Last year a friend of mine asked me how is it that I always seem to draw such great tags. The answer is simple – apply for them. The theory is this: if you don’t apply, you can’t get drawn. My secret to getting great tags is to apply in as many places as I can for as long as I can. Of course there is an element of luck involved, but in most cases it is persistence, having a plan, and using a few simple application tricks to get that great tag in your pocket.
Whether you are a trophy hunter looking for that animal of a lifetime, someone who wants to hunt a new species not found near your home, or just a person looking for a good hunting opportunity and a new adventure, applying for hunts in other states may be for you. As most hunters know, some of the best public hunting in the West is found within limited draw areas. Knowing the basics of applying and how to look for areas to apply for is the first step in securing a great tag.
The buck I took on a special draw tag.
Creating a plan:
When looking at applying to other states it is important to have a plan and know your goals, otherwise the whole process can be overwhelming. You need to know what you want to hunt and what you want from the hunt. The application process is essentially planning for hunts now and in the future. Although the best way to look at it is long term, there are still plenty of great hunts that can be drawn easily.
Before you start to apply for tags, you should figure out what your reasons for applying are – do you want to hunt a premiere trophy area or do you want more opportunity to hunt? Also, the length of time you are willing to wait to draw a tag will play a factor in your application choice and in narrowing down a state to hunt in. For example, if you don’t want to wait 10 years or more for an elk tag, then Utah and Nevada are probably not states that should be in your plan. However if you think you may want to hunt there someday, then now is the time to start applying. Knowing what you are looking for is a great way to initially focus your search.
Start by picking the species that you want to hunt and then find a state that matches what you are looking for. If you are interested in chasing elk, then further narrow it down to the opportunity you want. If you want to kill a record-book bull, then you may want to apply for Utah or Nevada and plan on hunting there in the next 10-15 years. On the other hand if you want a quality elk hunt and still have a great chance at a big bull, then Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico may be more your speed. Although these states still have hard to draw areas, you can find a number of good hunts with better than average bulls and draw them in one to three years.
If sheep hunting is something that may be on your bucket list, I suggest applying in as many states as you can afford or at least start building points. The more places you have your name in for a once in a lifetime hunt, the better your chance of actually getting the tag in your lifetime.
It is important to know your budget and apply accordingly. Some states have high application fees while others allow you to purchase and build points for a nominal fee (see Application Table). Applying in other states can get expensive but it can also be done efficiently. I managed to apply for and build points in quite a few of the western states while putting myself through college, so it can be done. I created a plan of what I wanted to do and am now reaping the benefits.
I like to think of applications as a pay-it-forward plan. What I do now decides my future hunting success. The key is to stick to it and not get overwhelmed by the seemingly small odds at the beginning. When I first started applying for Utah, it seemed like I would never have a chance to hunt there. Twelve years later, I now have enough points to secure an archery tag for elk in a few units.
Remi and his friend Joe with Joe’s desert bighorn sheep.
Since every state is so different, the key is to become familiar with each state’s system. The best way to do this is online. Spend some time on the state’s website, read through the rules and regulations and know how their draw works. It also helps to have hard copies of the regs sent to you. Hard copies can make it easier to reference a certain area as well as the tag quotas, draw odds, and regulations.
My largest elk.
Applying in different states is a numbers game. The more places you apply and the more names you have in the hat, the more likely you are to hit the jackpot. Some states use a bonus point system, some use a preference point system, some have a combination of the two, and some states have no points at all.
Bonus points are extra chances you gain for past years of applying. States like Montana and Nevada use bonus points where every point is one extra name in the hat. However, to reward people who have been applying for a long time, the applicant’s number of points is squared. This exponentially increases your draw odds with each additional point.
Preference point systems award tags only to those with the most points. This differs from bonus points in the way that only those with the most points are eligible to draw a tag. All those with fewer points are not considered. States with preference points make it easier to plan a hunt because you will know when you can expect to receive a tag.
Some states like California and Utah have a combination of bonus and preference points where the majority of the tags are awarded to applicants with the most points, but a portion of the tags are also set aside for a random draw. This guarantees those with the most points a tag while allowing everyone a chance to draw.
New Mexico and Idaho, on the other hand, have no points system. Everyone is on a level playing field with an equal opportunity to draw. This can be great if you are new to applying, but discouraging if you have been applying your whole life.
