You want to hunt elk. I know you do. But let’s say your state doesn’t have elk. Of maybe it doesn’t have tags you’re likely to draw in this lifetime. Or maybe you just want to hunt some different scenery. Then you’re going to need to learn about tags: how to apply and how to draw. For us do-it-yourself, public-land hunters, applying for tags outside our home state can sometimes be as pleasant as sitting on a hornet’s nest. But I’m here to help.
As a guy who now hunts a good five months of the year for fun and for my TV show, I’ve been forced to learn to navigate the sometimes maddening blowdown of state regs. I’ll walk you through the process. The crux decision is what kind of elk hunt do you want? The answer will lead you to where you want to hunt, and how to apply to hunt. Don’t put this off. Deadlines loom.
Most western states manage certain areas for unlimited or liberal hunting opportunity and other areas for big, trophy bulls.
It’s classic quantity versus quality. You need to decide if you simply want the best chance to draw a tag, or if you want the best chance at a really big bull.
States such as Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah limit their tags in most areas, and so typically produce far more mature bulls. Your odds of drawing a quality tag in those states are not good the first few times you apply. Of course simply pulling a tag never guarantees a trophy. But your odds of seeing one or more big, old bulls are very good.
At the same time, if you just want to hunt elk and aren’t worried about the record books, Colorado and Idaho are your best states for a tag. The increased opportunity often comes at a price, though. In many units, you’re more likely to see other hunters and less likely to see big bulls. You may be hard-pressed just to find a legal bull. Yet do not think for a minute that trophies are absent in these areas. Every year, record-book bulls are taken on the general rifle elk hunts in both Montana and Wyoming, and Colorado and Idaho as well.
There are certainly other opportunities out there, but as a public land hunter, I primarily look to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Canada offers some amazing elk hunting, but nonresidents are required to have a guide, so I don’t apply there. There are a number of up-and-coming elk states such as Arkansas and Oklahoma, but much of that hunting is private land hunting for a fee. Kentucky and Pennsylvania now offer nonresident tags with some great public land hunting, but you better have your lucky horseshoe if applying there.
The Point Game
You want to hunt elk this year, so you need a good strategy to increase the odds that you will get a tag. You need to know how to play the point game. Most western states have some sort of program that awards you better future drawing odds for each year you are unsuccessful in their drawing lottery. The programs fall into one of two categories—preference points or bonus points. Idaho and New Mexico are the only states that do not accrue any benefit to unsuccessful applicants.
Simply put, a preference point system awards the tags to the applicant with the most points. A preference point is earned each year you strike out and don’t draw. If you have 10 points, you will be awarded a tag before any applicants with nine points or less. After all people with 10 points are awarded a tag, then tags will be awarded to those with nine points, continuing down the point ladder until the tags are gone.
Preference points benefit those who have been in the point game the longest. This system offers the closest thing you can get to a guarantee that you will eventually draw a tag. It also lets you predict fairly reliably which year you will be hunting, as many states publish how many points it historically takes to draw a tag for your unit. (That is, unless the threshold increases every year because there are too many people with high points, which some states are struggling with now).
Bonus points should be viewed as raffle tickets. For each point you have, you get an additional “raffle ticket.” If you have eight bonus points, you have eight random numbers assigned to you, making your drawing odds eight times greater than the neophyte applicant with no bonus points.
The beauty of a bonus point system is that even if you have no bonus points, you have a statistical chance of drawing in any year. A state like Nevada squares your bonus points. So, if you have five bonus points, you are awarded 25 random numbers, plus the current year application, giving you 26 random numbers.
Some states issue only a portion of their tags based on the point system, allowing the rest to be drawn based on random application, without regard for points. Wyoming issues 75 percent of their nonresident tags based on preference points; the remainder are strictly random luck-of-the-draw.
Nearly every state charges a non-refundable application fee, typically around $20, and many require all license fees up front. When you don’t draw they refund most or all of it. But be sure to read the regs carefully and know the limits on your credit card.
Here’s my strategy
- I start in January when three of my states have a deadline near: Wyoming is January 31, while Arizona is due in February and Utah on March 1. All three now accept online applications. If you submit a paper application, allow ample time for mailing, as many states use the date it was received, not the date it was mailed.
- Given the difficult odds in Utah and Arizona, I use them as my long-shot options. I look to Wyoming as my best chance for a good hunt. Wyoming has lots of elk in the western half of the state, and fortunately, that is where most of the public land lies. I will apply for the general tag in Wyoming. That tag gives me some really good units to hunt—not the best units, but every year, huge bulls are shot on that tag, and the odds of drawing are good. Best of all, I will know my results by the end of February, before I must apply in Montana, New Mexico, Colorado or Nevada.
- If I draw in Wyoming, I can apply only for points in those remaining states, knowing those points will be helpful for future years. Since I have already applied in Arizona and Utah, I hope to buck the odds and draw one of those “miracle tags,” though it is highly unlikely.
- After all the drawings are done, if I find myself without a tag, Colorado has many units that allow me to purchase a tag over-the-counter. I’ve done this the past two seasons and had great hunts. Barring some windfall of long-odds tags, I’ll most likely do it again this year. Any way you shake it, I know I’m going to be hunting elk somewhere every fall. And you should be, too.