Is high-fenced hunting sporting?

Jul 25, 2014

Credit Luke Clayton

With the outdoor hunting shows coming up in a few weeks and many hunters making plans for their fall hunting trips, I though it might be interesting this week to discuss hunting on high fences ranches. This is a ‘hot button’ topic for many hunters.

Let me share my thoughts on hunting ranches with game proof fencing. I know many of you have been reading my columns/articles for years and I hope you have come to learn that “Ole Luke” is all about the total hunting experience rather than just the harvest.

As a full-time outdoors writer, outdoor radio show host, elk and deer hunting outfitter and member of several pro staffs, I often hear hunters discuss hunting high fenced ranches. Some, mostly guys that have never hunted a big, well-managed, high-fenced operation, are convinced that all hunting on high-fenced properties, regardless the size of the ranch, can be classified as a ‘canned hunt.’

I’ve had the opportunity to do a great deal of hunting during my career in country that ranged from the wide open expanses of North Dakota for white tailed deer to 500 acres of high fenced, thick east Texas bottomland for hogs.

I remember a decade or so ago when I hunted a big open ranch down in Schleicher County. The ranch consisted of 6,000 acres of rolling live oak and cedar covered hills and deer were patterned well to corn feeders. I remember the outfitter taking me to the spot where I was going to hunt the next morning. He intentionally ground the butt of his cigar into the ground right next to the feeder and scattered a gallon or so of corn around the feeder.

“I have conditioned these deer to the smell of man," the outfitter remarked. "I stop by these feeders every day and we’ll see deer coming in to the corn while we are driving away.”

Sure enough, we drove a couple hundred yards from the feeder, stopped and watched several doe and a couple of bucks come trotting in to the feed. The next morning I arrowed a nice buck from a ground blind 20 yards from the feeder. Would the challenge of this hunt have been any different had this big ranch been high fenced? I think not. I was hunting deer that had been conditioned to the sights, sounds and smells of man. These deer were totally unpressured. Because of hunting pressure, I’ve pursued deer on high-fenced properties that were much more difficult to take with a bow than on properties such as the ranch in Schleicher County. It’s hunting pressure and contact with man, or lack thereof, rather than fences that determine just how ‘wild’ deer are.

Whether it is sporting to hunt over baited areas is a personal decision that we each have to answer for ourselves. The truth is, if we hunt very much in Texas, chances are good we will hunt deer over a corn feeder. I’ve hunted around ‘corn piles’ up the Dakotas where farmers simply dump a pickup load of shelled corn on the ground to bait deer and hunt them early morning and the hour or so before dark when they feed. A few years ago, I watched a 240-pound, ten-point ND buck walk a half mile off the side of a small mountain to a pile of corn I was hunting over. I arrowed him at just over 20 yards. Up in this big country, the deer had never seen a high fence. Would the hunt still have been a challenging if the 10,000 acre ranch I was hunting been enclosed within a game proof fence?

In contrast, I’ve hunted 600-acre high-fenced ranches for three days without ever getting within bow range of a buck. With the exception of a muzzleloader hunt on a high-fenced ranch years ago, the vast majority of my hunting has been with compound bows. To be a successful bow hunter, one has to get close, within 30 yards of deer. Even the novice rife hunter should be proficient in taking game at 100 yards. Simply because the animals are confined within certain boundaries (a high fence), rifle hunting high fenced ranches has a high percentage for success. The percentage for success goes up exponentially when rifle hunting simply because the deer cannot walk across a low fence onto a neighboring piece of property, becoming off limits to the hunter. A rifle hunter that spends enough time hunting a high-fenced ranch will eventually position himself within rifle range of the animal he or she is pursing.

Did you ever consider the fact that deer living on big ranches that encompass several thousand acres live out their lifetime on the property, regardless the height of the fence? We could go on with this discussion but, ultimately, the decision whether to hunt-high fenced property or not is a personal one. I can state with certainty that I’ve enjoyed some very challenging bow hunts on high fenced ranches. I’ve also hunted some low-fenced properties where deer came running to the sound of a whirling corn feeder like hogs to a feeding trough.

Regardless our feelings about landowners constructing game proof fencing on their properties, the fact is that land in Texas is about 97% privately owned and high fences are perfectly legal. Have you driven through the Hill Country in the past few years? Most of the highways are bordered by high fences.

Coming from an era and part of the state where game fencing was unheard of, I have mixed feelings about fencing wildlife ‘inside’ anyone’s property. But I’ve watched the trend, especially in the past couple of decades. As land prices becomes more and more valuable and fewer people can afford to purchase tracks large enough for hunting, it’s a sure bet that the Lone Star State will continue to see more high fences.

As previously stated, hunting can be just as challenging inside fences as outside. It all depends upon the size of tracks and available cover.