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APPLICATION STRATEGY 2021: California Deer and Antelope

Main writer: Jordan Christensen of The Draw

CALIFORNIA'S 2021 DEER AND ANTELOPE APPLICATION OVERVIEW

Jump to: NEW FOR 2021 State Information Draw System Mule Deer Breakdown Columbia Blacktail Deer Breakdown Antelope Breakdown

If you are looking towards the Golden State for a chance to go hunting this year, you are either a resident or you have had some seriously bad luck in the other states out West. Regardless, if your goal is simply to go hunting this year, there are many options to choose from in California and there is lots of public land you can target for this goal. The trophy quality and success rates leave a lot to be desired though. But if a hunt is better than no hunt and you are still looking for something to lose sleep over this late into the spring, then maybe this is exactly what you are looking for. California does not separate residents and nonresidents when drawing for deer permits and there is only one nonresident antelope permit available each year, which makes the odds of drawing that one tag near impossible. However, if you are going to apply for deer or any other species that requires you to purchase the hunting license, you may as well throw your name into the hat for all species of interest as it's only an additional $8.13 to apply and who knows? Maybe it's your year. 

Note: The application deadline for all species in California is June 2, 2021 at 11:59 p.m. PST. You can apply online here.


New for 2021

Deer tag classification changes

There are a few changes for the 2021 deer season. Below are several tags that have changed classifications.

From unrestricted deer tags to premium deer tags:

  • D6 – tag quota filled on 6/16/2020 
  • D16 – tag quota filled on 6/24/2020 
  • A32 – tag quota filled on 7/2/2020

Antlerless mule deer draw odds

Find your resident antlerless mule deer odds here

Find your nonresident antlerless mule deer draw odds here

Antlerless Columbian blacktail draw odds

Find your resident antlerless blacktail draw odds here

Find your nonresident antlerless blacktail draw odds here


State information

To view important information and an overview of the California rules/regulations, the draw system, tag and license fees and an interactive boundary line map, check out our State Profile.

California State Profile Mule Deer Profile Columbian Blacktail Deer Profile Antelope Profile Draw Odds Filtering 2.0 gohunt maps

Important dates and information

  • You may begin applying now.
  • The deadline to apply is June 2, 2021 at 11:59 p.m. PST.
  • You can apply online here.
  • If you just want to pick up points, the deadline is also June 2, 2021 at 11:59 p.m. PST.
  • The state has 10 business days after the application period to conduct the drawing. Draw results will be posted around June 17, 2021.
  • The deadline to purchase antelope, elk and desert bighorn sheep tags is July 15, 2021.
  • Leftover premium deer tags are available (first deer tag) on July 2, 2021.
  • Leftover premium deer tags are available (second deer tag) on Aug. 2, 2021.

Harvest reports

Deer tag holders who fail to submit a harvest report for any 2021 deer tag by Jan. 31, 2022 will be assessed a $21.60 non-reporting fee when purchasing a deer tag drawing application or deer tag in the 2022 license year.

All applicants are required to show proof of a hunter’s education course prior to applying. This can be done in a variety of ways. For a full list of these options, check out our California State Profile.

Nonlead ammunition required statewide

As of July 1, 2019, all hunters must use nonlead ammunition when taking any wildlife in California, except when hunting with a pellet rifle for approved species. Check out this recent goHUNT article here for more information.

Drought conditions in California

Things are still headed in the wrong direction in the Golden State. With a continuation of what we saw last year, California — like many of the western states — is not looking too good. The bulk of the northern half of the state is in a very bad drought, which makes up the bulk of the quality hunting Game Management Units (GMU) in the state. However, if you are looking for some sort of silver lining, Zone B for deer as well as the extreme southern part of the state is doing okay — or at least compared to the rest of the state.

