Application Strategy 2023: California big game
If you are looking towards the Golden State for a chance to go hunting this year, you are most likely a resident or you’ve had some seriously bad luck in other states out West. Regardless, if your goal is simply to go hunting, there are many options to choose from in California and there is a lot of public land that you can target for this goal. The trophy quality and success rates leave a lot to be desired though. There is no tag split between resident and nonresidents when it comes to applying for deer tags. For elk and antelope, there is only one nonresident tag available and only two nonresident tags for bighorn sheep. As you can imagine, the odds associated with those tags are not the greatest. However, if you are going to buy a hunting license and deer tag, you may as well throw your name into the hat for the remaining species as it only costs an additional $8.13 to apply.
Note: The application deadline for all species in California is June 2, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. PT. You can apply online here.
New for 2023
For the 2023 deer hunting season, the following deer tags have changed classifications:
From restricted to premium deer tag:
- D6 – tag quota filled on June 16, 2022
From unrestricted to premium deer tag:
- D16 – tag quota filled on July 25, 2022
From unrestricted to restricted deer tags:
- A32 – tag quota filled on July 15, 2022
For the 2023 elk season, there are a couple new changes that will affect both Roosevelt and tule elk opportunities. For Roosevelt elk, there will be an increase in both bull and cow tag quotas and for tule elk, the changes consist of some boundary modifications and three new tule elk units. The new units would be the Gabilan Tule Elk Hunt Zone, Central Coast Tule Elk Hunt Zone and Tehachapi Rocky Mountain Elk Hunt Zone. These changes were voted in by the California Game and Fish Commission on April 19, 2023. Be sure to check the regs on the new tule elk hunts for rules and boundary descriptions.
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, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. PT.
- You can apply online here.
- If you just want to pick up points, the deadline is also June 2, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. PT.
- The state has 10 business days after the application period to conduct the drawing. Draw results will be posted around June 16, 2023.
- Deadline to purchase antelope, elk, and desert bighorn sheep tags is July 17, 2023.
- Leftover premium deer tags are available (first deer tag) on July 2, 2023.
- Leftover premium deer tags are available (second deer tag) on Aug. 2, 2023.
Deer tag holders who fail to submit a harvest report for any 2023 deer tag by Jan. 31, 2024 will be assessed a $21.60 non-reporting fee when purchasing a deer tag drawing application or deer tag in the 2024 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 non lead ammunition when taking any wildlife in California, except when hunting with a pellet rifle for approved species. Nonresidents will need to bring ammunition with them. California will not sell ammunition to nonresident hunters.
Drought conditions in California
Although California has been in a severe moisture slump for way too long, they have been graced by a winter snowpack that people have dreamed about for years. The coastal side has also seen rain totals that used to be normal back in the 1980s. Overall, the grass and feed should grow nice and green for some healthy antler growth.
The California draw system
California uses a preference point system in the draw process, which means they start with the highest point holder and work their way down. Those who are unsuccessful in drawing their first choice will earn a preference point for that species. Applicants may select three hunt choices when applying for premium deer tags and may only select one hunt choice when applying for antelope, elk and bighorn sheep. The state considers everyone’s first choice before moving on to anyone’s second choice.
- For premium deer permits, 90% of the tags are reserved for those applicants with the most points. 10% are drawn randomly.
- For deer permits, resident and nonresidents are combined in the draw and treated exactly the same (no advantage to one or the other).
- For antelope, elk and bighorn sheep where there is a quota of four or more permits, 75% of the permits are drawn to those applicants with the most points and the remaining 25% will be drawn randomly. Where there is a quota of three or fewer permits, one permit will be drawn randomly.
- Nonresidents are limited to “up to” 10% of total tags statewide for bighorn sheep.
- Nonresidents are limited to one permit statewide for elk and antelope.
- The maximum point level for 2023 is 21 points.
- There are three hunt choices for first and second deer applications.
- There is one hunt choice for Antelope, Elk, and Bighorn Sheep applications.
- There is a preference point only option when applying. See preference point codes for more information.
Preference point codes:
- Deer: PD
- Antelope: 799
- 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 to pay an application fee of $8.13 fir elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep for both residents and nonresidents. You are required to submit the full cost of the deer tag at the time of application.
License and tag cost for Resident and Nonresident
First deer tag
Second deer tag
Application fee (Antelope, Elk, Bighorn Sheep)
Unsuccessful nonresidents may request a refund of the difference between the fees paid for a nonresident and a resident deer tag drawing application. This can be done 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:
- The deer license tag is not a premium tag
- The deer license tag is returned prior to the earliest opening date for the hunt.
