Bucks. Does. Bobcats. Feral hogs. Coyotes. Turkeys. Even a fox squirrel. I was accustomed to seeing these and other sights every time I opened my Moultrie Mobile app to check the latest images on my wireless trail-cameras. I did not expect to see a Toyota Corolla, especially near noon on Christmas Day.
Luckily, the image included a nice shot of the license plate, which is how sheriff’s deputies were able to knock on the door of the vehicle’s owner the next morning. With the photograph on the deputy’s phone matching the vehicle that was sitting a few steps away in the driveway at the time of the visit, denial was out of the question.
Whether you own, lease or have verbal permission to hunt a tract of private land, you are likely to deal with trespassing at some point, either evidence of past activity or a real-time confrontation with an actual trespasser. I’ve encountered both, and neither is fun. So have other members of the QDMA team. Not every trespasser is intent on poaching, and some cases are truly accidental, but prevention is best in all cases. I’d like to share a list of life-hacks you can use to help prevent encounters with trespassers.
Build an Alliance
This problem is not a one-on-one competition between you and poachers. Collect allies by getting to know your neighbors on every property line and beyond. Finding out who they are is as easy as using the private lands layer in your onX Hunt app, then send a letter of introduction. Follow up with a visit to their front door if they live nearby. Once you meet one or two of the neighbors, ask if they know additional landowners in the area, and ask them to make additional introductions. Next thing you know, you’ll have a phone network that will come in very handy.
Do your best to maintain good relations among this network. Share venison, dove-shoot invitations, fishing access, or other resources you can offer on your own land. Your good will might be returned in many other ways. Essentially, you are creating a QDM Cooperative.
Yes, a neighbor might actually be a source of potential trespassing problems. It’s best if they know that you are reaching out to everyone in the vicinity to start a neighborhood watch, which might help prevent that neighbor from becoming a problem. If a neighboring landowner gave hunting permission to someone else who ends up trespassing, knowing that neighbor personally and how to contact them will be important.
Home Alone: Party Time
My favorite scene in Home Alone is the fake party. Kevin is rockin’ around the Christmas tree with the help of Michael Jordan and several mannequins. Joe Pesci’s reaction: “We gotta get outta here before somebody sees us.” Like Kevin, you can prevent trespassing by creating the illusion of a party goin’ on.
Experienced wildlife law enforcement officers say that poachers prefer areas where they are less likely to run into the landowner or lease-holders. Outward signs of regular activity and care will deter most potential trespassers. This means entrance points and boundaries along public roads are well maintained and clean. Weeds are trimmed around locked gates, trash is picked up regularly, signs are posted, the fence is freshly painted, and other indicators point to recent and consistent presence of people.
“If it appears like you’re not using and looking after a property, somebody is going to use it for you,” said Cpl. Tim Butler, a 14-year game warden with Georgia DNR Law Enforcement who works the county where QDMA Headquarters is located.
Chronic trespassers will even try to pattern your movements to ensure they visit the land when you are not there.
Whenever I advise hunters to maintain outward signs of activity and care, I always hear from a few who think this attracts poachers. Game wardens I’ve talked to don’t agree. They say it’s the unoccupied house that draws more burglars. Additionally, I’ve seen good things result from well-marked boundaries, including the use of QDMA’s signs.
Use Screening Cover
You know how to create or grow screening cover. You do it around your food plots, deer stands, bedding areas and stand-access routes. Do the same for any areas of your hunting land that are visible from public roads or neighboring lands.
Always try to avoid situations where the public can easily pass by and see deer or other wildlife in food plots, fields or around feeders on your land. Position these features toward the interior of your hunting land. If that’s not an option, then block visibility. Plant dense evergreen windrows of red cedars, white pines, or other low-growing dense shrubs. Use solid fencing around gates to prevent a view down interior roads.
Beyond entry points and public-road interfaces, do you know the rest of your boundaries well? If you don’t, then trespassers may not see them either, whether they intend to trespass or they innocently walked across a line without knowing it.
Make sure every boundary of your hunting land is well marked. Use your onX Hunt app to locate all your boundaries and look for official indicators, like corner monuments, iron pins, chop marks in trees, or other survey marks that show you exactly where the line lies. If the property lines have not been surveyed in a while, hire a new survey. The surveyor will clear obstructions along the line and refresh the markers. Once this is done, then you should regularly maintain the line yourself with fresh paint, new signs, flagging tape, reflectors or other markers.
Several turkey seasons ago, I caught a trespasser sitting by a tree with a shotgun, facing into the land I had permission to hunt. After I recovered from the surprise of seeing an armed stranger in my hunting area, I shouted to make sure the person knew I was there, then approached him, asking for his name. He claimed he didn’t know he was on someone else’s land – in spite of the dual bands of blue paint encircling the oak tree he had been leaning against.
Well-marked boundaries won’t stop all trespassers. Mark them well anyway. The fact the boundaries are well-marked can come in useful later if and when you press charges and take the trespasser to court.
Hang ‘Em High
No, not the trespassers. The boundary signs!
