By Katrina Huffstutler
If you've got abundant wildlife or a well-stocked lake on your property, you've probably considered turning those assets into dollars. But before you start letting strangers through your gate, there's a lot to consider.
We talked to Bob Lusk, fisheries biologist and editor of Pond Boss magazine, and Tommy Haegelin, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association director and general manager of Chaparrosa Enterprises, LP, a cow-calf, stocker and hunting operation in La Pryor, for their advice.
No. 1: Consider the liability.
First and foremost, make sure you're covered.
"Check with your insurance company first," Haegelin says. "You want to make sure you have enough liability insurance, and they can even help you with the lease — putting together something they would be comfortable with."
Lusk also recommends outside help with that part of the process.
He says there are companies that lease fishing properties from the landowners and serve as an agent.
"They will carry a million-dollar liability policy for that landowner and do all their booking for them," Lusk explains.
The landowner deals with 1 person who then books the anglers. Typically, these companies charge a day-use fee, which is split between the landowner and agent (with the landowner receiving most of the money). It's a great way to save time and make sure you have plenty of coverage should something go awry, he says.
No. 2: Be selective.
A good lessee is more than just someone whose check will clear. Both Lusk and Haegelin recommend getting to know the people you'll allow on your land.
"I would require an application and I would check these people out," Lusk says. "Do they fit the mold? Would you be honored to have them on your property?"
He offers an example: "Let's say you're going to have more than 1 group on the lake at the same time. One group comes and pillages the lake and takes all of the fish out and puts them in a cooler. The other group is made up of good stewards and they are turning the fish loose. There's going to be strife. Now the landowner is dealing with complaints and issues way beyond the amount of money he's going to get paid."
Lusk continues, "It all circles back to picking the right people to come on your property. Pick people who you would be honored to have there."
At the Chaparrosa, Haegelin says potential lessees are carefully screened. To be considered, they must have first hunted in a controlled setting through the company's lodge.
"It's a guided hunt — they are accompanied by 1 of our guides — so we pretty well know them [by the time it's over] before we enter into any type of lease agreement with them," Haegelin says.
If you're not in the position to pre-screen in that fashion, he recommends at least running a criminal background check on the applicant to weed out any undesirables. After all, these people will have access to your land and livelihood.
No. 3: Let your lessees work for you.
Haegelin says the relationship between landowner and lessee can — and should be — a mutually beneficial one. He encourages using your lessees to manage your wildlife.
"You need to have in mind what you want to do with your wildlife program and let your lessees help you get there," he says.
"We have a full-time wildlife biologist on staff and do a census on deer and quail. Then we can tell our lessees exactly what they can — and what they are required — to shoot."
But Haegelin says he's found an unexpected advantage to letting others be a part of the ranch, too.
"All of our lessees are from the bigger cities and none of them are involved in agriculture," Haegelin says. "But if we've got some kind of legislative issue they can help us out with, I don't hesitate to call them and make them aware of it.
"They are always glad to do it. They feel like part owners in the ranch now and are a great ally for us to have."
No. 4: Focus on repeat business.
Both gentlemen say the key to success is having long-term customers and recommend planning your business accordingly.
Lusk says for him, the first thing is having a good fishing lake — a lake that's undoubtedly good enough that someone would want to pay, year after year, to use.
"Once you get a customer there, then they are either going to want to come back, or they're not," he says. "Part of that hinges on the experience they have and the fish they catch."
He says there are a lot of intangible and tangible things that factor into the quality of the experience.
"How pretty is the lake? What amenities they can participate in? Is there a dock or a boat or overnight accommodations? Is there wildlife around? Do bald eagles fly over?
"You have to have something to sell. You have to have something that people want to buy," he says.
"You need something to defuse the days that the fish don't bite — because some days they don't. You can have all the fish on the planet in that lake and there will be days you don't catch anything. My advice is don't depend on the fish. Depend on the experience," he adds.
Lusk says building overnight accommodations is a smart way to add recreational value to your property. Lodging means lessees can get another day's worth of fishing in instead of rushing home or to another city because there's no place to stay.
"Plus it's more family-friendly. The lessee can bring his wife and kids and they can come around the edge of the pond or go on a hiking trip and look at songbirds or things like that that are attractive to everybody," he says.
Haegelin agrees. He says at the Chaparrosa, they have many clients who hunt during hunting season and then bring their families back during the off-season for a vacation. (The accommodations even include a swimming pool.) Other non-hunters strictly come during the off-season, for camera safaris, bird watching or to just relax and enjoy nature. He says it's a great way to generate money during what would traditionally be slow months.
No. 5: Set some ground rules.
Worried about letting strangers with even the cleanest records and greatest recommendations on your place? Plan to protect yourself.
Haegelin says they have a set of rules that stress ranch safety. For example, there's a limit on how much alcohol can be taken out on a hunt.
Lusk adds, "I think if a landowner wants to offer some rights to potential guests, the rancher writes the rules and guests abide by them.
"If you open a gate, close it. Don't leave trash. If you leave trash, you're gone. It's your property, you make the rules. Like on this place we went over the last few days, it was mandatory that you wear a life jacket. They had people on site [enforcing the rule] and if you're not wearing a life jacket, they call you on the radio and they make you put on a life jacket. And if you don't, you get invited to leave."
Haegelin adds that while their lessees are permitted to come and go as they please — each has his own lock on his gate — he asks that, out of courtesy, they let the Chaparrosa staff know before they arrive.
"Consequently, every time they are there somebody from our ranch goes and meets them and visits with them to make sure everything is going fine. That they aren't having any problems and so on," Haegelin says. "The better you get to know them, the better lessee they will be."
"5 Things You Should Know Before Leasing Your Land" is from the August issue of The Cattleman magazine.