The Hunting Tag Lottery

The Hunting Tag Lottery

You can't afford expensive lease fees? Limited-entry hunts may be your route to quality bowhunting.

My 6-point Arizona bull elk attests that you do not have to hunt a private ranch or hire a guide to enjoy quality hunting. Just play the hunting-tag lottery.

After a short hike, we skirted a steep canyon and set up on a slight depression that was a natural funnel. After I'd made a few cow calls, a bull let out a low guttural bugle from just over a rise, and a cow and calf emerged -- followed by antlers. The two lead elk walked by me within easy bow range. Our setup went undetected.

As the bull started up the funnel and followed the moves of the other elk, he reared his head back and curled his lips to catch their scent. He was hesitant to make a move; more than a minute passed, and I had to let down my draw. He started to rake a juniper, and I got a good look at his 6-point frame. Then, as if scripted, he walked down the cinder trail a little higher than the previous two, stepped into the wide open, and stood perfectly broadside. I snapped the string back, settled the pin on a piece of scuffed tawny hide, and drove the carbon shaft to the fletching into his chest, 38 yards away.

At the impact, the bull wheeled, ran back up the rise, and crashed through a dead oak, sending sticks flying in his wake -- and then all was quiet. After 45 minutes, Pete and I followed the sparse blood trail roughly 75 yards and found the bull piled up behind a blowdown. The hunt was done four hours into the season, and I was ecstatic. My elk was by no means a desert monster, but at 324 inches net, he's my largest elk. And coming from public land, he's a real beauty.

THIS HUNT ALL STARTED after work early one morning in July when I checked the Arizona Game and Fish website and saw the magic words "AWARDED ARCHERY BULL ELK" behind my name. I had to double-check to be sure I wasn't dreaming because, with only four bonus points, I wasn't statistically supposed to draw for a few more years. This was my first premium archery tag in the West, and it resulted from my strategy for applying for out-of-state tags.

Let's face it -- quality hunting opportunities today that don't break the bank are getting scarce. A few years ago I was paying significant money for small-acreage leases in my home state of Wisconsin. Trouble was, after the first couple of weeks of the season, with intense hunting pressure all around me, my private "honey holes" were no better than the large public areas five miles down the road.

At the end of one disappointing season, I decided to pursue a different strategy. First, with a little legwork, I uncovered a few private and public lands close to home that did not require me to pay the expensive lease fees.

Second, I researched every possible limited-entry, out-of-state hunting opportunity I could afford and invested the lease money in application fees, as well as bonus and preference points.

Applying for limited-entry hunts was by no means a new endeavor for me. In previous years, I had drawn a Montana elk tag, many Iowa deer tags, and a Wisconsin bear tag. In all cases, I'd had quality hunts due to the limited competition.

While reading and researching, I collect nuggets of information and file them for future reference. My filing cabinet holds a treasure of ideas for planning quality, low-cost hunts across the U.S.

You might think the only way to assure a quality out-of-state experience is by laying down serious money for a guided hunt or a private ranch hunt. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there are great outfitters and fabulous private lands. However, many top-quality hunts take place on public lands, open to anyone with a valid license. The key is to acquire that license through the state's drawing process. States like Arizona, Utah, and Nevada manage their wildlife for trophy quality second to none, and because of stingy tag allocations, hunting pressure is light. When you draw a limited-entry tag in one of these states, you can look forward to an outstanding experience.

You can call each state to get license information, but your best strategy is to use a combination of the Internet, books, and magazine articles. For years I have kept files on every hunt in every state I apply for. Whenever I find a new piece of information, I file it in the appropriate file. Over the years, I have built incredible databases that serve me well when I'm lucky enough to draw tags.

Another approach is to subscribe to a licensing service such as Cabela's T.A.G.S., Western Hunter Application Services, and Carter's Hunter Services. For a nominal fee per license, these services do all the work of applying and researching hunts for you. I subscribe to Carter's "The Huntin' Fool" to gather information and ideas, but I still fill out the applications and do the research myself.

Most quality hunts have low drawing odds. That's why I apply for as many hunts as possible. A few years of applying will at least get me in the ballgame, and with a little luck, I'll start drawing at least one quality tag per year. Generally, I apply only for hunts with at least 10-percent drawing odds, which statistically means I can expect to draw the license within 10 years.

I do apply for some once-in-a-lifetime hunts with drawing odds of 100 to 1 or poorer. In the case of mountain goats and bighorn sheep, the odds don't get much better than that. I hope to draw at least one of these tags someday, but to expect more than one would be unrealistic.

