There’s a lot of nuance that makes drawing an archery tag for Western big game a challenge. Rules and regulations vary by state and region, but these tips will help you put more tags in your pocket. Photo Credit: Bowhunters United

Making Sense of Bowhunting the West

  Erik Barber   BowhuntingFeatured   February 23, 2023

The American West is home to iconic big-game country with plentiful opportunities for bowhunters who want to chase game and enjoy the rugged landscape. Since most hunting licenses out West aren’t available over the counter, an organized system of logging application deadlines, point requirements and more is critical. 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 scattered across vast landscapes and separated by mountain ranges, river valleys, state lines and more. This means game managers need to implement regulations specific to the areas where big-game animals live. For example, a season structure that works in one region may not work in another. Different regions are broken into management units, which allows fish and wildlife agencies to apply specific management practices to reach their goals within the region. 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. These can also provide contact information for area biologists, who have real-time information about prospective hunting spots.


Tag Application Strategy


Some states rely on preference points and some use a random draw for tags. Photo Credit: John Hafner


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): 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 deploy creative 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, people 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, someone who’s 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.


Don’t Be a Point Collector


Enjoy hunts as soon as you get the points. Photo Credit: John Hafner


As Randy Newberg says, “Don’t be a point collector — you’ll run out of health before you run out of money.” Newberg has spent about as much time hunting the West as anyone, and he advocates for hunters to burn their points as soon as they have enough to successfully draw a license. You’ll have more fun and learn a lot by taking advantage of every hunting opportunity that’s presented. On the contrary, you’ll miss opportunities to enjoy hunting camp with friends and family and won’t learn nearly as much by limiting your hunts to only the most top-tier tags.



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, 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.





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