Want to Hunt “Out West?” Start Applying Now, and Do the Research

Drawing big game tags across the great American West is kind of like gambling in Vegas.  If you don’t have any (or many) points, the odds are about like hitting the jackpot on a big slot machine payout.  Then again, if you’re unsuccessful, almost all the money comes back to you – more on this later.

Right off the bat, it’s important to make a distinction.  Some states offer over-the-counter tags, while most states require you to draw a tag.  Some states offer both. 

Drawing tags is mostly dependent on the accumulation of points, which weight your odds of drawing a tag.  The longer you’ve been applying, the better your odds of drawing (with a few exceptions).  The yearly accumulation of bonus or preference points – one for each year the hunter is unsuccessful at drawing a tag – is critical.  

That’s not to say you can’t have the hunt of a lifetime on easier-to-draw units or over-the-counter tags, because you absolutely can.  What we’ll cover here concerns folks who want a shot at world-class hunting and aren’t afraid to exercise some patience. 

In very rough numbers, if you’re looking to apply for some of the best units in the country as a non-resident, it can easily take five years to see “successful” when you check the status of your pronghorn application.  Premium deer and elk generally take even longer: think 10 to 15 years.  For mountain goat, Shiras moose and Bighorn sheep in the Lower 48, you might get lucky and draw a tag before you’re dead. 

With that said, there are still some states that assign sheep, moose and goat tags “randomly,” meaning that there’s no point system and everyone has the same odds of drawing, dismal as those odds may be.  New Mexico’s tag draw is 100% random, Idaho draws moose sheep and goat randomly, and Alaska’s draw system is completely random, too. 

Otherwise, it’s important to remember that building preference or bonus points is the key.  Starting to buy points early in life is like funding a Roth IRA.  The sooner you begin accumulating points, the better your odds.

A great way to increase your odds for the species you want is to apply in numerous states.  It’s no small task keeping all the information organized, let alone doing the research that’ll allow you to make an educated decision about which specific units to apply for.  Create your own organized cataloguing system – whether that's a digital spreadsheet on Excel, or just columns on notebook paper – will help immensely. 

Another good way to keep up with tag application deadlines is to join a service like Huntin’ Fool, Epic Outdoors, or GoHunt.  Not only do these companies remind their members of looming deadlines, but they have great resources to help you find good hunting opportunities and research hunting units.  Some of them will even handle the tag applications for you. 

Some states allow you to apply for a tag with as little as $10 upfront, like Utah.  Other states, including Idaho and Wyoming, make you pay the entire tag fee upfront, and refund it to you after the draw if you’re unsuccessful.  Applying in multiple states can be quite annoying when you consider that tags can cost more than $3,000 apiece.  But don’t let this scare you.  Most deer, elk and pronghorn tags are nowhere near that price.

Here are a few ways to overcome the upfront cost challenge if you don’t have thousands of dollars laying around.

Option #1

The first option is the easiest, though it does involve some compromise.

Play in the states that don’t require big money up front.  This will limit your choices on some good states for sheep, mountain goat, moose and to some degree elk.  But it doesn’t take you out of the running. 

  • Arizona, aside from a pretty stout non-refundable combo license, is cheap to apply for various species. This state also has desert sheep and some fantastic (but hard to draw) elk and deer tags.
  • Idaho is affordable for deer, elk and pronghorn, though their ungulate populations have taken a hit thanks to the wolf problem. 
  • Montana is a great option for bighorn, Shiras moose and mountain goat.  Points are squared in Montana, so be aware that accumulated points are especially important here. Also note that Montana offers both “limited entry” and “general” deer and elk tags.  Limited entry units typically offer better chances at trophy quality animals and require bonus points.  General tags, which cover a substantial portion of the state, require preference points. 
  • Nevada offers some of the very best prices for two species of sheep, as well as deer, elk and pronghorn.  It also offers fantastic elk hunting opportunities if a tag is drawn.
  • Oregon is affordable to apply, but the odds of drawing a tag in Oregon state are among the worst in the West. 
  • South Dakota is super affordable, but they don’t offer elk tags for non-residents. The mule deer and whitetail hunting can be outstanding, but finding public ground with great hunting will require some research. 
  • Texas is a must if you want a reasonably priced chance at a desert bighorn.  Just $10.  If you want to hunt sheep someday, and you take nothing else from this article, start applying in Texas now and never miss a year.
  • Utah is relatively affordable and offers a wide variety of game.  That said, Utah tags are becoming much harder to draw every year.
  • Washington is priced right for sheep too, but like Oregon, the odds are super tough.