2021

California Drought Monitor

Data as of May 11, 2021. Source: US Drought Monitor

2020

California drought monitor 2020

Data from May 12, 2020. Source: US Drought Monitor

2019

2019 CA drought monitor

 

Data from May 14, 2019. Source: US Drought Monitor

The California draw system

California’s draw system has several twists and turns depending on the species you are focusing on. The state operates on a modified preference point system so whoever has the most points on any given hunt code will draw the tag. There is also a random drawing for any applicant who has fewer than the maximum number of points. 

The point system in California started in 2002. The current maximum number of preference points is 19 for any species.

Preference point codes:

  • Deer: PD
  • Antelope: 799

All applicants are required to purchase an annual hunting license prior to applying for any big game hunt. Once you have purchased your license you will also have to pay an application fee of $8.13 for antelope for both residents and nonresidents. You are required to submit the full cost of the deer permit at the time of the application. 

Here is the list of qualifying licenses and their cost:

  • Adult resident: $52.66
  • Adult nonresident: $183.60
  • Junior resident or nonresident: $14.04
  • Disabled veteran and recovering service member: $8.38

Deer tag fees

First deer tag/drawing application

  • Resident: $34.56
  • Nonresident: $308.85

Second deer tag/drawing application

  • Resident: $42.20
  • Nonresident: $308.85

Antelope tag fee

  • Resident: $167.66
  • Nonresident: $513.60
  • Junior Resident: $22.94

Unsuccessful nonresidents may request a refund of the difference between the fees paid for a nonresident and a resident deer tag drawing application if the application was submitted and a deer tag was not issued or if a nonresident deer tag is issued and all of the following conditions are met: 

  1. The deer license tag is not a premium tag. 
  2. The deer license tag is returned prior to the earliest opening date for the hunt. 
  3. The tag quota has not been filled for the hunt. Refund requests shall be submitted on or before March 1 each year to: CDFW’s License and Revenue Branch - 1740 N. Market Blvd. Sacramento, CA 95834.

If the deadline to submit the request for refund falls on a weekend or holiday, requests will be accepted until the close of business on the first state business day following the deadline to submit the request.

There is only one hunt choice available for bighorn sheep, elk and antelope. 

For elk, antelope and bighorn sheep hunts with a tag quota of four or more, 75% of the permits will be distributed to applicants with the most points and the remaining 25% will be issued on a random basis. The random drawing happens before the preference point round; therefore, every applicant has an equal chance in this round.

This does not apply to nonresidents. There will only be one elk and one antelope permit issued to nonresidents through the draw. What this means is if any antelope permit—as well as any elk permit including a cow elk—is drawn and awarded to a nonresident, all other nonresident applications will be rejected for these species. This makes the odds of drawing in California some of the toughest odds in the country for these particular species.

Party applications

Resident applicants may apply with one other applicant for antelope; however, if your party draws the last available permit, the party leader will be awarded the permit and the other applicants will be placed on an alternate list. This means that no party applications are ever rejected; however, California is different from most states because there is potential for one member of your party to draw, but not the other. 

When it comes to party applications, points are averaged. Note: points are not rounded up or down.

With only one permit available, there are no party applications allowed for nonresident antelope.


Fundraising random draw tags and SHARE opportunities

Looking for another way to draw a hunt in the Golden state? Then, this is what you are looking for. Residents and nonresidents can take advantage of these unique opportunities without the required purchase of an annual hunting license. 

There are currently four hunts offered in the fundraising random draw:

  • Deer any zone tag
  • Bull elk tag 
  • Northeastern antelope tag
  • Bighorn sheep tag

The deadline to apply is the same time as all other state applications: June 2, 2021. The cost to apply is $7.05 per ticket and there is no limit on the number of entries you can have. 

The SHARE program offers many more opportunities to hunt, including:

  • 44 Bull elk tags
  • 45 antlerless elk tags
  • Two junior any elk tags
  • Four junior antlerless elk tags
  • Santa Barbara County: deer (D-13 and A zone), bear, wild pig, turkey, dove and quail 
  • Siskiyou County: B6 deer hunt

There are other opportunities in this program; however, these are the ones that pertain to this article. For more information on application deadlines, when and where these hunts will be conducted and how to get your name in the hat follow this link.


