Western Tag Strategies

How to get drawn for a top limited-entry hunt.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The man was excited about hunting elk in Wyoming. He couldn't wait for the season to begin. We chatted about his upcoming adventure, and I remarked that he was fortunate to have drawn a nonresident tag. He gave me a funny look and said he hadn't purchased a tag yet. As it turned out, he believed he could buy one when he arrived for the hunt. He was unaware that nonresidents of Wyoming had to obtain elk tags in a limited-entry draw.

Many folks are blissfully ignorant about the availability of licenses and the application procedures you need to follow in order to hunt Western big game. Very few states offer nonresident tags across the counter; some even require residents to apply in a lottery. This applies not only to "premier" species such as bighorn sheep, moose and mountain goats, but to deer and elk as well.

If you're hunting with an outfitter, or working with a booking agent, he'll help you with your license application. If you're hunting on your own, however, you need to be aware of all the opportunities to beat the drawing odds.

Most Western states offer "preference points" that allow hunters to be more competitive for tags. These points accumulate each year and will guarantee you a license provided you keep applying long enough to collect the required number of points to get a tag. It works like this. Let's say you apply for an elk tag, and you don't draw. You'll get your money back, minus the modest application fee, and you'll receive a preference point. When you repeat the process the following year, you'll get a second preference point, and so on until you've gathered the required number for the unit you're applying for. The number of points required varies, because some units are more in demand than others.

Other states offer bonus points, which simply give you extra applications in the draw. Obviously, the more bonus points you have, the better your chances of drawing.

Playing the Odds
It's important to remember that points may be offered for general tags or limited-entry tags, depending on the state or the unit being applied for. For example, if you're a nonresident of Colorado and want to hunt elk there, you can simply walk into a store and buy a tag over the counter. But in Colorado, as in every Western state, there are limited-entry units with hunter quotas. If you want to hunt one of these prized units, you must have the appropriate number of points accumulated. It's also important to know that you can apply for a limited-entry tag in Colorado, and if you don't draw, you'll gain your point, but you can still buy a general tag for that fall's hunt. In other words, you won't have forfeited your hunt in Colorado that year if you're willing to hunt the general seasons.

Waiting Your Turn
Other systems apply in a few states. In Wyoming, for example, a preference-point system was established eight years ago for both resident and nonresident moose and bighorn sheep tags. If you started applying for tags when the system began, you'd have eight points now and be at the "top of the heap." It would be only a matter of time before you drew. But if you started later and had only three or four points, you'd still have a long wait. The Wyoming Wildlife Commission realized the unfairness of this system, and after the new point system was in place for a year, it amended the procedure so that 25 percent of the tags go to anyone, regardless of points.

I'm a firm believer in limited-entry units, even in my home state of Wyoming, where I apply for a trophy elk tag each year. I also apply for limited-entry tags for elk and other species around the West. I'm not successful most of the time, of course, but when I am, it's worth the effort. I've drawn tags for Colorado and Utah moose, Montana bighorns and Arizona and New Mexico elk, among others.

You'd think hunters would lie awake all night, figuring where thhey want to apply before the application period begins, but that's not the case. These are some of the least explored hunting options out there. I apply for some of these tags myself, but I also use a licensing service to help me apply for the bulk of them. I use United States Outfitters (800-845-9929), the oldest service of its kind. This dependable company not only takes care of all the paperwork, but works with you to locate the type of hunt you're looking for and make sure you receive your points.

Do yourself a favor if you're hoping for a low-cost, quality Western hunt. Think points-the more the better. It's worth the effort to learn how to play this system. The time it takes to stack the deck is time well spent.