If a Western bowhunt is on your agenda, the hunt starts in spring, when most license application periods open. Before you start digging into the countless hours of research that lie ahead, it’s important to understand the nuances of the tag application process to build a strategy of your own. Ultimately, it’s crucial to create a short, intermediate and long-term plan to achieve your bowhunting goals.
Understanding Hunt Units
Western big-game herds are much more scattered than whitetails in the Midwest or East. As a result, Western states separate hunting areas into different units so they can balance hunting pressure and help certain areas reach their management goals. Public land availability and access, population density, and season dates can vary from one unit to the next. This information is readily available on state fish and wildlife agency websites, which can also provide contact information for area biologists, who have real-time information about prospective hunting spots.
Tag Application Strategy
If you’re bowhunting on a budget, narrow your focus to three states that use different draw systems. It’s essential to understand how the various draw systems work and how they should affect your application strategy before you get started. Here’s a look at the most common options for obtaining a big-game license in a Western state:
- Over-the-Counter: OTC licenses are the most reliable option for bowhunters because these tags can be purchased anywhere licenses are sold. With more opportunity comes increased hunting pressure, so temper your expectations and creatively deploy hunting tactics for heavily pressured areas
- Bonus Points: Think of bonus points just like you would a randomly drawn raffle at a local charity event — the more raffle tickets you buy and put in the hat, the greater the probability you’ll win the prize. Anyone can draw a tag in a bonus point system at any time. Still, those who’ve been applying over several consecutive years have a greater chance of drawing than those applying for the first time.
- Preference Points: States that utilize a preference point system award licenses to those with the most points. Bowhunters can purchase preference points each year until they eventually decide to apply for a license. Unfortunately, states that utilize this system sometimes end up with more people with the maximum number of points than available permits for a given unit, and that can increase the number of points required to draw as the years go on. That creates a situation known as “point creep” for some of the most desirable units, and it’s a problem for hunters just getting into the tag drawing process. For example, those interested in pulling a coveted Wyoming bighorn sheep tag won’t be able to draw it under the current preference point system, as thousands of folks are waiting their turn in the draw further ahead in line.
- Modified Preference Points: State agencies created modified preference point draws to combat point creep. While a portion of the tags are reserved for those with the highest number of preference points, the remaining tags are allocated in a random draw to everyone who applies for them.
- Random Draw: As the name implies, a random draw places everyone in the lottery on an even playing field. Everyone has the same chance of drawing a tag, and there aren’t any additional ways to increase your odds of drawing. Idaho, Alaska and New Mexico all offer random draw hunts.
Play the Middle
Don’t let point creep intimidate you. While some units may require the maximum amount of preference points possible to obtain a license, hunters can draw other units with fewer points and still find great hunting. Focus on these “lesser” units that still offer excellent opportunities with less pressure than you’d find in an OTC unit. These areas require you to do a bit of planning to draw the tag, so be sure to keep them as an intermediate goal in your application strategy. By keying on these areas, you’ll keep more licenses in your pocket and spend more time afield — and less time waiting on a tag that might be tough to draw.
You’ll want to apply for a random draw tag in a state where you’re on a level playing field with other bowhunters, but don’t overlook planning a hunt in a preference point state that requires two to five years of points to obtain the license. Then, leverage an OTC tag as a fallback option to ensure you’ll be able to hunt regardless of the outcome of your random draw opportunity.
Don’t overlook digital resources when you’re planning your next Western adventure. GoHUNT is a comprehensive online resource that provides information about application deadlines and draw odds, and it even helps hunters understand public land access and unit boundaries. Huntin’ Fool Magazine, a media company and community of dedicated western hunters, provides application strategy services for members who want one-on-one advice for planning their next trip. Beyond contacting a biologist in your hunt area, this is a great tool for resourceful bowhunters.