TO MAXIMIZE YOUR ODDS for drawing premium tags, keep a couple of points in mind. One, as I've mentioned above, apply for as many hunts each year as you can afford. If you have out enough applications, you're bound to draw sooner or later.

Two, consistently acquire bonus points and preference points in states with point systems. Points are given at the rate of one per year for every year and species you fail to draw, and points accrue until you draw a license.

Most states now offer the option of simply buying points without actually applying for a license. This enables you to plan and to avoid drawing multiple tags in years when you're short on hunting time. I personally would rather spend more time and hunt for a quality animal than to have multiple tags in one fall and not do any of them justice. Thus, when I'm short on time, I just buy points, rather than applying for licenses.

My consistency in applying for premium hunts paid off for me in Iowa with this 199-pound, 11-point whitetail.

The difference between bonus and preference points is significant. In the preference-point system, applicants with the most points are guaranteed to draw tags, while those with fewer points are guaranteed not to draw. So it's critical to acquire preference points each year so you eventually will rise to the top to guarantee yourself a tag. The number of preference points required to draw can vary greatly. In Colorado, Iowa, and Kansas, two or three points will guarantee you a deer tag. In Colorado, you'll need 15 or more preference points to draw some premier elk units.

Bonus points simply give you additional chances in the tag lottery. That is, the more years you apply and fail to draw, the more times your name goes into the hat the next year. This system never guarantees that you will draw a tag, but it never guarantees you will fail to draw, either. Every year, people with no bonus points draw premium tags, while others with a dozen or more points fail to draw. Still, the more points you have, the better your odds. So it pays to acquire as many bonus points as possible. Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Montana are states that award bonus points.

New Mexico and Idaho have no point systems, and everyone has an equal chance of drawing every year. Idaho restricts the number of species a person can apply for, so the odds of drawing in Idaho for rare species like sheep, moose, and goats are better than average compared to other states.

TO DEMONSTRATE THE value of applying consistently, I'll relate one of my first limited-entry hunts, in the whitetail Mecca of Iowa. On a summer scouting trip, my dad and I had got permission to hunt a farm and located a likely stand site where the corner of an 80-acre woodlot came within 50 yards of an old service road. A small farmstead lay to the west of this corner, and hundreds of acres of harvested crop fields spread to the east. The corner seemed an obvious bottleneck, although I questioned whether a mature buck would cross the scant cover into our timber during daylight hours. Later that summer, my dad placed a stand in that corner. It would be huntable with a northeast wind.

On the blustery morning of November 3, I arrived at the property too late to hunt a favorite feeding area stand, which left Dad's corner stand as my only option. The windy conditions would not promote deer movement, and this was an unproven stand site. I was skeptical, but had no choice.

At first shooting light, I was strapped into the tree, facing into the harsh wind. After about 10 minutes, I surveyed the open fields and fenceline and turned my back into the wind and thought of what a long day this could turn out to be.

Minutes later, through the rhythmic howling of the wind, there was a thrashing noise from the crossing area. I turned and was shocked to see a 250-pound whitetail moving double-time across the service road, through the ditch, and toward my shooting lane. I grabbed my bow, snapped the release onto the string, and as he paused quartering away at 13 yards, I sent a scalpel-sharp Muzzy through his vitals.

As happens many times in bowhunting, this event transpired so fast it seemed surreal. One minute I was thinking about what I'd have for lunch in six hours, and the next minute I was staring through my peep at a Pope and Young whitetail.

I gave the deer a couple of hours and then gathered some friends to take up the trail. By noon, we were taking pictures of my beautiful chocolate-antlered brute. Yes, I killed this deer on private land, but the farmer never turns down anyone who wants to hunt. Hunting pressure was limited primarily through Iowa's cap on nonresident archery tags.

Because all states have slightly different systems, getting started in the application process can be a bit overwhelming. However, after a couple of seasons of applying you'll catch on and find the application process a fun part of the hunt. And if you're consistent in playing the hunting-tag lottery over the years, you'll reap trophy rewards.

Author's Note: For my Arizona elk, I used a Mathews Legend bow, Carbon Express arrows, Muzzy broadheads, Danner boots, Cabela's CLR800 rangefinder, Pentax binoculars, and the ever- important Camelbak hydration system.

When the author isn't traveling to out-of-state bowhunting destinations, he can be found at home in Winneconne, Wisconsin. This is his first story for Bowhunter.

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