- The tag quota has not been filled for the hunt. Refund requests shall be submitted on or before March 1 each year to: California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) License and Revenue Branch 1740 N. Market Blvd. Sacramento, CA, 95834
California does allow party applications and the number of members within that party will vary depending on the species type that you are applying for. Points will be averaged for the party. The way the party application works is simple. There is a party leader who will apply as the leader and select the hunt choices. Once he is finished, he will receive a “party number.” For those that wish to join the party, they will apply as a member and enter the “party number.” If your party draws the last available tag, the party leader will be awarded the tag and the other applicants will be placed on an alternate list. This means that no party applications are ever rejected. Most states will reject the application if there aren’t enough tags to satisfy the group, but California is the exception to that.
Party members per species:
- Deer: up to six applicants
- Elk and Antelope: two applicants, residents only. There are no nonresident party applications.
- Bighorn sheep: There are no party applications allowed.
Premium vs Restricted Deer Tags
Premium deer tags are issued by the state drawing. Restricted and unrestricted deer tags are issued upon request until the tag quota for the hunt is filled. These are typically your second and third choice options on your application or used for a second deer tag.
PREMIUM DEER TAGS FOR 2023:
- General zones: C, D6, D9, D12, D14, D16, D17
- X Zones: X1, X2, X3A, X3B, X4, X5A, X5B, X6A, X7A, X7B, X8, X9A, X9B, X9C, X10, X12
- G Zones: G1, G3, G6, G8, G12, G13, G19, G21, G37, G38, G39
- Muzzleloader hunts: M3, M4, M5, M6, M7, M8, M9, M11, MA1, MA3
- Apprentice hunts: J1, J3, J4, J8, J9, J10, J11, J12, J13, J14, J15, J16, J17, J18, J19, J20, J21
- 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, A33
RESTRICTED DEER TAGS FOR 2023:
- Area specific archery hunts: A32
- General zones: D19
UNRESTRICTED DEER TAGS FOR 2023:
- Area specific archery hunts: AO
- General zones: A, B, D3-5, D7, D8, D10, D11, D13, D115
First and second deer tags
For first deer tags, typically, most hunters will apply for a hard to draw premium tag as their first choice followed by lesser desired restricted or unrestricted tags as their second and third choice. If you don’t have maximum points, then this gives you a random shot at a great hunt and you get a tag in your pocket for the season. You also gain another preference point for not drawing your first choice. If you chose three premium hunt choices and you struck out all around, then that’s where the second deer tag comes in handy.
For second deer tags, hunters will normally buy a second tag if they were unsuccessful on their first or if they just feel like getting a second tag. Some seasons are earlier/later or shorter/longer than others, so this gives you the opportunity for multiple hunts in the same year.
California's SHARE program
CDFW’s SHARE program provides public access for hunting, fishing and other recreational activities on private land.
SHARE elk hunts will be offered in Colusa, Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Shasta and Siskiyou counties for a total of:
- 47 bull tags
- 31 antlerless tags
- 1 junior either-sex
- 4 junior antlerless tags
Property and application information will be posted on the SHARE webpage on May 12, 2023. There are no preference points for SHARE elk hunts. For more information about these hunts, visit the website: wildlife.ca.gov/hunting/SHARE
California's 2023 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 a lot of opportunities whether it’s over-the-counter (OTC) tags or different draw areas. If you are looking for higher success rates, those hunts typically take a handful of points. Most of the southern units have lower deer populations and they are tougher hunts, but good bucks can still be found. These hunts can be drawn with little to no points. Much of the mid to northern range of the Sierra Nevada’s have better herd numbers and can be great hunts, but they require more points. The late season hunts are extremely difficult to draw if you aren’t near the top of the point table, but there’s still that random chance.
Hit list zones to consider for 160"+ Mule Deer
|4 point of better|
|Public land |
HOW TO FIND HIDDEN GEMS FOR MULE DEER IN CALIFORNIA
It’s no secret that the deer herds in California have been on a serious decline for quite a while now, so finding units that are loaded with deer and multiple giants is just not a reality. However, the potential for finding good mature mule deer is still very present in most — if not all — of the western units. Focusing on a specific unit year after year will allow you to learn and help you produce the best results. A hidden gem 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 all looking for.
MANAGING POINTS AND EXPECTATIONS
For the 2023 season, the maximum point total is now up to 21. 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 in your pocket for the fall without losing your points. Even then, California is not typically considered a destination for big deer. Although if you invest the time and put in the effort year after year, you should see the quality in animals increase. There’s always a few great deer that come out of the Golden State each year.
California offers OTC hunts in many different zones across the state. There is an archery only (AO) tag that allows the hunter to hunt in Zones A, B and D. With this tag you can hunt the archery and general seasons, but it must be with archery equipment only. The other options are A Zone and D Zone tags that allow the hunter to hunt during the early archery season and, if unsuccessful, return for a rifle hunt later in the fall.