Hunt choices

For the first and second deer tag applications, you will get three choices. There is only one hunt choice available for antelope. All applicants’ first choices will be considered prior to the consideration of anyone’s second or third choice. 


Quota breakdown

For antelope hunts with a tag quota of four or more, 75% of the permits will be distributed to applicants with the most points and the remaining 25% will be issued on a random basis. The random drawing happens before the preference point round; therefore, every applicant has an equal chance in this round.

This does not apply to nonresidents. There will only be one elk and one antelope permit issued to nonresidents through the draw. What this means is if any antelope permit—as well as any elk permit including a cow elk—is drawn and awarded to a nonresident, all other nonresident applications will be rejected for these species. This makes the odds of drawing in California some of the toughest odds in the country for these particular species.

Here’s a quick summary of the quota breakdown:

  • For hunts with tag quotas of one: the tag will be awarded using a draw-by-choice random drawing.
  • For hunts with tag quotas of two: one tag will be awarded using a preference point drawing and one tag will be awarded using a draw-by-choice random drawing.
  • For hunts with tag quotas of three: two tags will be awarded using a preference point drawing and one tag will be awarded using a draw-by-choice random drawing.
  • For hunts with tag quotas of four or more: 75% of the quota will be awarded using a preference point drawing. The remaining portion of the quota will be awarded using a draw-by-choice random drawing.

There is no nonresident quota for deer hunts in California. Everyone is on the same playing field.

When applying for premium deer, 90% of the tags are allocated to whoever has the most points for any given zone in any given year. If you are in a maximum point status for the hunt that you applied for, then there is no luck required; you will simply be issued the tag. If you are not in the group of maximum point holders, there is still a small chance of drawing as the state sets aside 10% of its permits for a random drawing.


Premium vs restricted deer tags

Premium deer tags are issued by drawing. Restricted and unrestricted deer tags are issued upon request until the tag quota for the hunt is filled.

Premium deer tags

Premium deer tags are for any hunt where the quota is filled on or before the first business day after July 1 of the previous year. Hunters may only obtain one premium hunt tag per license year. To apply for a premium deer hunt tag, hunters must apply in the big game drawing using a first deer tag drawing application, except for junior hunters who may also apply for premium apprentice hunts using a second deer tag drawing application.

Premium deer tags for 2021 are:

  • General zone hunts: C, D6, D9, D12, D14, and D17;
  • X zone hunts: X1, X2, X3A, X3B, X4, X5A, X5B, X6A, X6B, X7A, X7B, X8, X9A, X9B, X9C, X10 and X12;
  • General method hunts: G1, G3, G6, G8, G12, G13, G19, G21, G37, G38 and G39;
  • Muzzleloader hunts: M3, M4, M5, M6, M7, M8, M9, M11, MA1 and MA3;
  • Area-specific archery hunts: A1, A3, A4, A5, A6, A7, A8, A9, A11, A12, A13, A14, A15, A16, A17, A18, A19, A20, A21, A22, A24, A25, A26, A27, A30, A31, A32 and A33;
  • Apprentice hunts: J1, J3, J4, J8, J9, J10, J11, J12, J13, J14, J15, J16, J17, J18, J19, J20 and J21.

Restricted deer hunts

Restricted deer hunts are any hunt that is filled on or before the first business day after Aug. 1 of the previous year. Restricted deer hunt tags may be issued upon the purchase of a first deer tag. Second deer tag applicants may also obtain a restricted deer hunt tag at any time if you do not have a pending drawing application and have not been issued a premium deer hunt tag or restricted deer hunt tag as a first deer tag. Restricted tags are issued upon request until the tag quota for the hunt is filled.

