If you'll be hunting out of state, particularly if it's a DIY hunt on public land, you should plan ahead — in some cases, years ahead. Some big-game tags can take years to draw, and every state has different rules regarding how they hand out tags to residents and non-residents. Here are a few definitions of the most common terms you'll see when applying for big-game tags.
OTC: Over-the-counter tags are those tags which can be bought upon arrival. You can buy these tags at any license vendor that sells fishing and hunting licenses.
Limited Entry Tags: Limited entry tags are given out based on a drawing. You must apply for a license during an application period, then a drawing is held on a certain day. Limited entry tags are used when the number of applicants exceeds the number of available tags. This may take place in a state or in a unit within a state.
Unlimited Draw Tags: With these tags, you must apply for the tag, but there is no limit to the number of tags. You are guaranteed a tag if you apply during the application period, or in some cases, in time to receive it during your hunt.
Bonus Points and Preference Points: Some states use bonus or preference points when applicants exceed the number of tags available. Some states use the terms differently, but in general, a bonus point works like this: Each time you are unsuccessful, you receive a bonus point, which increases your odds of drawing. For all practical purposes, it puts your name in the hat an additional time. These are used when the drawing takes place among the names of all applicants. You could get drawn with no bonus points, but having more bonus points increases your odds of getting drawn. This system allows all people to have a chance, but the drawback is you never reach a point where you are guaranteed a tag like you would be with a preference point system.
Preference points are used in cases where are the names are not thrown into the hat together. If you are unsuccessful in the drawing, you are awarded a preference point. Drawing from the names with the most preference points takes place first, then if there are tags left, the pool of names with one fewer point takes place, and so on. Some states allow you to purchase one preference point each year. This way you do not have to apply for a tag if you have no chance of drawing. You can avoid the process by just purchasing a preference point until you have enough points that you will draw.
Surplus, or Leftover, Tags: If all tags are not sold in a given zone, they might be put back up for sale on a certain date, and you can purchase them without going through the application process. Likewise, some states require you to go through a drawing, and only if you are successful do you have to buy the tag. Some applicants are drawn but do not buy the tags; either they forget, have an emergency or whatever. These tags go back on sale on a specific date. Surplus or leftover tags often sell out very quickly. At times they sell out within minutes of the time they are offered for sale.
Landowner Tags: These tags are issued to ranchers and farmers as a way to keep the deer population in check. At times, these tags are transferrable, and the landowners often sell or gift them.
Zones and Units: These are terms that are used to divide a state into management areas, and tags are often allocated to each unit or zone in varying quantities. In many states the terms “zones” and “units” are used interchangeably. However, in some states, zones are within units or vice versa. Make sure you carefully check the state you are applying for to see how the terms “zones” and “units” are being used so you do not become confused and apply for the wrong area.
Application Periods: The application periods vary by state, but all are in the first half of the year and involve applications for that year’s upcoming hunting season. The Western states tend to be earlier in the year, many beginning January 1, and the Midwestern states tend to be in the spring.