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APPLICATION STRATEGY 2021: California Elk and Sheep

Main writer: Jordan Christensen of The Draw

CALIFORNIA'S 2021 ELK AND BIGHORN SHEEP APPLICATION OVERVIEW

Jump to: NEW FOR 2021 State Information Draw System Tule Elk Breakdown Rocky Elk Breakdown Roosevelt Elk Breakdown Desert Bighorn Sheep Breakdown

Applying for these applications as a nonresident is downright reckless since an expensive hunting license is required prior to applying and only one nonresident elk permit is up for grabs across the whole state. Not to mention there are only two nonresident bighorn sheep tags available and not guaranteed. To apply here doesn’t make sense unless you are hopelessly addicted to the game and the “what if” outweighs any other logical thought. However, if you are a resident because it's a random draw process and unless you have maximum points for a particular hunt code, equal odds are the best odds these days and you may as well throw your name in the hat. 

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

For the 2021 deer hunting season, the following deer tags 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

License fee changes

Elk tag fees

  • Resident: $498.65 
  • Nonresident: $1,526.60 
  • Resident junior: $22.94 

Bighorn sheep tag fees 

  • Resident: $456.50 
  • Nonresident: $1,690.75

Change in age for junior hunting licenses

The age for youth to purchase a junior hunting license has changed. A resident or nonresident must now be under 16 years of age on July 1, 2020 in order to be eligible for a 2020/2021 junior hunting license. The previous age was 18.

Antlerless Rocky Mountain elk draw odds

Find your resident antlerless Rocky Mountain elk draw odds here

Find your nonresident antlerless Rocky Mountain elk draw odds here

Antlerless Tule elk draw odds

Find your resident antlerless Tule elk draw odds here

Find your nonresident antlerless Tule elk draw odds here

Antlerless Roosevelt elk draw odds

Find your resident antlerless Roosevelt elk draw odds here

Find your nonresident antlerless Roosevelt elk draw odds here


State information

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

California State Profile Rocky Elk Profile Tule Elk Profile Roosevelt Elk Profile Desert Bighorn 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.
  • Point only applications: the deadline is also June 2, 2021 at 11:59 p.m. PST.
  • The state has 10 business days after the drawing 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.

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 for more information.

Drought status in California

Well, that was a quick turn in the wrong direction. Compared to 2020, California is in rough shape just like the majority of western states. However, if you are looking for some sort of silver lining, Zone A for deer as well as the extreme southern part of the state is doing okay — at least compared to the rest of the state.

2021

California Drought Monitor

Source: US Drought Monitor

2020

California drought monitor 2020

Source: US Drought Monitor

Wolves in California

Approximate area of gray wolf activity (April 2020)

There is currently only one recognized wolf pack living in California. The Lassen Pack remains in the western and northern portions of Plumas County. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), there were at least six wolves in the Lassen pack during the last reporting period (January to March 2020). The satellite collar on the female pup collared in September 2019 stopped functioning in late January after only about four months of operation. Currently, there are no functioning radio collars in the pack. There has not been a successful litter of pups since 2017, but there were two litters in 2020. 


The California draw system

Understanding the draw

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 less than the maximum number of points. 

The point system in California started in 2002 and, currently, the maximum number of preference points is 19 for any species.

Preference point codes:

  • Elk: 499
  • Bighorn sheep: 599

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 an application fee of $8.13 per species for residents and nonresidents.

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

Elk tag fees:

  • Resident: $498.65
  • Nonresident: $1,526.60
  • Resident Junior: $22.94

Bighorn sheep tag fee:

  • Resident: $456.50
  • Nonresident: $1,690.75

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. 

Keep in mind that no more than 10% of the bighorn sheep tags statewide are given to nonresidents each year.

  • 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.

Party applications

Resident applicants may apply with one other applicant for elk; 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 and not the other. 

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

No party applications are allowed for elk or desert bighorn sheep for residents or nonresidents. 

With only one permit available, there are no party applications allowed for either species for nonresidents.

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. Without the requirement to purchase an annual hunting license, residents and nonresidents can take advantage of these unique opportunities. 

