I am not an expert when it comes to drawing elk tags, but you can bet that I will have at least a couple of elk tags in my pocket every fall. Every state manages their elk numbers independently, and they all have their own way of allocating tags through a draw process, so you have to be a research junkie to sift through each states’ ever-changing proclamations to figure out the best way to get the tag you want.
In this article I am going to attempt to give you my approach to applying for and seeking out elk tags through draws and over-the-counter opportunities. I hope this information helps unfold some of the mysteries behind getting into the elk draw game, so that you can set yourself up with a long-term plan that works for you and your budget.
Focus on One Area
Regardless of your elk hunting prowess, it is better to intimately know a specific unit than to randomly bounce around to different elk units across the west. The biggest part of elk hunting is simply finding elk and being with them every day of the hunt.
More encounters provide more opportunities, which means more success.
I try to be within archery range of elk every day that my boots are laced up during hunting season. That is what it takes for me to be successful every fall with archery equipment. To do this, you need to get to know an area extremely well. Know where the elk want to rut, where they summer, where they calve, where they feed, where they escape, where they water, and of course, where they bed. Go back year after year and become familiar with all of the nuances that the country holds.
This means that you need to focus on the same over-the-counter areas that you can hunt every year, regardless of the draw game. You’ll start to figure out where the elk want to be and when they want to be there. This will dramatically increase your odds of success, regardless of how well you shoot a bow or how physically and mentally tough you are.
Play the Game
You will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so put your name in the hat and play the elk draw game. I set aside a budget each year for drawing tags. I have consistently played the game for over a decade and my mindset has always been a low-trajectory, long-term strategy. Some states are only going to take a few years to draw, others decades, and some you simply may never draw. This is why you have to figure out your priorities and create your own custom plan based on your goals.
I live in Washington state so it’s expense to drive to other states outside of the Pacific Northwest. It takes time to get there and I probably won’t be able to scout before the season. The idea of hunting somewhere new with a tag that took a decade to draw with no prior knowledge of the area horrifies me. That’s why I generally save the Southwest tags for premium elk units, and in the rest of the states I put in for quality areas that will get me a tag every few years.
I will break down my strategy for each state based on my budget, logistics, and opportunity. Just know that some states require you to purchase an expensive out-of-state hunting license just to put in for their quality hunts. Some states require you to pay the full price of the tag up-front, before the draw, so you have hundreds of dollars “spent” while waiting on the results and refunds for tags not drawn. Almost all states charge some sort of fee to put in the draw, regardless of the results. It’s not cheap to play the game, so figure out your budget and prioritize where you want to invest for the long term.
Here’s my state-by-state strategy (in alphabetical order). And then at the end be sure to check out some helpful resources and a recap to help you build your tag strategy.
I dream of having a September elk tag in Arizona, but it probably just isn’t realistic for a guy like me. Allow me to explain…
My strategy is to hunt Arizona every few years in the late archery season. I figure if I can hunt in Arizona, regardless of the season, I’ll have a chance at a big bull. There are a finite number of elk hunting days in life, so better to have a tag in hand than to be on the sidelines. I’m sure the rut hunt is incredible, but many years ago when Arizona went from paper applications to 100% online, I accidently burned like 8 points on a cow tag. I had to completely start over, so I changed my strategy.
Arizona has a great reputation for solid game management, amazing genetics and mild winters — producing some of the biggest bulls in the country. The draw is the only way to obtain a coveted Arizona tag, since there are no landowner tags available for purchase.
You probably should start applying yesterday.
Arizona’s lottery system is sort of complicated. They have three passes through the hat, the first one allocates 20% of the tags to those with the most points. The second pass covers 1st and 2nd choices, and the last pass covers the 3rd, 4th, and 5th choices. It seems like each year they make changes, so I rely on resources to uncover what changes were made each year. Their draw is one of the early ones so at the first of the year be ready get going on your application through their website. A couple tips to help you all out is that Arizona will give you an extra point in the draw after you apply for five years consecutively. That is awesome! The other tip is that they have a hunter safety class specific for their state that you can take and it will get you an additional point in the draw every year. The caveat is that you have to do the field day in person in order to obtain the point. I flew to Arizona, rented a car, stayed in a hotel just to attend the class and get the point. There is a difference between being interested and committed, I am committed! Arizona is a must apply state for me.
