Creative Ways to Get a Western Big Game Tag

If you come up empty in the western big game draws but still want to bowhunt out West, here are some alternative ways to put a tag in your pocket.

Creative Ways to Get a Western Big Game Tag

At 7:30 a.m., I dropped my pack and stalked in for a shot as the elk herd encircled a wallow nestled in the foothills. I didn’t see my pack again until 9 p.m. when I found it with my headlamp that evening. Yes, I went without food and water the entire day as I trailed the herd several miles up the mountain. Living with that elk herd for the entire day was sufficient recompense for my parched lips and gurgling stomach. My perseverance, I hoped, would yield an opportunity at the herd bull.

Three different times while shadowing the herd, they bedded, and I crept within bow range and waited patiently for the herd bull to expose his ribs. A one-antlered satellite bull walked within 8 yards of me, but the herd bull didn’t offer me a shot until 90 minutes before dark when his herd finally moved out of the dense timber onto an open meadow. A few cows spotted me, but they couldn’t quite peg me as danger. The bull moseyed around, feeding and keeping other bulls at bay 40 yards beyond my limit.

Eventually, the big bull wandered to within 80 yards and closing, and I went into shoot mode. As he turned broadside, my rangefinder confirmed a distance of 73 yards. I took a breath, drew my bow, hovered my sight pin (dialed to the exact yardage) on the top of his heart and launched my arrow. The world around me seemingly stopped, my arrow being the only thing in motion. It seemed to arc in slow motion, my suspense building as it began falling toward its intended mark. Unfortunately, the bull dropped and spun away as the arrow arrived, resulting in a superficial hit above the spine.

Although the outcome disgusted me, at least the bull was OK. Beyond that, I was grateful for the opportunity to hunt elk that fall despite not pulling a tag in the winter/spring draws. If you’re unsuccessful in the western big game draws, here are some options that can get you out West anyway.

Although being awarded a quality tag in the Western big-game draws is ideal, it isn’t always a reality. From leftover tags to landowner tags to OTC tags, you have options even if you missed the draws or were unsuccessful.
Although being awarded a quality tag in the Western big-game draws is ideal, it isn’t always a reality. From leftover tags to landowner tags to OTC tags, you have options even if you missed the draws or were unsuccessful.

Returned Tags

Idaho has multiple over-the-counter (OTC) deer and elk tags, but those tags are on a quota system. In other words, when they sell out, they’re gone. The tags annually go on sale on December 1, and they’ve been selling out within a day for at least a few years now due to increased interest and demand. But, you still have chances to pick up a tag as spring and summer unfold. 

Hunters who originally purchased OTC tags are allowed to return them. The Idaho Fish & Game then compiles a list of returned tags and puts them on sale once a month starting in April. The list of available returned tags is released 2 days before each sale date. The caveat to getting a tag is that other hunters are after these tags, too. When you login before the sale, you’re assigned a random place in line, and by the time you’re up to bat, the tags — or at least the one you’re after — could be gone. But, despite slim odds, it’s possible to get a tag this way because I’ve done it.

Leftover Tags

Some states offer leftover tags when the number of available tags exceeds the number of applicants. A leftover list is issued following the draw, and then the tags typically go on sale on a specified date. They’re usually sold in first-come-first-serve style, meaning you can’t dawdle, especially if the tag you’re after is a decent or good one.

Now, keep in mind that being flexible can make obtaining a leftover tag easier. Wyoming, for example, traditionally has plenty of antlerless elk and deer tags and doe pronghorn tags available, although numbers were reduced or eliminated in hunt areas impacted by 2022/2023 winterkill. Still, if you’re OK with settling for a meat hunt, getting a tag will typically be much easier due to lower demand.

Secondary Draw

Similar to leftover tags, Colorado big game tags that weren’t won during the primary draw — or weren’t paid for — go up for grabs during the secondary draw. You can’t simply log in and buy a tag. Like the primary draw, you’ll have to apply before the application deadline and let the draw play out. The good thing is that successfully drawing a tag in the secondary draw doesn’t use your preference points.

Landowner Tags

Utah, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico issue landowner tags, and landowners can sell them to hunters, including nonresidents. “Utah and Nevada landowner tags sell for premium prices, and there aren’t many of them,” said Logan Hedges, a hunt advisor with Huntin’ Fool. “Colorado and New Mexico have more available. In Colorado, expect to pay $2,500-$5,000 for a good elk tag. New Mexico is just a step above that. The majority go for $3,000-$8,000. Both states have more coveted tags that go for $20,000 or more.”

Hedges detailed how hunters can go about lining up a landowner tag.

“Colorado doesn’t publish a list of landowner tags for the public,” he explained. “Also, you cannot buy Colorado landowner tags from a third-party tag broker. You have to go directly to the landowner. On the Huntin’ Fool website, we have a page where landowners can list their tags for sale free of charge, and it’s a good place to find landowner tags.   

“Unlike Colorado, third-party brokers can buy and resell Nevada and New Mexico landowner tags. Guys buy up tags and then resell them at a profit. That definitely drives up prices. Those two states produce lists of landowners with tags, and you can obtain them from the respective state’s wildlife department. You can run through the list and contact the landowners to try to line up a tag to buy, and you might find one cheaper that way than going through a broker.”

The author's mature OTC bull is proof that you don’t need to draw a tag to have a successful hunt out West.
The author's mature OTC bull is proof that you don’t need to draw a tag to have a successful hunt out West.

If All Else Fails  

While the aforementioned options can potentially put you into above-average and even high-quality hunting units, sometimes you’ll come up empty-handed. If all else fails, don’t overlook OTC tags. These opportunities are decreasing due to the demand to hunt in the West, but there are still plenty of opportunities to hunt deer, elk and even pronghorn with OTC tags. 

While you’ll typically experience more hunting pressure and fewer trophy-class animals, the beauty is you’ll be able to return to that unit over and over. Through time spent and ground covered, you’ll be able to learn the unit inside and out. This will help you to understand animal movements and become more effective at finding animals and successfully bowhunting them. 

If you missed the draws or your applications were unsuccessful, you still have some options for putting a Western tag in your pocket. All it takes is a burning desire to hunt out West, some money and creativity.

Images by Becca and Darron McDougal


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