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 at 11:59 p.m. PST. 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
  • 2 Junior any elk tags
  • 4 Junior antlerless elk tags

There are other opportunities in this program; however, these are the list that pertains 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.


California's 2021 Tule elk breakdown

Tule elk are considered the holy grail of elk hunting. As a nonresident, there are only four ways to check the box on this species. The first is that you simply pay for a hunt that includes some sort of landowner permit. This is very expensive, but the only surefire way to ensure a chance at these elk. The second is that you are the one and only nonresident to draw in the annual state drawing, beating all other nonresident applications to the punch across all species of elk. The third way is to win the annual state fundraising random draw tags where one elk permit is awarded, which allows you to hunt the far north end of the tule elks’ range. The last way is to draw one of the SHARE permits that are located in a county that has tule elk. The long story short is that no matter how you find yourself on a tule elk hunt, it was either the result of some insane luck or you cut a check that likely made your knees weak. 

If you are a nonresident interested in applying in California, tule elk are probably the reason you started. California only allows one nonresident elk hunter per year, making the odds of drawing one of these elusive permits very difficult.

There are two options in the apprentice category for the youth hunter to have a chance at taking a bull Tule elk on Cache Creek and Fort Hunter Liggett. The rest of the Tule youth options are antlerless or spike bull only.

Hit list units for California tule elk in 2021

Top Tule elk units in California
(not in order of quality)

Zone Trophy
Potential
6pt or
better %
Public land
%
10 - Grizzly Island 300"+ 100% 100%
5 - Mendocino* 280"+ 100% 20%
14 - La Panza 280"+ 60% 22%
7 - East Park Reservoir 270"+ 100% 43%
Zone 15 - Fort Hunter Liggett 280"+ 100% 0.3%
Zone 9 - Cache Creek 270"+ 50% 64%

*All the elk in this unit reside on private property. It is strongly advised to have arrangements made prior to applying for this hunt. Elk east of Hwy 101 are considered Tule elk. If found on the west side of Hwy 101, they will not qualify for either the Roosevelt or Tule elk category for Boone & Crockett (B&C). 

How to uncover hidden gem Tule elk units

With so few options to consider when looking to hunt tule elk, there are not any real hidden gems. However, if you were to study the number of applications submitted, you can sometimes pick up a trend where one unit or the other tends to fluctuate up and down more than the other units. If you were to apply for a unit like this religiously then at least your name will be in the right hat on the years when the trend goes down and you will have much fewer applicants to compete with.

If you are a nonresident, given that only one permit is available, there is no reason to chase any sort of odds. Apply for the best hunt in the state because you have just as good a chance at being successful as the worst hunt in the state. Look for a hunt using Filtering 2.0 that lines up with your goals and get your name in the hat.


Managing points and expectations

The preference point race

2021 maximum bonus points for elk: 19

Residents

If you happen to be at maximum points, you may as well keep applying for what you believe to be the best hunt in the state. At this point, it would be a shame to draw a less than elite hunt after all the years you have waited. For all other applicants, your points carry no value and you, essentially, have one ticket in the bucket for whichever hunt you submit your application for and are waiting for lightning to strike. Depending on how much of a burning desire you have to draw a mature bull permit, there are other options out there that would allow you to check the box on this species — and your odds will be exponentially better. Remember that the random drawing happens first so all applicants have an equal chance on this pass. If you do have the maximum number of points for the hunt code you applied for, then you actually have two chances to draw: one in each pass. 

If you are a youth hunter, then 50% of the available apprentice tags will be available in this random drawing and, if you are an adult, then 25% of the tags will be available in this random drawing. Because this happens prior to the preference point draw, it means that maximum point holders have another chance to be successful as they could be the lucky recipient during the random drawing as well. Your points carry no value in this random drawing so, essentially, everyone has one ticket in the bucket for the hunt that they have applied for. Some of the hunt codes offer fewer than four permits and, if this happens, then here is a breakdown of how the tags will be allocated:

  • For quotas of one: the tag will be awarded at random.
  • For quotas of two: one tag will be awarded using a preference point drawing and one tag will be awarded at random.
  • For quotas of three: two tags will be awarded using a preference point drawing and one tag will be awarded at random.
  • For 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 at random.

