If you’re not sure if you’re an optimist or pessimist, start researching hunting lottery preference points and draw odds in random Western states. You’ll figure out pretty quickly whether your glass is half full or half empty. You’ll also find that if you’re interested in high prestige, limited-supply critters, you could build decades’ worth of points and never draw a tag.
This is a reality for nonresident Western hunters. The outlook isn’t likely to get any rosier, either. Some tags are just out-of-reach for non-residents starting now, and others will be soon enough.
But the process of building points and drawing licenses isn’t limited to mountainous states. Whitetail hunters can get in on the action, too. The good news here is that none of these hunts will take 25 years to draw, and most will provide an unbelievable public land experience.
Fantasy Land Tag
A non-resident Iowa archery tag might be the most coveted whitetail license out there. I drew my first one in 2009, second in 2013, and third in 2020. Those three tags were the gateway to 440 inches of antler on my wall and freezer full of cornfed venison. They were also the ticket to the most enjoyable whitetail hunting I’ve ever had.
Last season, while hunting only public land in a part of Iowa not known for giants, I had one day in early October where I saw 26 deer from stand. Of those, seven were bucks that ranged from 100 to 170 inches. It was unreal. It was Iowa.
But pencil pushers at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources know they’re sitting on a hot commodity, which means you’ll pay for the chance to hunt there. Preference points can be bought during the application period that generally runs through May, and will set you back about $60. You’ll likely need at least one or two to hunt the worst units in Iowa, and three to five to draw some of the prized zones. If you start buying points this spring, plan on another year or two beyond those predictions due to point creep.
Hawkeye State research will show you that southern zones are where it’s at. These are areas that outdoor celebrities flocked to a decade or two ago, and have garnered the most attention due to the sheer quantity and quality of bucks they hold.
The real secret to Iowa, however, isn’t tied to a region. It’s due to the timing of their firearm season, resident hunter numbers, and of course, their limited non-resident quota system. If you draw anywhere in Iowa, you can have a great hunt—period.
It just won’t be cheap. Current license and stamp fees tally up to nearly $650. Add in the cost of a few points and you’re nearly to non-resident elk license price. It’s not for everyone, but the reality is you’re paying a premium to have a premium experience. A trip here should put plenty of 130- to 150-class deer within reach, and promises the possibility of something much larger.
Iowa’s preference point system is simple. North Dakota’s is not. Don’t let the added complications dissuade you if you’re interested in a late-season muzzleloader hunt. Information on tags available for non-residents hinges on licenses allocated to residents in a given year. This is determined by game counts, so planning ahead is tricky because quotas are tied to current-year populations. Applications also result in points, which are subject to multipliers—meaning the more you apply and accrue points, the more times your future application will be tossed into the drawing.
Non-resident licenses, which are offered at a rate of 1% of the total resident tags for the year, are further parsed out between rifle and muzzleloader tags. So, there aren’t very many to go around. In 2020, only six buck tags were available to non-residents. This is bad news if you want to draw one quickly, but good news if you like having elbow room in the deer woods. The late November/early December muzzleloader season is a low-participation event.
Because of this, you might be able to knock on doors and get permission, but you won’t have to. Instead, research big chunks of public land with river systems flowing through them. Then, start narrowing down your e-scouting to those spots where there are obvious ag fields within a reasonable distance of river bottom cover. During this process, don’t forget the left half of the state, which is known more for Western critters. Some of the best whitetail hunting you’ll find anywhere is out there tucked in the breaks and Badlands.
There are a plenty of states where a non-resident can buy over-the-counter rifle tags and have a quality hunt. Others, like South Dakota, take a few points to draw. In western SoDak, you can find a variety of whitetail rifle tags that drop you in the heart of the rut. There’s a sizable orange army, but the public land in the northwestern part of the state and along the Missouri River allow you to avoid crowds. The Black Hills is its own unit, which has whitetail tags that can be picked up with three or four points.
Kansas offers up various zones that are nearly a guaranteed draw, or you might have to build up a point or two. A good strategy in the Sunflower State is to buy a preference point for $26.50 in April instead of going all in to draw a license. Banking a point or two in Kansas can really help you plan a hunt, especially if you’re looking to hunt public land. Be warned that you’ll have plenty of company, and the days of 150-inch bucks behind every tree are gone.
Colorado is another option. You might actually have a 150-inch stud behind every tree, because in the eastern part of the state, there are only about seven trees. The plains of Colorado have churned out some monster whitetails in recent years, and while it’s a tough go to find public land, it’s not impossible.
Colorado’s non-resident deer licenses are available through a lottery, which closes in early April. Look to units located east of I-25 for an early December hunt, and then dig into recent draw odds. Some units are undersold every year, while others might require a little long-game planning. The late firearm window is an interesting choice for anyone willing to contact a few ranchers and ask for whitetail permission. By then, much of the hunting season is in the rearview mirror and your odds of securing private land are much higher. You might be surprised at the quality of whitetails you can find lurking in the wide-open countryside—especially if that countryside happens to have a cottonwood-framed river running through it.
Feature image via Captured Creative.