Colorado holds more elk and issues more elk permits than any other state. Like Idaho, this is a great backup option at the very least. The over-the-counter hunting is some of the best and they have lots of country for an ambitious elk hunter to explore.
For the draw, Colorado considers all applicants’ first choices before they consider any subsequent choice. Typically, most of the hunt choices are filled during this first pass and there is usually no need for a second choice on the application. Colorado uses preference points for their drawings, but really you should be researching the incredible number of units that have over-the-counter tags.
Colorado made some changes and is now the most affordable state to apply in for trophy elk units. Applicants pay only a $3 application processing fee, and then a nominal preference point fee if the unit you attempt to draw is unsuccessful and you do not meet the exemption criteria. But Colorado has some serious “point creep” issues, which can put you in “point purgatory”, as I am. Even though I have double-digit points, I am still way behind many others that have been at it longer, so I probably will never draw a dream tag in the Northwest corner of Colorado.
I plan on burning my points soon and finding some areas I can draw both an elk and deer tag every other year and really learn some country. Again, it is better to know an area really well than to have some special tag that you can only hunt once or twice in your lifetime. Colorado should be your top choice in over-the-counter tag opportunities, go there year after year and focus on a specific unit!
I have killed a lot of elk on Idaho’s public lands, with over-the-counter tags. This state is awesome, even though there is definitely a wolf problem in central and north Idaho. Idaho has some good draw units for elk, but truly it is best to reserve Idaho as a back-up state for over-the-counter elk hunting when the other state’s draws don’t come out in your favor. Idaho is one of those places where you can get a tag year after year and build up knowledge of a specific unit. As I mentioned earlier, this is the best strategy I can think of when it comes to shrinking the elk hunting learning curve.
Many units in Idaho require physically strenuous, backcountry elk hunting; some areas in the southern part of the state have elk that inhabit less challenging terrain. Over-the-counter archery tags can be purchased in the quality-controlled units, which have seasons that take place during the rut. Idaho doesn’t have a bonus point system, so it is truly a “luck of the draw” lottery system. Idaho’s tag prices are very reasonable and, in some units, you can purchase a second elk tag, which I do almost every year. That’s right, I can kill two bulls for about $800. That’s about the same cost as buying just one elk tag in Montana.
I encourage anyone thinking of coming out west to strongly consider Idaho, due to its generous seasons and vast amounts of public land backcountry. While you’re at it, please pick up a wolf tag, they’re heavily discounted and you may just get an opportunity.
Montana has one of the best general archery seasons in the entire country, and bowhunters have a full six weeks of hunting. I have killed a few Montana bulls with archery tackle in early October, weeks after archery season has closed in many other states. For me, that makes Montana a viable option every fall. It also helps that Montana offers a lot of public land and some quality bulls throughout the entire state.
The Southwest portion of the state probably has the highest density of elk, so be sure to research that general area. The western half of the state can be very remote and the mountains are rugged, but with a long season, hunters can have a solid chance at a big bull. Folks looking to hunt Montana for elk on a general tag should probably stick to the western portion of the state and put on the miles to gain an edge in the archery seasons. If you do not tag-out in the archery season, you can turn around and hunt for another five weeks with a rifle. That’s right, 11 weeks of hunting with one tag!
Recently, Montana has been selling their general tags out by the time fall rolls around, so make sure to put in early in the year to ensure you get a tag. Last year, for example, I wanted to buy a leftover tag for early October and they were sold out. If you missed the draw you can purchase a point online after the draw. The trophy areas are pretty well known, as are the units surrounding the Missouri breaks and in the Southeast portion of the state. If you are going to hunt central Montana for elk, just know that the elk will be near or on private land throughout the hunt, so it is important you have something like onXmaps to ensure that you can hunt legally and with confidence.