Me and my dad.
How to decide where to apply:
Once you have your plan, it is time to research. The best place to start your research is online by visiting each state’s game department website. Almost every state has in-depth statistics online to help hunters. From draw odds to success rates, many states also include information on horn size, age class and even B&C scores.
The key when starting out is to narrow down your search. A look at the state record book can give you ideas on counties to focus on. Also, looking at draw odds can help you pick out the areas in high and low demand. Once you get an idea of where to concentrate, reference the area’s success rates and harvest statistics.
Knowing your goals helps direct your focus. If you only want a trophy hunt, then look to areas with generally poor draw odds and lots of record book entries. If you want an area that is easier to draw, look toward areas with reasonable draw odds combined with high success rates and decent trophy quality. As a word of caution, it is best to stay away from areas with really low success rates unless you can spend a lot of time in the area. There are a lot of great hunts in easy-to-draw areas, but you are at a disadvantage going in blind. I have done well in the past in easy-to-draw areas with generally low success rates, but they have never been as easy to hunt as the units with traditionally high success.
Believe it or not, unrelated road trips can be a great way to find areas to apply for as well. I have found quite a few great spots to put in for by looking out the car window on a trip. Marking down places that look like great habitat, then asking people at nearby gas stations or local sporting good stores about the quality of hunting in the area can help narrow down your search. Rural gas station brag boards can be a great way to find an area that you may not catch by looking at stats alone. Anytime I go somewhere on a long drive, I always keep a notepad handy. I write down mile markers, forest service access names, and places that look good to research later.
Talking to people on the ground is the best way to get a real feel for units to apply in. Fish and game offices, hunting chat rooms, and local mule deer, bighorn sheep, and elk conservation groups and chapters can be a great place to gain intel.
Remi and his brother Ryan with Ryan’s desert bighorn.
How to get drawn — tricks to pulling a tag:
The trick to getting drawn is persistence combined with balancing opportunity and trophy quality. This may mean doing things like adjusting your weapon choice, season dates, and unit choice.
Trick 1: Always Gain Points – When applying for premiere hunts, it is important to accumulate as many points as you can. Many states have application options that are cheaper to apply but won’t allow you to gain a point. This will hurt you in the long run. You would be better off building points for one state than applying to a bunch of states year after year and choosing to not accumulate points.
Trick 2: Go Primitive – Another tactic to help you get drawn is to adjust your weapon choice to the most primitive you feel comfortable hunting with. Generally, muzzleloader and archery hunts have the best draw odds and often have the most advantageous seasons. By applying for archery hunts, I have been able to secure permits in some top units much easier than if I had been trying for a rifle tag.
A few years ago, I drew one of California’s top mule deer units and harvested a great buck. By applying for archery, I got the tag in five years (half the time it takes to get a rifle tag). Some places like Arizona offer many of the premier areas for deer over the counter for archery hunters, which can also be something to look into. As a rule of thumb, the more primitive your weapon choice is, the more hunting opportunity is available to you.
Trick 3: Change the Date – Some states have units which have split seasons. One season is often during a prime time such as a peak migration or during the rut, and the other is either earlier or later than the prime time. These non-prime seasons generally have better draw odds and can still offer a great opportunity. Although you may have to hunt harder, there is still a great chance to harvest a trophy.
A friend of mine drew a Nevada elk tag by applying for the second season hunt and still pulled out a great bull. I am of the theory that as long as you are in the field, you have a chance. If you are in a great unit and hunt hard, it is likely you can make it happen.
Trick 4: Join Forces – applying in a party with someone who has more points than you can be a great way to get a tag earlier. This depends on where you apply, but many states average the points and round to the nearest whole point. If you have one point and your friend has two, then that gives you 1.5 points together – rounded up you each will have two points. If you have two points and your buddy has four then your party will have three points. The person with more points may be at a disadvantage in some cases, but splitting the cost of the trip is often incentive enough to sway them to apply with you. Just make sure that if you apply in a party, there are enough tags offered in that unit for each member of the party.
If you think applying in other states is something you may want to do or look into, then now is the time. Researching areas and applying is half the fun. It is essentially hunting for a hunt.
The following Application Chart will help get you pointed in the right direction. Remember you can’t get drawn if you don’t apply – Good Luck!