Soon, most hunters will know whether they drew the limited-entry big game tags they were after. Some hunters who drew tags are already planning their adventures, while others who didn’t pull a tag are shaking their heads in disappointment. If you’re one of those hunters who missed out, there are still plenty of big game hunts available that require nothing more than purchasing an over-the-counter tag.
Sure, some hunters view over-the-counter tags as last resort options, but that shouldn’t be the case. It is true that some areas with over-the-counter tags have tougher hunting due to less animals and more pressure, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, in many places over-the-counter tags provide outstanding opportunities.
Sometimes over-the-counter big game licenses are issued because animal populations in some areas are high enough to sustain unlimited hunting. Yes, you might have to compete with other hunters to find animals, but hunters who work hard to separate themselves from the crowd often kill mature bucks and bulls on over-the-counter tags. Oftentimes, even if buck or bull tags aren’t available, cow and doe tags are.
Additionally, hunters who are willing to hunt with archery or primitive muzzleloader equipment might have over-the-counter opportunities available that rifle hunters do not. Many over-the-counter, weapons-restricted hunts take place in exactly the same units where rifle hunts are only offered on a limited entry basis. These seasons also tend to have much lower hunting pressure than rifle seasons.
For non-residents looking for an out-of-state hunt at the last minute, or for resident hunters who didn’t get lucky in the draw, there are some outstanding over-the-counter big game hunts available throughout the country. Here are a few to consider.
Some of the most popular whitetail states in the country, like Kansas and Iowa, employ a draw-only system for non-resident hunters. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of whitetail states that sell over-the-counter tags. Some states with good public land opportunities to check out include Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. Many states also allow hunters to buy multiple inexpensive doe tags. This is a prime freezer-filling opportunity.
Hunters interested in pursuing blacktail deer on over-the-counter tags can find plenty of public land hunting opportunities in the coastal rainforests of Oregon and Washington. Alaska allows hunters to buy multiple over-the-counter deer tags; chasing Sitka blacktails here is one of the MeatEater crew’s favorite hunts.
In many of Idaho’s game management units, archery and rifle hunters can chase muleys on over-the-counter tags. In fact, Idaho is one of very few states in the country where rifle hunters can buy a mule deer tag over-the-counter. In some cases, you buy two buck tags. If you’re one of those hunters that doesn’t think these tags offer good opportunities, recall that Steve killed his biggest mule deer buck in Idaho on a tag purchased over-the-counter.
Arizona sells over-the-counter archery mule deer tags that are valid in many units. These areas aren’t as well known as the state’s famous trophy units, which may take 20 years to draw. But in over-the-counter archery units, bowhunters can target mule deer before and after rifle hunters in the early and late archery seasons.
Colorado sells “statewide” either-sex and cow-only archery over-the-counter tags, which are valid in most of the state’s game management units. There are also over-the-counter bull-only tags available that are also valid in most of the state during Colorado’s second or third rifle season. Colorado is home to 280,00 elk, by far the highest population in the country. There’s plenty of good public land elk country here, too.
Idaho is a hunter-friendly state and one of the few that offers archery and rifle over-the-counter elk tags. Like Colorado, Idaho has lots of public land access.
Montana has a lot of black bears and plenty of public land hunting grounds. Baiting and hound hunting aren’t legal here, so hunters have to rely on spot and stalk methods. Montana has a spring and fall season for bears; tags for both seasons are available over-the-counter.
Idaho also has a spring and fall season for black bears. Baiting and hound hunting is completely legal in this state. Unlike most states which limit hunters to a single bear, Idaho hunters can kill two bears a year.
Over-the-counter pronghorn tags aren’t readily available anywhere, but Nebraska offers an archery-only over-the-counter tag for pronghorns. The northwest portion of the state has pockets of country with decent numbers of antelope. Public land hunting is possible but will require some map research.
Colorado also allows archery hunters to purchase an over-the-counter option that can be used in many units. Pronghorn numbers aren’t as high as in the draw-only units, so die-hard bowhunters should do some preseason scouting.
Caribou and Moose
In Alaska, tags for caribou and moose can be purchased over the counter and both species can often be targeted on the same hunt. Hunters who are frustrated by the low probability of ever drawing a moose tag in the Lower 48 should consider Alaska. But, remember, a DIY Alaska hunt requires a lot of pre-trip planning. Do your homework.