The Hows and Whys of Hunting Licenses and Regulations

The Hows and Whys of Hunting Licenses and Regulations

Hunting is a highly regulated activity in the USA. Wildlife is managed at the state level, with state game agencies, supported by license sales, deciding who gets to hunt what, where and how.

These rules and regulations can and do change annually and are published in a booklet and online.  Each state’s regs are different and it is the hunter’s responsibility to get a hold of a copy and study and know the laws inside and out. The information below is meant just as a primer to the hunting regulations, in order to introduce you to some of the lingo in your hunting regulations and to explain some of the thinking behind it.

Licenses and Tags
One of the major differences in licenses is whether you are a resident or nonresident of the state you’ll be hunting in.  All states charge more for non-resident licenses than they do for resident licenses.  In New York, for example, the cost of a resident small game license is $22 while a resident license is $100.  Residents typically enjoy greater legal access to a state’s population of big game than do non-residents, but with small game things are fairly equal. Residents and non-residents typically have the same seasons and bag limits.

No two states have the same licensing systems, but in general all you need is a small game license in order to hunt furred small game and upland birds. For turkey hunting, you typically need a small game license or a habitat-improvement stamp of some sort in addition to a turkey tag or turkey permit, which is physically attached to the bird upon harvest.

These tags usually have an additional fee, and one is required for each bird that you kill. You need to get the tag or permit before you kill the bird. Some states have an over-the-counter system of turkey tag allocation, where you can just go on-line or walk into a license vendor and buy a license and turkey tag. Other states have what’s generally known as a draw. This is when tags are allocated to the public through a randomized drawing, or lottery.

Draws are necessary when the interest in a resource outweighs its ability to produce; that is, there are more guys who want to hunt turkeys than the population of turkeys can support. Often, though, turkey draw go undersubscribed. A state game agency may be awarding 100 turkey tags for a specific portion of a state, yet only 90 guys apply for the drawing.

Everyone gets a tag. In such cases, the lottery system serves to guarantee that only the most dedicated hunters who are willing to plan ahead and fill out their application on time will get turkey tags. It discriminates against spontaneous hunters, which is fine by me. Such hunts usually produce a quality experience with less hunting pressure, less people, and a greater chance at multiple mature gobblers.

Some turkey tags are pretty hard to draw, and you won’t get lucky every year. Thankfully, many states use a bonus point or preference point system that rewards those hunters who apply every year. Basically, your name will go into the hat once for each year that you applied unsuccessfully. With this system, there aren’t many areas in the country where you need to go more than a year or two without drawing a turkey tag. But again, lottery draws are an exception for turkey hunting. Typically, you can just buy a tag and go hunting.

Waterfowl hunting doesn’t involve lottery draws, except in the rare instances where a state issues tags for tundra swans and/or sandhill cranes. But you do need your state’s equivalent of a small game hunting license along with a state and federal duck stamp. Federal duck stamps have been $15 since 1991, though in 2014 they finally decided to increase the cost to $25. This is a positive development, as the money all goes to wetlands conservation. State duck stamps are generally much cheaper. You can find a more complete breakdown of waterfowl regulations and license requirements in the waterfowl portion of Section III, Species.

This is an easy one. Basically, the season dates tell you when you can and can’t hunt. Most small game species have a single window of dates when the season is open. For instance, the Michigan squirrel season runs from September 15 to March 1. Other critters have a more complex system, with multiple windows. Some states have an early Canada goose season, a regular goose season that is open for Canada and snow geese, and then a late-winter/early spring season just for snow geese.

It’s common for states to run two separate turkey seasons, one in the spring and one in the fall. States will also further divide the spring turkey season into a handful of short seasons. Wisconsin runs a total of seven turkey seasons through the spring. There’s a youth-only hunt during the second week of April, followed by six roughly week-long seasons that run all the way to late May. Each hunter’s turkey tag will specify which season it is valid for; take this into account when applying for turkey tags, so that you get a season that jibes with your schedule.

A pair of hunters with their legal daily bag limit of turkeys. Notice the Gatorade bottle packed full of turkey giblets to be simmered in salted water for a camp meal.

Bag Limits and Possession Limits
With the exception of turkeys, a bag limit refers to how many of something you can harvest in a single day. Most bag limits are very straightforward: five squirrels, two sharptail grouse, six rabbits, etc. Others are a tad more complicated, as they might specify gender. Bag limits on pheasants are almost always for males only; it is generally illegal to kill a female pheasant.

Waterfowl bag limits are extremely complex. In Texas, for instance, you’re allowed a total of six ducks in aggregate per day, though your six birds may not include more than two hen mallards or five mallards total, three wood ducks, three scaup, two redheads, two pintails, one canvasback, and one “dusky” duck, which includes mottled ducks, black ducks, and various hybrids.

A possession limit is the amount of birds or animals you’re allowed to have in your possession while in the field or in transit. It’s usually two or three times the daily bag limit. Possession limits restrict how many game animals you can have in your possession until the animals are processed and reach their final destination — usually defined as the hunter’s home. A hunting camp does not count as a final destination, unless of course your eat the animals there. At that point, they no longer count against your possession limit.

Methods of Take
This refers to how you’re allowed to kill something. Methods of take are broken down according to weapon types: shotgun, archery, muzzleloader, rimfire, centerfire, long gun, handgun, airgun, you name it.  Some small game species, such as cottontail rabbits, might be open to any of the above methods of take. Others, such as turkeys or waterfowl, might be open to only archery or shotgun. Sometimes there will be additional restrictions that further specify shotgun gauges or centerfire caliber sizes.

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