I have yet to draw a Nevada elk tag, and it is yet another state where I have double-digit points. Most tags are issued through a lottery system. Unsuccessful applicants may gain bonus points, which are squared to improve the odds of drawing tags. Much like raffle tickets, bonus points give hunters extra chances to draw tags. You can acquire one bonus point per year by buying them, or by applying for and failing to draw tags.
Nevada also offers landowner tags, which can be sold and transferred, that option is too expensive for my blue-collar budget. The other thing to note is that you have to buy a license just to apply so it is not going to be cheap process. Nevada is stingy with their nonresident tags, but the hunting quality is some of the best in the west. When I do draw, I will be selling out for the tag and dedicating all my energy and effort into scouting and setting aside plenty of time to truly enjoy a special hunt. I would encourage anyone to apply as they have some of the best bulls in the country to hunt — even if it will take years to obtain the opportunity to chase them.
I have hunted New Mexico twice and punched my tag both times. The last time was over 10 years ago, and I have not drawn a tag since. With no preference or bonus point system in place, it is never too late to begin applying in New Mexico. Nonresident tags have challenging odds of drawing in many of the highly desired units for all elk. Ten percent of the tags are set aside for clients that are contracted with a licensed New Mexico outfitter. Six percent of the tags are set aside for nonresident hunters not applying with an outfitter. The final 84 percent of the tags are allocated for the resident applicants. If there are less than 10 tags for any given hunt, then all tags are given to the resident applicants. I for one do not want to hire an outfitter for elk, so my odds are bleak. You can increase your odds by applying for the less-desired elk areas, which I think still offer some great elk hunts. Landowner tags can be purchased, but with young kids and college to help pay for, I have no justification to look into those options. Purchasing a landowner tag in NM can be extremely expensive and the prices are only going up. I would say New Mexico is another “must apply” state — with no point system it is truly “luck of the draw” so you always have a chance and the hunting is incredible throughout.
I do not put in for Oregon. It is relatively close to my home and opens up in late August for archery, but I have yet to dedicate myself to head down there. Oregon supports a lot of elk and you may buy tags over-the-counter for the Cascades, or archery hunt in most units east of the Cascades. I don’t know enough about their draw system to give advice, but I can tell you that to hunt one of their highly sought-after Northeast archery elk tags is going to take many years of applying and lot of luck. They have some terrific hunting for Roosevelts on the westside, but you’ll have to do your research on privately owned timber land and expect to pay to play when it comes to access.
I am always hoping I can pull off a limited-entry archery elk tag in Utah, but I have yet to do so — even with double-digit points. Utah has incredible country for elk hunters and some real remote backcountry. The state is managed for quality for the most part, which is one reason why getting a coveted tag can be a challenge. There are some over the counter and spike-only hunts available, but my strategy is to head to Utah when I have a legit tag in hand.
Hunters who apply for limited-entry permits receive bonus points for each unsuccessful application, giving them an additional chance to draw in future lottery drawings. Half of the tags in limited-entry units are allocated to hunters who have more bonus points than other hunter, ensuring that hunters who have been faithful in applying year after year eventually get to hunt; although a hunter just now starting might not live long enough to reach maximum bonus-point status.
Utah issues some landowners transferable vouchers that allow the holder to bypass the drawing and buy an elk tag, but such options are too rich for my blood. When applying it is important to know that you may select three hunt choices for limited-entry or general season tags. The state considers all applicants first hunt choices before considering any applicant’s second choice. As a result, no highly desirable tags are given to hunters who seek the tag as a second or third choice. Nonresidents receive 10% of tags for each hunt choice when at least 10 tags are offered. I am patiently waiting to pull a great tag and make a solid effort once my name is finally drawn. I usually count on not drawing, but I am always hopeful of a Mt Dutton or Monroe elk tag for archery —maybe someday!