Nonresidents

Being the one nonresident to draw an elk tag in California would earn you a first year eligibility trip to the application warrior hall of fame! If you are actually going to submit an application for this, don’t waste it on applying for some mediocre tag because you are up against every other nonresident who applies. You may as well swing for the fence and apply for what you believe to be the best hunt in the state.

Based upon public land and the caliber of bulls, Zone 10—Grizzly Island continues to be a front runner.

Find your resident Tule elk draw odds here

Find your nonresident Tule elk draw odds here


California's 2021 Rocky Mountain elk breakdown

There is only one hunt area in California that offers Rocky Mountain elk hunting: Zone-4 Northeastern. However, I would put this unit up against almost any unit in the country for a crack at killing an absolute giant bull. It’s hard to imagine that this unit produces like it does, but if your goal is a record book caliber of bull, it is as likely to happen here compared to anywhere in the country. In 2020, tag holders reported 100% success in harvesting bulls with at least 6 points on one side. 

The state offers one archery either-sex hunt in early September with 10 permits as well as one rifle hunt in mid-September that has 15 bull tags.

Rocky Mountain elk choices in California

Zone Trophy
Potential
6pt or
better %
Archery maximum
point odds
Rifle maximum
point odds
4-Northeastern 360"+ 100% 53% at 18 points (resident)
9.2% at 18 points (nonresident)
2.9% at 18 points (resident)
0.50% at 18 points (nonresident)

Managing points and expectations for Rocky Mountain elk

The preference point race

2021 maximum bonus points for elk: 19

With only one option and only very few tags issued (10 archery and 15 rifle), your best bet is to just shoot for the stars and drop your name in if you want a chance at hunting an elk in California.

Find your resident Rocky Mountain elk draw odds here

Find your nonresident Rocky Mountain elk draw odds here


California's 2021 Roosevelt elk breakdown

If you are headed to the Golden State for an elk hunt, this is likely the species you will be targeting. There are three different zones that offer Roosevelt elk exclusively: Zone 1, Zone 2 and Zone 3. While Zone 5 has a mixture of both Roosevelt and tule elk, unfortunately, the elk in this zone are entirely on private land and, if you were to harvest a bull on the west side of Hwy 101, then it would not qualify for either species in the record book.

However, the elk hunting in these areas can be incredible. If archery hunting is your passion, you will need to look at Zone 2—Marble Mountain, which, when you draw, is actually both an archery permit as well a muzzleloader/archery so this is the only hunt to consider. A good proportion of the bulls can be found on public land. Del Norte, Humboldt and Trinity counties have long been the top producers for age class, so if you are looking for the best bull you can find, it’s best to stick within these areas and hunt west of Interstate 5. 

Roosevelt elk choices in California
(not in order of quality)

Zone Trophy
Potential
6pt or
better %
Public land
%
Success rate
Zone 1 - Northwestern 320"+ 100% 40% 100% - bull only
100% - either-sex
Zone 2 - Marble Mountains 310"+ 60% 66% 20% - muzzy/archery
65% - rifle
50% - rifle youth
Zone 3 - Siskiyou 310"+ 69% 48% 60% - rifle
Zone 5 - Mendocino* 300"+ 100% 20% 100% - rifle

*All the elk in this unit reside on private property. It is strongly advised to have arrangements made prior to applying for this hunt. Elk east of Hwy 101 are considered Tule elk. If found on the west side of Hwy 101 they will not qualify for either the Roosevelt category for B&C.

Managing points and expectations for Roosevelt elk

The preference point race

2021 maximum bonus points for elk: 19

Residents

Some of the best Roosevelt elk hunting in the world is happening in California. However, with a large amount of the area they call home on private property, it is best to have a plan in place prior to drawing the permit in order to get the most out of a tag you have likely waited a long time to get. All this considered: without an excessive amount of points, it is difficult to draw a mature bull permit. If you are going to get lucky with low points, you might as well draw what you believe to be the best tag in the state and, if you do have a lot of points, be careful and do your homework before locking in on a hunt that doesn’t have the track record you are looking for. You don’t want to be disappointed when the day comes and you have drawn and are going hunting. 

