. I pay per hunter, so I’m able to pay a landowner more than somebody who’s just looking to lock up land and will run several hunters through it over the course of a season.”

Where he outfits in south-central Kansas, Ted Jaycox similarly avoids per-acre leases.

“In Kansas, it’s hard to lease by the acre because not every acre is created equally when it comes to deer hunting,” said Jaycox, owner of Tall Tine Outfitters. “I might be interested in a farm with 1,500 acres, but there’s 1,460 acres of wheat and 40 acres of woods. Now, that woods might be pretty good for deer, but I don’t want to lease every acre of that whole farm, so depending on the property I’ll either pay by the animal we take off it, or by the hunter, or by the acre. But I hate to pay by the acre unless I really know what it can produce.”

Jaycox said he aims to write 3-year contracts with landowners, but also admits that most of his relationships are based on a handshake.

“I understand the environment is changing, and my wife keeps encouraging me to introduce more contracts into the business,” said Jaycox. “But it’s hard. Most of my relationships with landowners go back twenty years. Many of these landowners are like father figures, and it’s a relationship based on mutual respect and trust, not on a contract. Still, my wife is probably right.”

Similar Values
Most traditional outfitters who work with traditional landowners thrive because of common interests.

“I can offer a lease payment to help with some operational costs,” said Jaycox. “But what I really offer is land management. I can come in and help manage that property’s wildlife resources, the same the landowner is doing for the livestock resource. But that’s not something I can do in a year. It’s a long-term commitment to the land. I think that’s something traditional landowners and nontraditional landowners value, because a track record of a place consistently producing big animals boosts the valuation of a property.”

An additional value, said Albus, is that the landowners don’t have to deal with the wave of door-knocking hunters come the fall.

“I can control the people who hunt their land,” said Albus. “The owner of every property I’m hunting on right now sought me out, and the number one reason is that they are tired of dealing with public hunters. They want one person to be responsible and to answer for anything that may go wrong with their property. The money is about the third thing on their list. Controlling who accesses their land is far and away the number one reason.”

Jaycox agrees money isn’t a primary driver of his relationships with landowners in the area of Kansas where he outfits.

“It boils down to the basics: treat people and property with respect. I try to help out on the place where I can,” he said. “I just helped a landowner cut a load of firewood because he was short-handed. Most landowners want to know you care about them, and not just during the hunting season, but year-round. They appreciate that the relationship is built around more than just hunting.”

The way a lot of rural communities operate, if one landowner has a good experience with you, he tells his neighbors, said Jaycox. “I’ve gotten a number of properties because those owners heard about me and asked me to hunt their places.”

Are Handshakes History?
Talk to enough outfitters, and you’ll notice that those who are successful over a length of time have a significant number of repeat clientele of hunters. It makes sense. They offer a good product, and the satisfied customers respond by signing up a second or third or tenth, time. Not only does the repeat business help fill available spots, but it significantly reduces the amount of advertising and business promotion an outfitter needs to do in the off-season.

Think of landowner relations in the same way. The outfitters who cultivate long-term relationships with landowners spend less time finding new properties to hunt and more time on other aspects of the business.

It’s interesting to note that everyone we talked to for this article said that the good old days of a handshake and return invitation are waning. Much of that dynamic owes to the generational change that’s affecting not only ranks of hunters and outfitters, but also the demographics of landowners.

“I think landowners are a lot more aware of what they have to offer than they were twenty-five years ago,” said Dan Harrison, whose Harrison’s Guiding & Outfitting works across several western states and Canadian provinces. Many landowners he leases from openly tell him that they’re in the market for higher lease payments.

“I have to pay those folks so much just to keep them, so they don’t shop around,” said Harrison. “One way I’ve addressed those folks who are right on the edge of getting out of our relationship is that I pay them max dollars, whether I have a hunter kill on their place or not. The way I figure it is that I don’t refund the hunter’s money if he doesn’t kill, so why would I short the landowner.”

Harrison, along with other sources for this story, notes that the biggest change coming down the pike is generational, both among landowners and outfitters.

“I think a lot of outfitters who are consistently successful got into the business about the same time,” said Harrison. “And the landowners they worked with were in the same generation and the same place in terms of growing their business. But now, we’re seeing turnover in the ranks of both landowners and outfitters, and it’s really disrupting the status quo.”

Big Business
Harrison knows the end of a good relationship is near when a family farm or ranch turns it over to a corporation.

“Trying to get past the attorneys is the hardest part,” said Harrison. “They want some significant concessions in order to expose the private land of their clients to any perceived liability. They just don’t see the value in working with an outfitter, especially because they’re looking at annual profit-and-loss worksheets and not the long-term management plan that I offer.”

On the other hand, said Harrison, those corporate ranches often represent a significant opportunity.

“These are big blocks of land that can be managed consistently, and you’re dealing with one set of owners,” said Harrison. “If you can work through the contracting and expectations, and recognize that you’re going to have a different relationship with the owners, those corporate properties can be pretty appealing.”

Andrew McKean is a father, husband, hunter, prairie dweller, and outdoor writer.

From the Winter 2020 issue of Guidefitter Journal.

Guidefitter Staff
Guidefitter Staff
Bozeman, Montana
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