Restricted deer tags:

  • There are no deer tags listed in the restricted deer tag classification for the 2021 license year.

Unrestricted deer hunts

Unrestricted deer hunts are any hunt that did not fill on or before the first business day after Aug. 1 in the previous year. Unrestricted deer hunt tags are issued upon the purchase of either a first deer tag or second deer tag..

Unrestricted deer tags for 2020 are:


Deer tag descriptions

A, B and D zone hunt tags

These tags allow hunting during the archery season with archery equipment only and during the general season with a muzzleloader or centerfire rifle, shotgun, authorized pistol or revolver, crossbow or bow. Tags are valid for a specific zone of issuance except:

  • A zone tag is valid in both A North and A South;
  • B Zone deer tags are valid in any B zone;
  • D3-5 deer tags are valid in zones D3, D4, and D5; and
  • D11, D13, or D15 tags may be used in any of these three zones.

C Zone hunt tag

A C zone tag is valid in zones C1, C2, C3 and C4 during the general season only, using a muzzleloader or centerfire rifle, shotgun, authorized pistol or revolver, crossbow or bow. To hunt with archery equipment only during the archery season in any C zone, you must apply in the big game drawing for an A1 area-specific archery hunt tag.

X zone hunt tags

These tags allow hunting during the general season only in a specific zone using a muzzleloader or centerfire rifle, shotgun, authorized pistol or revolver, crossbow or bow.

Archery only (AO) hunt tag

The AO (archery only) tag allows hunting with archery equipment only during the archery and general seasons in A, B or D zones and Hunt G10 (military only). To hunt during an X zone archery season, you must have an area-specific archery hunt tag for the appropriate zone. You may not possess a firearm or crossbow when hunting under the authority of an archery-only deer tag except as otherwise provided in 354(h) (1) and (2).

Area-specific archery hunt tags

These tags allow archery hunting in designated areas throughout the state, including X zones.


First and second deer tags

First deer tag drawing application

A first deer tag drawing application may only be used to apply for the following hunts:

  • First choice: premium deer hunts or a preference point code. Using the preference point code means you will obtain a point without being in the first choice round of the draw.
  • Second and third choice: second and third choices are optional and may be a premium deer, restricted deer or unrestricted deer.

A first deer tag may be used to obtain the following:

  • Restricted deer hunt tags
  • Unrestricted deer hunt tags
  • Leftover premium deer hunt tags issued on July 2, 2021

If any premium deer hunt tags remain after the big game drawing, first deer tag applicants may apply for any leftover premium deer hunt tags starting at 8:00 a.m. on July 2, 2021. 

Second deer tag drawing application

A second deer tag drawing application may ONLY be used by junior hunters to apply for apprentice hunts and only if they have not applied for apprentice deer hunts on their first deer tag drawing application. Second deer tag drawing application hunt choices are limited as follows:

  • First choice: Must be an apprentice deer hunt or PD (point deer – The preference point code may be used as the first choice to obtain a preference point without competing in the first choice round of the drawing).
  • Second and third choice: Second and third choice hunts are optional and maybe another apprentice deer hunt or unrestricted deer hunt tag. Junior hunters may select a restricted deer hunt as their second or third tag choice ONLY if they were issued an unrestricted deer tag as their first deer tag or not pending a first deer tag drawing application.

A second deer tag may be used to obtain the following:

  • Unrestricted deer hunt tags
  • Restricted deer hunt tags
  • Leftover premium deer hunt tags issued on August 2, 2021 

Second deer tag applicants may obtain any restricted deer hunt tag at any time if they do not have a pending first deer tag drawing application or have not been issued a premium or restricted deer tag as a first deer tag. Starting at 8:00 a.m. on Aug. 2, 2021, all second deer tag applicants may apply for any remaining deer tags regardless if you have been issued a premium or restricted deer tag already.


Party applications

You are allowed to apply with up to six party members on a deer application. Only residents can apply for a party for antelope.