My home state is not nice to nonresidents. To put in for the draw, you have to buy a hunting license and tag. That’s right, if you don’t draw the elk tag you put in for, you will be left with a tag and license for that year. That’s horrible! I wish they would change that. I don’t even hunt Washington for over-the-counter elk because their archery season is barely two weeks long and there’s a high number of hunters for small areas.
I usually put in for limited entry elk hunts in Southeast Washington, known as the Blue Mountains. I drew that tag once, in 2011. It took about ten years of applying as a resident and I ended up arrowing a 330-class bull in the wilderness. It was a remarkable hunt and maybe I can draw it again someday soon.
Washington makes you choose an East or West side tag. If you hunt West of the Cascades, you can find higher densities of elk and even get into the Roosevelt herds. The East side has some great areas for over-the-counter opportunity — especially in the Northeast corner — but you will have to deal with wolves and a short season. Currently, Washington does not have a wolf management plan that includes hunting.
Lastly, Washington also makes you choose a weapon, so you can’t take the strategy of trying with archery first and then coming back for muzzleloader or rifle season. I would most likely skip this state if you didn’t live here.
This is the one state that I believe is a “must apply” state, even if it is just for a general tag. You can probably hunt there every few years and really get to know a spot. They have the elk density necessary for an archer to have opportunity and learn the ropes. Their best elk tags can take some time to draw, but there are general tag options that are much easier to draw consistently. A general elk tag is a great way to get in the mountains and still have a darn good chance at harvesting a quality bull. Wyoming considers all applicants first choices before they consider any second or third choice. That means that most of the hunt choices are filled during this first pass and there is usually no need for a second choice on the application.
Wyoming’s preference point system allocates 75% of the tags to the applicants with the most preference points. The final 25% of the tags will be issued to nonresident applicants at random. This only applies to hunt choices with at least four total nonresident tags available. I haven’t hunted WY since 2007, however I did draw for the 2018 season and burned double-digit points to do so. I knew I was going to draw based on the draw odds which was nice, plus Wyoming is usually the first state post draw results, allowing you to make plans early in the year. If you missed the draw, you can wait for the summer and purchase a bonus point for elk, which I would recommend. Wyoming has a crazy rule that nonresidents cannot hunt the wilderness without a resident guide so make sure you don’t put in for an area that is all wilderness, unless you plan on hiring an outfitter or have a Wyoming resident that can take you in there and remain with you while you hunt.
Recap & Resources
After reading all of this your head may be spinning. Don’t worry, just narrow your focus based on time, money and energy. The time it takes to really know a unit is critical. Find an over-the-counter unit in Colorado, Montana or Idaho and go back year after year — it will pay off.
If you get super lucky and pull an amazing tag, sell out and spend your entire season in there, expecting that you may never return. It will take thousands of dollars to apply in all the states mentioned, so make sure you crunch some numbers and set aside some money that you are comfortable with.
I focus on having a strategy for dream hunts, quality hunts and opportunity hunts. Elk hunting tags are just like a financial portfolio in that you want to have a strategy on the long term, mid-term and short term. Once you start figuring out your focus, you’ll need to be able to dive into draw odds and each states’ process. I use GoHunt.com to figure out my chances and I use onXmaps from a desktop to learn access and overlooked areas. I think everyone can agree on the power of Google Earth for cyber scouting and virtually flying over units to learn terrain features and get the lay of the land. I would say more the time you put in behind the desktop the better during the off-season.
Make sure you work on everything that is inside your control. That includes becoming proficient with your weapon, developing physical and mental strength, and making arrangements with your work and family so you can enjoy every second of the hunt. There are a finite number of elk hunting days in your life, make the most of them.
Dan Staton is an ordinary blue collar family man with an extraordinary passion for archery elk hunting. Dan founded ElkShape.com to be a resource for hunters that want to shorten the learning curve when it comes to public land elk hunting out West. There you can peak at his training journal, read past articles or catch up on his podcast where he interviews fellow DIY elk hunters. Dan also owns and operates CrossFit Spokane Valley as his day-to-day, and when’s not helping people achieve their goals, he’s busy hustling towards his own. Connect with Dan at ElkShape.com, on YouTube or Instagram.