Nonresidents

Again, you are up against every nonresident elk applicant in the state, including the cow elk applicants. Swing for the fence and only apply for the best hunts in the state as you are as likely to draw that as you are any other hunt.

Find your resident Roosevelt elk draw odds here

Find your nonresident Roosevelt elk draw odds here


California's 2021 desert bighorn sheep breakdown

Again, in 2021, there will be a total of 27 bighorn sheep permits up for grabs. This means there is the potential for up to two nonresident permits to be drawn. Is it likely that any will be? No, but that isn't the point. And if you just can’t help yourself when it comes to rolling the dice for a bighorn sheep tag, then it’s good to at least have a chance. This, along with the fact that if you don’t have maximum points for bighorn sheep you have the same chance of drawing as every other applicant, makes this a semi-attractive bighorn sheep application — aside from the expensive hunting license that you must purchase prior to applying. Remember that you can also apply for the fundraising random draw permits, which for just under $7, you can have your name in that hat, likely have just as good of odds and avoid the cost of the hunting license. 

There are 10 different hunting zones in the state that have herds of desert bighorn sheep. Out of those ten, there are currently eight of these zones offering hunts.

Once again, there won’t be any permits offered for Zone 5 or Zone 6 for 2021.

Top desert bighorn sheep hunts in California
(not in order of quality)

Zone Trophy
Potential
Tag quota Preference point quota Random quota Total applicants (2020) % public land
Zone 1 - Marble/Clipper Mountains 160"+ 5 4 1 2,379 95%
Zone 2 - Kelso Peak/Old Dad Mountains 155"+ 1 0 1 768 98%
Zone 3 - Clark/Kingston Mountain Ranges 165"+ 4 3 1 1,783 96%
Zone 4 - Orocopia Mountains 170"+ 1 0 1 1,234 54%
Zone 7 - White Mountains 165"+ 6 5 1 2,877 96%
Zone 8 - South Bristol Mountains 160"+ 2 1 1 1,188 96%
Zone 9 - Cady Mountains 160"+ 2 1 1 943 77%
Zone 10 - Newberry, Rodman and Ord Mountains 160"+ 6 5 1 2,030 70%

Hidden gems for California desert bighorn sheep

Hidden gems are always hard to find when it comes to bighorn sheep tags in any state and, given that there are very few options to consider in California, to begin with, it's even harder. If you are a resident using Filtering 2.0, study the number of applicants in each hunt and then use this information to put yourself on an application that has, on average, lower application numbers than the other units. This is one way to slightly increase your chances. However, a nonresident isn’t even guaranteed a permit and, if one is drawn, that would be the first permit awarded to a nonresident in many years. Therefore, it wouldn’t make sense to apply for anything less than what you consider to be the best hunt in the state. Use Filtering 2.0 to help you easily narrow it down. 


Managing points and expectations for Desert bighorn sheep

The preference point race

2021 maximum bonus points for Desert bighorn sheep: 19

Find your draw odds

Resident

If you happen to be old enough or lucky enough to have started this process when it all began, you have been in a good spot for a long time and the number of applicants with the same number of points as you do are dwindling each year. Hopefully time is on your side and you may just find yourself not needing any luck to draw your permit as it will just be your turn. In the meantime, apply for the hunt you have been dreaming of and cross your fingers. If you don’t have a high point total, your odds are rough, they are likely to stay rough and your odds of reaching a maximum point situation are unlikely. However, not applying for bighorn sheep in your home state is just plain wrong. For the low cost to roll the dice, put your money on the come line, give them a kiss and make sure you hit the back of the table. Who knows? Someone is going to draw and maybe it’s your turn.

Nonresidents

This isn’t about the odds that you will actually draw, it's that you simply can’t help not being in a bucket of raffle tickets when a bighorn sheep tag is up for grabs. If you can stomach the cost of the hunting license, swing for the fence. Your odds are going to be less than 1% no matter where you apply so whether you chase the odds based on the number of applicants submitting applications or you apply for the top units in the state, it’s all the same when your odds are that low.

Find your resident desert bighorn sheep draw odds here

Find your nonresident desert bighorn sheep draw odds here

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