However, if your party draws the last available permit, the party leader will be awarded the permit and the other applicants will be placed on an alternate list. This means that no party applications are ever rejected, but California is different than most states because there is potential for one member of your party to draw, but not the other. 

When it comes to party applications, points are averaged.

Note: Points are not rounded up or down.


California's 2021 mule deer breakdown

There are currently 38 zones in California that offer a chance to hunt mule deer. They can be found in just about any unit in the state except for the far northwest corner. If you are looking for a chance to hunt each year, California offers lots of opportunities whether it’s over-the-counter (OTC) tags or different draw areas. If you are looking for higher success rates you will find them in the draw hunts that happen later in the year after the snow has fallen in the upper elevations of the state, pushing deer down into easier to access areas. Note: for the tables below, California hasn't updated this data since 2017.

California deer population estimates - updated 2018

California deer population estimates by hunt zone - 2018

Top hit list zones to consider for 160” or better mule deer

Zone Trophy
Potential
4pt or
better %
Public land
%
D-6 160"+ 16% 53%
X-2 170"+ 47% 75%
X-5b 160"+ 61% 74%
X-6b 170"+ 38% 76%
X-9a 170"+ 23% 92%
X-9b 160"+ 22% 99%

How to find hidden gems for mule deer zones in California

A hidden gem in California could come from just about anywhere. The truth is that in states that offer so much opportunity to go hunting, all hunting areas can often produce the desired result we are looking for when it comes to more success or upper age class. Bouncing around the state looking for some unit that is loaded with deer or has a big buck in every canyon just isn’t going to happen; however, getting ultra familiar with a unit and understanding what the deer do when pressured and where to set up to put yourself in a good location as the sun rises on opening morning is only learned by years of experience in any given unit.

Using Filtering 2.0, you use available research to narrow down your starting point. Things like success rates can show you where more hunters are finding success. It would stand to reason that your odds of connecting with a deer over time in these areas will be higher than other areas with a lower historic success rate. This, along with many other details, can get you a starting point; however, when it comes to OTC hunting, the real gem is only found with boots on the ground. Remember you only lose your points if you draw your first choice so make a solid plan for your second and third choice, hunt it often and swing for the fence on your first choice each year.

Using Filtering 2.0

  • Select California.
  • Select mule deer.
  • Adjust the Trophy Slider to your desired size (e.g. 150”+).
  • Click whether you are a resident or nonresident and indicate how many points you currently possess.
  • Select your minimum percentage of odds for drawing the tag. This can be very good for weeding out zones with unlimited (100%) tags.
  • Select which season(s) you wish to hunt. Have other hunts already scheduled for the fall? You can also set your date parameters and Filtering 2.0 will automatically find what's in season during that time of the year.
  • Choose what harvest percentages you would like to see in the zones.
  • Lastly, click on any of the remaining zones to read in-depth profiles containing valuable information.

Managing points and expectations

The preference point race

2021 maximum bonus points for mule deer: 19

Without any nonresident quotas, all deer applicants in California have the same odds of drawing whether you are a resident or not. Your points are only lost if you draw your first choice. This means that you can use your second and third choice much more aggressively to ensure you have a tag of some sort in your pocket for the fall without losing the points you have invested in for a premium tag in the future. Even then, California is not typically considered a destination for big deer. Yet, with a little planning and some time invested you never know; there are always a few great deer that come out of odd areas of the state each year.

FIND YOUR RESIDENT MULE DEER DRAW ODDS HERE

FIND YOUR NONRESIDENT MULE DEER DRAW ODDS HERE

Over-the-counter (OTC) options

California offers OTC hunts in many different zones across the state although there is one archery only (AO) permit that allows the hunter to hunt in zones A, B and D. The remaining hunt options covering Zone A as well as most of Zone D allow the hunter to hunt during the early archery season and, if unsuccessful, return for a rifle hunt later in the fall. 


