Western big-game tags can be more elusive than the animals they allow you to hunt. The most desirable tags go to those few fortunate souls lucky enough to be drawn from a pool of applicants. If you didn’t draw this year, or you missed the draw altogether, don’t despair. Leftover licenses are available in most states, and some of those licenses are for high-quality hunting areas.

“If you want to hunt big game out West this year but did not apply or get drawn, you can still get a license,” says Hank Worsech, license bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “Montana has leftover general deer and elk licenses available that allow hunters to access some of the best habitat in our state.”

Leftover licenses are those that, for whatever reason, did not sell in the primary drawings. Changes in allocations, price increases, disease, and desirability all factor into whether or not a unit will have leftover licenses. Game units without much–or any–public land often have many leftover licenses. So be careful: There are horror stories of hunters who purchased leftover licenses and drove all the way across country only to find their unit was completely locked up in private land. They had to leave without hunting at all. Do careful research before committing to a tag in an area you know little about.

Do Your Homework
Thankfully, the information you need to make an informed decision is available through state game agencies. Each state has its own website loaded with license information, as well as trained specialists you can email or call. Also, a lot of friendly folks on internet hunting forums are willing to share information about Western game units.

The most important question you must answer is, “Where am I going to hunt?” If you plan to hunt public land, make sure it’s plentiful in the unit you choose. Get on the state game agency website and review the list of leftover licenses. Compare it with a game-unit map to locate a unit in the general area you’d like to hunt. Next, look through the success-rate information from previous seasons. This will tell you how many hunters held tags for the unit and how many of those tags were filled, giving you a pretty good idea of your own chance of success this year.

Failing to draw a coveted tag should be seen as just a bump in the road. If it happens to you, prepare to implement Plan B immediately. But keep in mind that most leftover licenses are sold on a first-come, first-served basis, so don’t delay.