July 27, 2023
I've had a few fancy-to-tags that took two decades to draw. Both were terrific hunts, but I'd go bonkers if I had to wait 20 years between pursuits.
I'm a hunter. I love chasing animals — any kind of animals — anywhere. For that reason, most of my tags each year are OTC. If you're not up on the hunting abbreviation lingo, OTC stands for over-the-counter, meaning unlimited tags. I love OTC tags. Sure, more tags mean more hunters, but I'm a happy hunter if I can get out and grind on open-to-anyone dirt.
Sadly, it feels, to some degree, like OTC tags are on the ropes. Take my home state of Colorado. In high school, I could purchase archery deer tags OTC. Today, all deer tags in Colorado are a limited quota draw. In Nebraska, deer tags get slugged as OTC, but the state has capped the number. Nonresident tags go on sale on a specific date, and then once the set-by-the-state number of permits gets sold, they are gone. That's not an actual, pure OTC system; this change occurred this year.
In South Dakota, I used to buy my statewide pronghorn permit at the Pierre office when I arrived for my hunt. Today, nonresident hunters must apply in a drawing.
Of course, there are many states with OTC possibilities, even for western big game, and if you understand each state's system and how it works, you'll have no trouble putting plenty of tags in your pocket each year.
Let's dive in!
We don't have the word count to break down all 50 states and how you can go about getting tags in those states. Primarily, you need to know the jargon, the vocabulary, the terminology, and then you can start researching and find tags that require no waiting period and apply for those that do.
When you're looking for a tag for a particular species, and you see OTC, keep reading. In some states, like Colorado, elk tags are unlimited in number to residents and nonresidents alike in specific big-game units. Those coming to the Centennial State with stick-and-string can even purchase elk permits after the season has started. In fact, Colorado also offers a litany of OTC rifle tags for elk, but those tags must be purchased before the start of the season. The only exception is the state's East of I-25 plains elk tag, which runs from September 1 through January 31. Hunters can buy this tag at any point during the season.
The same goes for whitetail permits in Ohio. Nonresidents and residents can buy tags with no waiting period. This is common in many states east of the Mississippi for those looking to hunt whitetail.
Sometimes, though, OTC is followed by the word w/Caps. With Caps means, the state allocates a certain number of permits for a species and sets an on-sale date. Once the tags go on sale, they remain available until the cap (quota) is reached.
In states like Idaho, where elk tags were once unlimited for nonresidents, the state has set caps on archery permits. According to Idaho Fish and Game, tags in popular elk units were gone within hours of the licenses being sold in 2022. I am penning this so you know to start immediately. If you want an OTC tag with caps, stay ready and be on the ball. Be sure your internet connection is solid, and learn how to navigate the state's online license sale system. It's also important to be patient. It's not uncommon when OTC licenses with caps go on sale for a website to crash or for extended waits.
Nebraska's nonresident archery deer permits are another example. Last year, I purchased my permit online from Nebraska's Game & Parks Commission two days before my annual hunt. A short time after my trip, I got an email telling me that nonresident 2023 archery deer permits would go on sale on June 24, 2023, and the cap would be 3,000 permits.
Many states that once allowed hunters to purchase a permit at a license sales office or one of the state's wildlife office locations have gone to a draw system. This is why it's so important to take a few hours and read each state's rules and regulations brochures each year. Things change, and the hunt you've been planning for a year might only happen if you discover the change. I also recommend signing up for newsletters from every wildlife department you can think of. If you sign up for newsletters, you know about changes well in advance.
Several years back, South Dakota went from nonresidents purchasing an East River or West River or both archery tags online before the season from a South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks office once the season started to a Nonresident Archery Public Land Permit that must be applied for starting in mid-April. If you apply, you get the tag, but if you miss the application deadline because you don't stay up on changes, you'll be in for a rude awakening when you try to purchase your permit.
Many states go the limited quota route, especially west of the Mississippi. Limited quota typically means that tags for a specific species in a particular region/area of the state are not unlimited. There is a quota, and tags come through a drawing. This means hunters must fill out an application — most states have this process set up online — and then tag winners are chosen.
How popular limited quota units are is usually based on the quality of critters the area produces. For example, there are limited quota units in Colorado that I can apply for and pull an elk permit every year, and then there are units like the one I drew last fall that requires a 10-year wait.
How each state goes about awarding tags is different. New Mexico, for example, is a lottery state. A lottery means that every hunter applying for a tag has the same odds of drawing. While I like lottery systems, hunters can go their entire life and never draw a premium limited quota tag.
Limited quota tags via preference points are a popular option for many states, and if the state honors an accurate preference point system, it is my favorite. In this system, hunters who apply for a limited quota tag and don't draw it receive a preference point. This means that next year that preference point gives the hunter another name in the drawing hat.