Two types of guaranteed tags in the West

Photo credit: Brady Miller

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 2022 season.

For me, the 2022 application season is going to be an interesting one. Basically, my points in a few states were cleared in 2021 and the states that I still have points in will require more than I have to draw a tag in 2022. 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 2.0 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. Through 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

DataFirst rifle*Second rifle
Third rifle
Fourth rifle*
Hunter numbersUp to 150219167Up to 15
Harvest scuccess**16%13%7%

*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

You are starting to build points in Wyoming, but know that it will be up to four years before you can draw the general nonresident elk tag. In the meantime, you’d love to increase your knowledge of the state while improving your skills as an elk hunter overall. A quick trip to our Wyoming Draw Odds pages will show you that, in 2021, there were a total of 23 Type 6 and 7 antlerless elk tags drawn with 100% odds. Further, the Type 6 and 7 tags are considered “reduced priced” and come at a total cost of under $300! This means you are now hunting Wyoming for elk without touching your accumulating points and at a fraction of the cost for a bull tag.

Scenario 3

You really want to start hunting for larger, more mature bulls, but do not have the points you need in any of the western states to start pulling more premium tags. Landowner tags are an option; however, you’d rather save your money for more hunts down the road. You don’t mind tougher hunting conditions. Mainly, you want to escape hunting pressure. After searching Colorado draw statistics, you’ve found that a large number of fourth season rifle tags were drawn at zero points in 2021 — 53 hunts to be exact. These hunts occur during late November and the hunting conditions can be tough, but heavy snows can push bulls into low-lying basins and the struggles can pay off big in the end. Further, these hunts typically have very low tag numbers — sometimes as low as 15 to 20! This can, at times, make you feel like you have the whole unit to yourself.

So, what about OTC hunts?

I’ll admit that I’ve been pretty hard on OTC hunts to this point. The honest truth is that OTC hunts are tough, but that is a major part of the allure for some. I’ve had some of the best hunts of my life on OTC tags; however, at the end of the day, higher success odds equal higher odds of success. The primary point we are trying to convey here: Just because you don’t have any points or missed out in the draws does not mean that you are simply delegated to slogging your way through OTC hunts. If you are willing to alter your plans, adapt to changes and are just simply looking to fill the freezer, then there are some incredible opportunities to still be had.

How do I find these on INSIDER?

As an INSIDER member, you have access to thousands of hunts across the West at your fingertips. Combining this data into powerful tools such as Filtering 2.0 and our standalone Draw Odds pages can quickly help you narrow down this mountain of choices into just a few.

Filtering 2.0

I’m a big map guy and I love visual learning as I noted earlier. I love using our Draw Odds pages; however, having a physical map to look at while searching for hunts really helps me see the big picture. Searching for guaranteed draw tags in Filtering 2.0 is very easy.

To get started:

  • Navigate to Filtering 2.0.
  • Select your state.
  • Select your species (elk, antlerless elk, mule deer, etc.).
  • Select your residency and then slide the Draw Odds Range slider to 100%.
  • You can further filter your choices from this point by selecting a specific season you may be interested in, but this is not necessary either.

Draw Odds

For a clear-cut look at just the data, our Draw Odds pages are perfect. These will work very similarly to Filtering 2.0 in terms of narrowing down your search results.

To get started:

  • Navigate to Draw Odds.
  • Select your state.
  • Select your residency.
  • Select your species (elk, antlerless elk, mule deer, etc.).
  • Slide the Draw Odds range slider to 100%.
  • You can further filter your choices from this point by selecting a specific season you may be interested in, but this is not necessary either.

Second choice options

We’ve mentioned second choice options a few times, but typically these are hunts that you can draw as your second choice and these will not affect your total points value. As an example, if you have 15 points in Colorado for deer, you could draw a second choice tag and not touch your accumulated points.

If you are not a current INSIDER member, I would highly suggest checking it out! This is an incredible tool that will make locating these types of hunting opportunities much easier. After all, that’s why it was created!

See all the benefits of INSIDER here

Closing thoughts

As I stated earlier, well known and popular opportunity type hunts are shrinking across the West. More and more demand is being put on existing options and hunter numbers have been on the upswing. Regardless, with careful research and outside-of-the-box thinking, there are some incredible opportunities for those simply willing to try. As long as you are able-bodied and in a position to afford the hunts, there is no reason to not be hunting the West every year — with good odds of harvest success, too!


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