As hunters, we all dream about that next epic adventure in the backcountry chasing trophy animals. However, actually landing the tag can be difficult and take many years. Each spring we play “the game” to get our name in the hat with tens of thousands of other hunters hoping to get drawn for a specific tag. For most of us, the odds are very slim but that doesn’t mean you should give up. There are very feasible options to choose from.
Each western state has different rules and odds when it comes to drawing a big game tag. There are a few states that have equal odds for all hunters and others require preference or bonus points for the most sought after units. This is where we as hunters have to play the game. It takes time, patience, and money to even be in the conversation for some of the known trophy units. The best way to plan hunts out west is to always put in for the hard tags and buy preference points but at the same time be realistic about your chances and have a backup plan.
Wyoming is the first western state to open up the elk application period. The Cowboy State offers outstanding elk hunting for both the DIY hunter as well as those looking to go guided. There are numerous elk management units that offer almost 100% draw with either one preference point of the purchase of the special tag which is double the price of the standard tag. However, a good portion of the state will require years of planning and purchasing of preference points to finally draw a tag. Most of the units that offer the extremely high odds for drawing tags might have limited hunting opportunities for the non-residents due to designated wilderness areas. The Wyoming Game and Fish website offers outstanding information regarding odds of drawing tags in the areas you are looking to apply (Wyoming Draw Odds).
A few of the harder states to draw tags include Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. It takes a lot of luck and many preference points to actually draw that coveted big game tag. Depending on the species and the hunting unit, your odds can be as low as 1%. However, having preference points will help to increase your odds. Most people will agree that 1% odds are better than no odds at all if you don’t actually submit an application. Some of the western states offer a point only option if you are looking at hunting in the future. However you will be required to buy a hunting license as well as the points for the species you are looking to target. The other option is to actually apply for a tag. If you aren’t drawn, you not only get a preference or bonus point but you also get most if not all of your money back.
A good friend of mine, David Peck from Iowa, is somebody that has been playing the game for years and has it figure out. In 2014, he sent in 66 different applications for everything from Antelope to Bison. In applying for that staggering amount of tags, David forked out about $32,000 in application and tag fees. If he was to be unsuccessful in all of the draws he would have gotten all but $2800 back. Most states have a non-refundable amount that the state keeps no matter if you draw a tag or not. David however had a very successful year in the field, including drawing a South Dakota Bison tag and harvesting an outstanding bull. He is of the belief that you have to apply for every tag you can in order to increase your odds. David prefers to pay for the applications each year versus just buying preference points.
Western State Point Breakdown*
*Check for each states regulations for points options for the
various species you intend to target
If chasing tags and points isn’t something that you are interested in doing, there are states that offer over the counter tags for most species. Idaho, Montana, and Colorado offer outstanding opportunities for the last minute hunt or as a backup hunt if all else fails. Colorado and Montana do offer limited draw tags that are highly sought after. The Missouri River Breaks area in Montana is one that comes to mind. This is a very coveted tag no matter what species you are looking to hunt. Most hunters will put in for a tag like this knowing that they have very slim chances of ever having their name drawn. If you are looking for one of the hard to draw tags in another state and don’t draw, one of these three states need to be on your list as a solid backup plan.
Overall the hardest tags in North America to draw are sheep, goat, and moose tags. There are a few exotic species in Texas and New Mexico that are also hard to draw. Some states offer land owner or outfitter tags. This allows the owner of the tag to sell it to a hunter at a premium. These tags are often in some of the best hunting areas around. Purchasing one of these tags allows a hunter to be guaranteed a tag in some of the more sought after hunting districts.
For the hunters that just don’t have the time or simply don’t want to do the research, there are companies that will help with the application process. One of the better known is the Cabela’s TAGS program. They help take the guess work out of the application process and can help suggest options you have based on the number of preference points you have accumulated. The drawback to using one of these services is the substantial fees you will pay for them to “front” you the money for the application. You are also relying on somebody else to make sure your application is sent in to the various states in time. Regardless of what your plans are, the most important thing is to get your applications in on time. Hunters now have the option of sending in their application online to ensure that the states get the information prior to the application deadline. No matter what the odds are, you can’t get drawn if you don’t apply.
Most hunters have opinions on how to improve the drawing process for the states they want to hunt. However, most of the states require that the hunters have some skin in the game in the way of preference or bonus points before they can acquire a premium tag. There is no perfect system, but depending on where you plan to take your next adventure you have to look at playing the game that is required. If you choose not to buy points every year you do have some outstanding hunting options there with over the counter tags. Just don’t get discouraged, and keep living the Hunting Life.