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Hook & Barrel
A Lifestyle Magazine for Modern Outdoorsmen

hunting tags, elk hunting
Photo: PJ Delhomme

If you dream about western big game, it starts with applying for hunting tags, often as much as a year in advance.

Chasing big game out West starts with a tag. It sounds simple enough, but it’s not. If you want to hunt there next fall, the planning starts now. 

In the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the eccentric Wonka hides five golden tickets inside millions of his famous chocolate bars. Any kid who finds a ticket gets a tour of his mysterious chocolate factory. The odds of finding a ticket are roughly 1:400,000. Your odds of drawing a permit to hunt in the West can seem just as daunting. 

The reality is that hunts for some species in certain areas of the West are nearly impossible to draw for anyone. For nonresidents without any points, they are impossible to draw. Hunting in the West is a far cry from asking permission to bowhunt your buddy’s farm for a nice whitetail. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you have more options than you think, and we will run you through the basics: 

How To Apply for Hunting Tags

Why States Use Draw Systems

To be blunt, most states manage consumable wildlife (aka big game) for residents and revenue. Tags and licenses generate money to keep the lights on and manage wildlife resources and their habitat—and nonresidents pay more than residents. For example, non-resident hunters accounted for $43.6 million, or 77 percent, of Wyoming’s 2020 Game and Fish budget..

Where I live in Montana, managers set aside some hunting units for opportunity, meaning I can hunt for a bull elk every year. In other units, the state offers a very limited number of tags for bulls, which means it’s a coveted trophy area. For those units, there is a high demand for a finite resource, which means not everyone gets a tag. In fact, the odds of drawing some units are less than one percent. 

Types of Points and Draws

Each state has its own type of tag allocation system. These systems are constantly critiqued, scrutinized, and cursed because of their complexity. Then again, if you want to hunt, you have to learn the rules. To help understand the game, you must know the terms for these limited draw tags, which is any tag you can’t purchase over-the-counter (OTC). 

Lottery

In a lottery draw, hunters submit their applications for a limited number of permits within a specified period. The permits are allocated to random winners. The great thing is that anyone can win. A downside is that it can make planning tough, because if you get drawn, you better have time to go. Idaho is one state that uses a lottery system. 

Preference Points

Some states use a preference point system in which hunters accumulate points each year they apply for a permit but don’t get selected. Theoretically, the hunters who have accumulated the most preference points increase their chances of being selected in subsequent draws. Some states let a hunter buy a point without applying, paying anywhere from $5 to $150. In theory, point systems presume that as long as hunters buy their points and wait patiently in line, they will eventually draw the tag. That’s not how it works thanks to point creep, which occurs when the number of hunters applying for a tag increases yearly. The number of points needed to draw a particular tag continues to creep upward. For some tags, if you didn’t get in early, you’re never going to catch up. This system started in Colorado and is still used there today. 

Bonus Points

In Montana, we have bonus points, which is a hybrid of a lottery and preference point system. For limited-entry tags, the state uses a lottery system. When I don’t draw my elk tag, I can opt-in to buy a bonus point, which adds to the other eight points that I already have. When I apply for disappointment next year, my points are squared, meaning my name is in the hat 81 times instead of nine. 

One beacon in the tag fog is the overlooked raffle tag, which many states now offer. Consider Bo Prieskorn and his son Austin. In 2022, Bo bought a few raffle tickets to participate in Virginia’s first modern-day elk hunt. His name was drawn, and he gave the tag to 15-year-old Austin, who shot a massive bull that scored 4137/8 points. Someone has to win. 

Resources and Strategy for Hunting Tags

hunting tags
Photo: PJ Delhomme

Tag draws and point systems are interesting and understandable to statisticians and accountants. You are not alone if you find them confusing and complicated, which is why an entire cottage industry has been built around getting you a tag. Granted, they might be part of the problem with demand, but that’s an entirely different story. 

If you want to hand the reins over to a pro, consider a tag consulting service like Huntin Fool. Their entire reason for being is to help you apply and draw tags based on your preferences and goals. If you’re more of a do-it-yourself (DIY) hunter, look into goHUNT.com. For $150 a year, you can access detailed information like draw odds, hunt units, trophy potential, and maps. It also comes with a killer map app for your phone. 

If you go with the DIY option, you need to make some coffee and do your homework. Hunter Randy Newberg has devised a short-, medium-, and long-range strategy that allows him to hunt every year. Granted, he’s an accountant by trade, but his videos and tutorials on goHunt.com will give you a solid place to start. If you choose to go your own way, create a spreadsheet and a budget. If you’re serious about applying for numerous tags, dedicate a single credit card to that expense—and keep track of your expenditures. Some states require you to front the cash for a four-figure tag, and you want to make sure you get a refund when you don’t draw. 

Over-the-Counter Hunting Tags

Believe it or not, some western states still have over-the-counter tags available for non-resident hunters. For example, Colorado’s OTC tags go on sale on August 1, but they are restricted to certain units, seasons, and weapon. As you can imagine, you won’t be the only one searching for your Rocky Mountain high. Still, numerous states have leftover licenses that are scooped up within days (or hours) of their release. You’ll need to be sitting in front of the computer when they go live to snatch one. 

Know The Western States Application Deadlines 

hunting tags
Photo: PJ Delhomme

You must know the deadlines if you’re going to have a shot at drawing a limited-entry tag. Each state has its own tags, and each state has its own deadlines. Several states have more than one deadline, depending on the species

Be sure to look up the states that you’d like to hunt eventually, and build out a calendar that can help you out.

Apps That Can Help You Draw Tags

A variety of programs exist that do most of the dirty work of managing tag applications.

GOHUNT is an exceptional option as a planner. It offers a few different packages, but we highly recommend Insider. You can dial down to wildly specific data points, figure out units with the best draw odds, and develop individual hunting plans.

HuntinFool is another option for planning your hunt, and the app offers application tips and tactics for 22 different states.

Final Thoughts: How To Apply For Hunting Tags

Drawing a tag to hunt in the West is possible, but it isn’t easy. Just remember that Charlie, that poor little dreamer from Willy Wonka, found a golden ticket after opening only two chocolate bars. You’ll never draw a coveted Oompa Loompa tag if you don’t start applying now. 

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