California's 2021 Columbian blacktail deer breakdown

There are 16 zones that offer hunts for Columbian blacktail deer in California. If your goal is to hunt the best this species has to offer then a trip to the Golden State is likely what you are after. California has absolutely dominated the record books for many years when it comes to Columbian blacktails. Whether you want a private land experience on the coast or would like to try your luck on the public land further to the east, there is something for everyone and the age class and trophy potential are some of the best in the world.

Top hit list zones to consider for 120” or better blacktail deer

Zone Trophy
Potential
4pt or
better %
Public land
%
A-North 120"+ 10% 17%
B-1 120"+ 21% 47%
B-2 120"+ 18% 74%
B-4 120"+ 18% 23%
D-5 120"+ 21% 30%

Managing points and expectations

The preference point race

2021 maximum bonus points for blacktail deer: 19

The truth is that there really are not any standout units or hunts in California that are worth building points for when, for zero points or even as a second or third choice, you could be hunting some of the very best California has to offer. However, depending on what your goal is, you could consider applying for one of the hardest mule deer hunts in the state as your first choice, apply for whatever hunt you are dreaming of for blacktails as a second choice and either way you have the best of both worlds no matter how the cards fall. 

Find your resident blacktail deer odds here

Find your nonresident blacktail deer odds here


California's 2021 antelope breakdown

Currently, there are six zones that hold hunts for antelope in California. All of the zones are located in the northwest corner of the state and, surprisingly, all of them have public land percentages north of 50%. Antelope is a hard pill to swallow in California, but if you love hunting antelope and you are going to be purchasing the hunting license for one reason or the other, for an additional $8.13, you might as well roll the dice and see what happens. Drawing one of these tags especially as a nonresident is hard. This draw is considered one of the hardest tags to draw in the country, but if you love the application game as much as you like any other part of it, then this one is an absolute unicorn tag as they only allow one a year in the entire state. 

California’s antelope options

Zone Trophy
Potential
Public land
%
Harvest success
Zone 1 - Mount Dome 75"+ 51% 100% - rifle
Zone 2 - Clear Lake 75"+ 82% 0% - archery
93% - rifle
Zone 3 - Likely Tables 75"+ 65% 36% - archery
62% - rifle (Aug.)
52% - rifle (Sep.)
80% - rifle (youth)
Zone 4 - Lassen 80"+ 59% 60% - archery
86% - rifle
91% - rifle
80% - rifle (youth)
Zone 5 - Big Valley 75"+ 54% 100% - archery
68% - rifle
100% - rifle (youth)
Zone 6 - Surprise Valley 75"+ 58% 0% - archery
90% - rifle
100% - rifle (youth)

How to find hidden gems for antelope in California

There really aren’t any hidden gems when it comes to trying to get an antelope tag in California. There are only six units to choose from and the success rates in all of them are relatively high for rifle hunters. Archery hunting antelope is always hard so don’t take the low success rates as a sign of weakness. Because there is only one tag available to nonresidents, you may as well apply for what you believe to be the best tag in the state as your odds are the same whether you apply for the best or worst tag in the state. 

Managing points and expectations 

The preference point race

2021 maximum bonus points for antelope: 19

As previously mentioned, there is only one tag up for grabs a year for nonresidents. However, you may as well apply for what you believe to be the best hunt in the state and cross your fingers. Because you are up against every other nonresident who has applied, your odds are the same no matter what you apply for so it may as well be the best if it actually happens. 

If you’re a resident, you have single digit draw odds right up to maximum points for archery with Zone 3 being able to possibly be drawn with one fewer point than maximum. And, for rifle, well, let’s just say that you have less than 1% odds until you are at the maximum point level; however, Zone 5 could possibly be drawn soon at one under maximum.

FIND YOUR RESIDENT ANTELOPE DRAW ODDS HERE

FIND YOUR NONRESIDENT ANTELOPE DRAW ODDS HERE

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