The best way to insure a successful big game hunt in fall of 2019 is to develop a plan to acquire the right tags for the right hunts right now.
Depending upon the state, there are up to five ways to procure a big game tag. The two that come to most people’s minds involve purchasing a tag over-the-counter or applying for a limited entry tag. The less common approaches are applying for the state’s big game tag lotteries, buying a land owners tag (or trespass rights) or successfully bidding on a tag at auction.
Idaho has by far the simplest system to get a big game tag. The state allocates a specific number of tags to residents and non-residents and then every hunter in those groups has the same odds. Most deer and elk tags can be purchased over the counter on a first-come, first-served basis. Some deer and elk hunting units require applications as do pronghorn, sheep, goat and moose. Deer, elk and pronghorn applications are due in early June, while the once in a lifetime species applications are due at the end of April. In order to apply for a big game hunt, you must first purchase a license. Based on what I could find, the only tags that are regularly available for auction are for sheep.
By comparison, Utah has the most convoluted big game tag system. The only way to purchase an over-the-counter tag is if not enough people apply for them. Instead, all tags are available through an application process with different rules and preference point systems for general deer tags and the remainder of the limited entry permits. Overall, the more years a person has been applying without receiving a tag, the greater their chance of drawing a tag. If you have been applying for a specific tag long enough, you are guaranteed to draw, even it that process takes 20 years. You must purchase a hunting license to apply and applications are due by March 7.
In addition to limited entry permits, Utah offers hundreds of tags for auctions and the ability to purchase tags from landowners in the Cooperative Wildlife Management Units program, within the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Getting tags in these ways can cost $1,000 for a cow elk or over $300,000 for some mule deer hunts. The largest number of these tags are auctioned or sold at the Western Hunting Expo held in Salt Lake City in February. The ability to buy a tag every year and quality of these hunts are one of the reasons why so many hunting shows are filmed in Utah.
In Wyoming, residents can generally purchase tags over-the-counter. For non-residents, the state remains the cheapest and fairest system in the west. There is no requirement to buy a hunting license and all hunters who apply have a chance, albeit low, to receive a tag. You can increase your odds each year if you pay for a preference point.
These points accumulate and eventually insure you receive a tag. Depending upon which hunt you apply for, you can get a deer tag every year or once a decade. Wyoming has a few more auction tags than does Idaho, but far less than Utah. Deer and pronghorn applications are due May 31 and elk applications close today.
Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming have all started raffling off a limited number of big game tags. Wyoming and Idaho allows everyone to buy opportunities, while Utah only allows residents. These are true raffles, as everyone who buys an opportunity has a chance. The more chances you buy, the more likely you are to draw a tag. While not completely fair, these lotteries provide additional chances for a tag while supporting the state’s fish and game departments.
If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. There are now companies whose sole purpose are to help hunters go through the application process in a manner that gives them the best odds of receiving a tag for a specific species given the amount of money they’re willing to spend.
The take home from this is if you’re willing to spend $5,000 or more on a hunt, you will have great opportunities every year. In contrast, if you are a do-it-yourselfer like most of us, it is worth learning the in-and-outs of the application process of multiple states so as to ensure being able to go on a challenging but good hunt every other year. The failure to make the proper decisions now, however, could greatly limit your chance of a successful hunt during next fall’s big game season.