When hanging boundary signs, I like to take along a step-ladder or even a full-size ladder so I can hang the sign well out of reach of anyone on foot. Your average poacher will tear down No Trespassing or Posted signs if they can reach them, but they are generally too lazy to climb for them. Put them out of reach to prevent losing most of them.
For a trespasser, the sight of a trail-camera lets them know they’ve probably already been photographed by at least one camera, and there may be others. The knowledge that most of today’s cameras are wireless is an extra deterrent, since destroying or stealing cameras doesn’t necessarily erase the photographic evidence.
But, you don’t want to place expensive trail-cameras in harm’s way to serve as a deterrent, right? So, use a broken trail-camera. If you’re like me, you keep defunct trail-cameras around for a while under the delusion that you’re going to eventually fix them or send them off for repair. Sort of a trail-cam mourning period. Sometime much later, you eventually accept reality and toss them in the trash.
Instead, save and deploy those broken trail-cameras as part of your battle plan. Place them just inside your hunting land along obvious entry points or travel routes, like roads, trails or utility rights-of-way like powerlines – any location that invites likely trespassing. Make them obviously visible and covering the travel path, and include a cable lock to complete the illusion of an active camera.
If your broken camera is stolen or destroyed, it’s no real loss to you, plus you have now collected intelligence on the enemy. You know a trespasser willing to steal or destroy a trail-camera tried to enter your hunting land, and you know where.
Credit for this idea goes to Forensic Whitetail, a hunter who shared this tactic with me in a Twitter discussion about trespassing.
With your dummy deterrent cameras deployed, next you need to set up your actual surveillance and reconnaissance network. Hide and secure functional cameras in similar areas where trespassing or criminal activity is likely to occur. If you want to catch legible license plates on roads, cameras need to be within a few feet of the road and aimed at a 45-degree angle to the road to capture the rear bumper of a passing vehicle.
Hide these cameras to the best of your ability. In the security chapter of QDMA’s Deer Cameras book, author Phil Bancroft details some of the elaborate and ingenious ways he disguises cameras for security monitoring, such as gluing actual tree bark to the camera housing and hiding cameras in unlikely cover, like a pile of discarded lumber. Phil tests his own setups by asking friends to try to spot his cameras even after he gives them clues to their locations.
If the day comes that you capture a photo of an actual trespasser or poacher, I advise restraint before you publicly broadcast the news. Law enforcement prefers it when the violator does not know they are being actively investigated.
However you hide them, it’s best if these surveillance cameras are wireless models that transmit images instantly. This way, if they are discovered and destroyed or stolen, you collect the evidence regardless.
I believe it’s a good idea to advertise your use of trail-cameras, especially wireless cameras, in the local community. Let people know you are an avid camera user (as long as all your cameras are protected by cable locks or secure housings). You can do this with boundary signs that advertise security-camera monitoring. You can also do this by sharing your images often with your neighbor network. “Hey, check out this bobcat!” If there’s a particular neighbor you suspect of being a potential source of trouble, text them regularly with cool photos of wildlife. Of course, don’t send that neighbor pictures of your best buck or that gang of longbeards.
However, if the day comes that you capture a photo of an actual trespasser or poacher, I advise restraint before you publicly broadcast the news. First, quietly go to law enforcement. Share the photo with your local game warden or sheriff’s office. Give them a chance to investigate before you post the image on social media and ask “Does anybody know this poacher?” Law enforcement prefers it when the violator does not know they are being actively investigated or hunted.
“The best thing you can do before you try to publicly identify that person is to contact your local game warden,” said Cpl. Butler. “Often we already know who that person is, and also it gives us the chance to patrol the property and catch them doing it again.”
Also, the situation might have been an innocent mistake by a person who meant no harm. Give yourself the chance to discover as much as you can before you publicly brand someone a criminal in an identifiable photo. Public sharing of the evidence might be helpful eventually, but let investigators guide you in what to say, and when, on social media.
The Christmas Day Corolla (below) appeared to be this sort of mistake. The car’s owner, who had no criminal record, said they were following directions someone had given them and turned into the wrong road by mistake. That road was a little-used trail with an old gate grown up in weeds, which we had accidentally left unlocked some time in the past. Shame on us for not checking it regularly! The person said they turned around and left as soon as they realized they’d driven into the wrong property, and my photo evidence agreed with that story. Investigators did not believe there was criminal intent, so we did not press charges. We could have easily prevented the situation by ensuring that old, dis-used gate was locked.
Speaking of law enforcement, here’s my final tip: Recruit local law enforcement for your team.
If you don’t know the game warden for your county, learn their name now. Meet them, exchange contact information, and give them a key to your gates. Ask them to patrol as often as they are able, and alert them immediately to any evidence of a problem. If they are allowed to accept, invite them to hunt or fish your land when they are off-duty, especially during times when you will not be on the property. Their presence, patrolling and visibility on and around your hunting land is a critical deterrent.
Unlike the kid in Home Alone, you’re not alone. You can call on the help of law enforcement, neighbors, friends and your own ingenuity in preventing problems with trespassers and poachers before they happen.