Two types of guaranteed tags in the West

Maximize your hunting every year by thinking outside the box

Dave Barnett

With the coming of the new year, most of my focus has been shifting to plans for my upcoming season. Draw deadlines will be here before we know it and careful planning needs to start immediately to ensure a fun, fulfilling, and hopefully, successful upcoming season.

For me, the application season is going to be an interesting one. Basically, my points in a few states were cleared, and the states that I still have points in will require more than I have to draw a tag in. With this delicate predicament in mind, most of my planning is turning towards over-the-counter (OTC) tags and/or permits that require the absolute bare minimum of points to draw with the primary emphasis being on where my highest odds of success are.

In the current state of western hunting, it’s no shocker that hunter participation is increasing, and consistent success and opportunity are decreasing. Now is the time to shift your focus because while opportunities to fill tags yearly are still present, hunters need to lean heavily on tools that are available to make the most of their time and money.

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OTC and Guaranteed Draw Tags

Perhaps one of the more overlooked areas in the realm of opportunity hunts in the West can be found in some of the most obvious places. Draw hunts and permits often get a bad rap as hunters commonly associate these with dismally low odds and years of disappointment. However, in every western state, there are a good chunk of hunts every year that are drawn with zero points, as second-choice options or picked up from a leftover list.

Among many hunting circles, you are going to hear many of the same gripes with OTC tags: lots of competition, low game densities, low harvest success, private lands issues — the list can go on and on. While great hunting can be found on OTC tags throughout the West, it is true that tougher hunting conditions are generally found in these units. This can be an especially tough pill to swallow when you factor in the money putting an out-of-state hunt together takes. And, while the kill is not the end all factor of the hunt, having some tangible protein for the freezer does make the financial sting a little less noticeable.

Guaranteed Draw Tags

A guaranteed draw is a blanket term we are using to describe hunts that can generally be drawn on zero points or are available as a leftover license. While “guaranteed” can be a scary word to use when it comes to draw odds, these hunts can generally be drawn every year with zero points. A lot of these hunts will come in the form of antlerless opportunities; however, hunters will be surprised to see what is available for bucks and bulls as well. Typically speaking, there is a reason these hunts are guaranteed: lack of public access options, low trophy quality, poor dates, etc.. Yet, those who plan and accommodate for these struggles can still find themselves in a very favorable position.

When looking at these guaranteed tags I like to consider them in a few different ways. Some are going to offer great opportunities to simply fill the freezer like antlerless hunts. Others are going to simply provide the opportunity to hunt while mitigating some of the negative impacts that come with OTC tags. Really, the decision on which to pursue will boil down to the aspirations and goals of each hunter.

Guaranteed Draw Tags — Antlerless

Those who find themselves looking for tags in this category are going to gain the most from this yearly tag approach. Every year, a good number of antlerless tags are drawn with zero points or find their way onto leftover license lists across the West. Now, as we noted earlier, these hunts will generally bring some hurdles with them — private land being one of the largest — but finding ways to work around these can quickly lead to a punched tag. While researching and applying for these hunts, it is always smart to research which state you are applying for and understand how their draw process works. Some states will draw antlerless hunts in the same draw as antlered hunts, meaning that if you draw the hunt, you will lose all of your accumulated points. On the same hand, some states draw antlerless hunts in a separate draw that will not affect your buck or bull points. Further, some of these hunts can be picked up from a leftover list, which will also generally not affect your points. The bottom line here is that even with antlerless hunts, it pays to have a good application strategy.

Guaranteed Draw Tags — Bucks and Bulls

Beyond antlerless tags, hunters can also find some great opportunities with either-sex and antlered tags. These hunts typically won’t see the same success rates that antlerless hunts will; however, they do have the obvious antler appeal. In many cases, hunters may be dealing with higher tag numbers (compared to other draw hunts), less favorable dates, more private land, etc. But remember: thinking outside of the box can land you some great opportunities. As with the antlerless hunts, some of these can be picked up as second-choice options and will not affect your current accumulated points. This can be a great way to continue to build knowledge and experience in a state or for a species while still preparing yourself for a more desirable tag in the future. At the end of it, the only way to get better at filling tags is to fill more tags.


Examples of Guaranteed Draw Tag Opportunities

It can take some digging, but utilizing tools like Filtering and our standalone draw odds pages can be a great way to quickly determine where and when you’ll have good options. Personally, I am a huge visual learner and some specific examples really help me grasp these concepts.

Scenario 1

You are looking to rifle hunt elk in Colorado. Trophy size is not a huge requirement and any legal bull is perfect. Throughout your research, you have found that elk do not like hunting pressure and that most hunts occur during the post-rut stages. Through your research and in talking with friends, you have decided that Unit 63 is an area you would like to hunt.

Colorado Elk Breakdown — Unit 63

Data

Hunter numbers

First rifle*

Up to 150

Second rifle OTC

219

Third rifle OTC

167

Fourth rifle*

Up to 15

Data

Harvest scuccess**

First rifle*

16%

Second rifle OTC

13%

Third rifle OTC

7%

Fourth rifle*

25%

Data

First rifle*

Second rifle OTC

Third rifle OTC

Fourth rifle*

Hunter numbers

Up to 150

219

167

Up to 15

Harvest scuccess**

16%

13%

7%

25%

*Hunt was drawn at zero points in 2021

**Harvest success statistics for 2021 not yet available

As you can see in the above table, the two draw hunts carried the lower hunter numbers while also maintaining the highest harvest percentages. The fourth rifle season comes with its own unique set of challenges, but the first rifle has a few good things going for it. This season puts me out in the field ahead of the second rifle OTC elk hunters and the second season deer hunters and it’s also letting me hit the woods after a two week break from the end of archery season. Even with no points, this hunt is putting me in better shape than a lot of the OTC hunts in the state.


Scenario 2

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