Option #2

The other option is to get a credit card with zero percent APR for 12 or more months.  Look for a card with good benefits and no annual or cancellation fee.  Pile up the application costs, and pay the card back as soon as your application funds are returned to you.

Obviously, cards have limits, and you might have to combine Option #1 and #2 to make the most of your application process.  And don’t forget to cancel the card after all the money comes back in and the balance is paid.  You can get a new one next year. 

One more note on credit cards.  All states take Visa, but not all accept American Express.  Figure out what states you want to apply in and call their state game agencies to learn which cards they accept before applying for anything other than a Visa. 

Also, a note about points.  Know that in most states, there is a “points only” option.  This will give you a point without applying you for the draw.  If you absolutely can’t go on an elk hunt this season, for whatever reason, you can be 100% certain you won’t draw if you choose “points only.”

Starting the research

If you subscribe to one of the services mentioned above, a great deal of the application footwork will be done already.  Pay attention to the communications they publish. 

The second-best resource you can use is the state game agencies.  For example, if you want to hunt elk in Montana, contact Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  They will provide application deadlines in addition to directing you where to find unit information, hunting season dates and regulations.  At the bottom of this article, links are provided for the various state agencies.

Networking is huge.  Speak with friends who’ve hunted the species you’re considering.  Spend time on forums like www.longrangehunting.com Talk to members of your local hunting and gun clubs.  Begin to formulate a plan for what and where you’d like to hunt, and expand your research accordingly. 

Cyber-scouting is critical, too.  www.onxmaps.com and www.gohunt.com have mapping services that provide a detailed view of the states you’re considering.  Big game unit boundaries and public/private land are the most basic and most critical considerations you’ll have while considering where to hunt.  Make use of these resources. 

If there’s a will, there’s a way

I know this sounds like a lot of work.  If a non-hunter has read this far, they’re no doubt thinking by now that we’re all nuts.  But if there’s a will, there’s a way.  If you’ve got the passion to pursue big game, you understand why it’s worth all the hassle.  The draw process can be a lot of fun, too.  You’ll learn a lot about the western half of the US during your research. 

Time flies, and the next 10 years will pass in the blink of an eye.  Your hunting career will thank you profusely if you’re sitting on 10 preference points for some really outstanding tags. 

There are plenty of units you can easily draw or buy over-the-counter if you just want to get out there and hunt.  They might not be stellar trophy units, but you’ll be hunting! 

A common question from someone that doesn’t understand the draw process is, “What happens if you draw all the tags in a single year?”  It won’t happen, and if does, you’ll just have to sell your house and quit your job.  It’ll be one awesome hunting season though!

State game agencies

Alaska:  Introduction to Alaska Big Game Hunting, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Arizona: Big Game Draw - Arizona Game & Fish Department (azgfd.com)

California: Hunting Licenses and Tags (ca.gov)

Colorado: Colorado Parks & Wildlife - Hunt Big Game (state.co.us)

Idaho: Idaho Fish and Game Home | Idaho Fish and Game

Montana: Hunt In Montana | Montana FWP (mt.gov)

New Mexico: Hunting - New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (state.nm.us)

North Dakota: Big Game | North Dakota Game and Fish

Oregon: Big Game Hunting | Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (myodfw.com)

South Dakota: Big Game | South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (sd.gov)

Texas:  Big Game Hunts - Big Time Texas Hunts - TPWD

Utah: Big game (utah.gov)

Washington: Big game hunting seasons and regulations | Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

Wyoming: Wyoming Game and Fish Department - Hunting


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