California's 2023 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.
Hit list zones to consider for 120"+ Blacktail Deer
|4 point or better|
|Public land percentage|
MANAGING POINTS AND EXPECTATIONS
For the 2023 season, the maximum point total is now up to 21. The truth is that there really are not any standout units or hunts in California that are worth building and burning points for when it comes to blacktail deer. Some of the best blacktail deer hunts in the state can be drawn with zero points and can even be pulled as second or third choices on your application. If you are hunting California anyway then your best bet would be to apply for a premium mule deer hunt as a first choice and a blacktail hunt as your second. That way you build points for a future mule deer hunt and still put a tag in your pocket.
California's 2023 tule elk breakdown
Tule elk are considered the holy grail of elk hunting. As a nonresident, there are only three ways to check the box on this species. The first is that you simply pay for an outfitted landowner tag, which is extremely expensive ($25,000 to $40,000), but it’s 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 because California only issues one nonresident tag statewide for all elk species. The way to win 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 insane luck or you cut a check that likely made your knees weak.
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.
2023 Top Tule Elk units in California
|Success Rate||Public land |
*All of 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 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
If you're a resident and happen to be at maximum points (21), 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. 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. If you are a maximum point holder or close to it and you’re not completely dead set on taking a tule bull elk, then I’d suggest using Filtering 2.0 to see what cow elk opportunities you have.
Only one nonresident will have the privilege of hunting elk in California each year. 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.
California's 2023 Rocky Mountain elk breakdown
There is only one hunt area in California that offers Rocky Mountain elk hunting: Zone 4 Northeastern. However, this unit could present the opportunity of 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. 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.
2023 California Rocky Mountain Elk
|Rifle maximum |
Resident: 53% with 20 points
Nonresident: 2.2% with 20 points
Resident: 3.5% with 20 points
Nonresident: 0.2% with 20 points
MANAGING POINTS AND EXPECTATIONS
With only one option and 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.
California's Roosevelt elk breakdown
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.
2023 California Roosevelt Elk
100% - Bull
100% - Cow
100% - Either
15% with 20 points
100% with 14.5 points
14% with 20 points
1% with 20 points
1% with 19 points
0.1% with 2 points
30% - Either
40% - Cow
80% - Bull
100% with 18 points
22% with 14 points
100% with 20 points
0.2% with 15 points
0.9% with 11 points
7.3% with 20 points
75% - Cow
56% - Bull
100% with 14 points
94% with 20 points
1% with 12 points
0.2% with 17 points
100% - Bull
10%with@ 20 points
0.1% with 10 points
*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).
MANAGING POINTS AND EXPECTATIONS
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. For nonresidents, 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.
California's 2023 antelope breakdown
Currently, there are six zones that hold hunts for antelope in California. All of the zones are located in the northeast corner of the state and 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 nonresident tag a year for the entire state.
2023 California's Antelope options
100% - Rifle
0% - Archery
85% - Rifle
13% - Archery
71% - Rifle
38% - Rifle
80% - Rifle (youth)
75% - Archery
93% - Rifle
81% - Rifle
100% - Rifle (youth)
N/A - Archery
63% - Rifle
0% - Rifle (youth)
0% - Archery
88% - Rifle
75% - Rifle (youth)
HIDDEN GEMS FOR ANTELOPE
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.
MANAGING POINTS AND EXPECTATIONS
As previously mentioned, there is only the potential for one tag a year for nonresidents. If you’re going to apply, it’s best to shoot for the best hunt in the state because you are up against every other nonresident who has applied. Since your odds are the same no matter what you apply for, you might as well apply for the best.
If you’re a resident, you need to at least be at the 18-point level for a chance at an archery tag. For rifle, you had four hunts that were 100% at the 20-point level last year. The bottom line is that you need to be near maximum points to be competitive for an antelope tag.
California's 2023 desert bighorn sheep breakdown
In 2023, there will be a total of 23 bighorn sheep permits up for grabs, which is a slight decrease from last season. Although a decrease in tags, there’s still the potential for up to two nonresident permits to be drawn. There are eight different hunting zones that are open this year in the state and all of them offer a random tag. Aside from the expensive hunting license that you must purchase prior to applying, the random chance makes this a semi-attractive bighorn sheep application.
2023 California's Desert Bighorn Sheep Hunts
|Tag Quota||Preference |
|Random Quota||Total |
MANAGING POINTS AND EXPECTATIONS FOR DESERT BIGHORN SHEEP
If you happen to be old enough or lucky enough to have started the point 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 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 and the chance of never reaching maximum points is a reality. However, not applying for bighorn sheep in your home state is just plain wrong. For the low cost to apply, a random chance is better than no chance.
For 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.