Playing the Elk Tag Game

If an elk tag is something you desire, here are a few thoughts to help add one to your pocket.

Playing the Elk Tag Game

For the bowhunter wishing to head West, there is no greater blessing than that of our public land. The millions of acres of public land in the West provide abundant hunting opportunities for those who obtain a tag. And, over the course of the last decade, there has been a steady increase in bowhunters looking to tackle a public land bowhunt for elk. Here in the West, there is a constant conversation about the added amount of hunting pressure applied by groups of bowhunters eager to take on the challenge of a western bowhunt.

The growing number of bowhunters is great for hunting in general, because it means although hunting numbers are dropping nationwide, the number of hunters in this facet of our sport is alive and well. However, for the good-ole-boy who has been hunting the same area for years, and had it nearly all to himself, it’s just not the same. I belong to both of these hunter groups. I have a place near my home that I hold dear to my heart, but the hunting pressure has made it “not like it used to be”. And, I am one of those people who goes on at least one out-of-state hunt each year; I love the adventure of exploring new elk areas.

Influx of Hunters

Putting a finger on the reason(s) for the influx of hunters can be difficult, but it is likely due to how easily information is accessed through social media and online in general. Hunters are beginning to voice their concerns on this issue, and game agencies are starting to hear many complaints about overcrowding. I am speculating here, but I believe there are more changes on the horizon. I don’t know if that will come in the form of over-the-counter states becoming draw states, less tags for nonresidents, shorter seasons, multiple seasons or any combination of these, but I believe change is coming. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, this trend looks to be here to stay, and finding places without hunting pressure will continue to get increasingly difficult.

Hunting pressure in the West is never going to lessen. It’s up to you to find locations where you can beat the crowds and still have a chance to arrow an elk.
Hunting pressure in the West is never going to lessen. It’s up to you to find locations where you can beat the crowds and still have a chance to arrow an elk.

Starting a Strategy

Fortunately for me, I started building preference points in many states for multiple species several years ago. At the time, I realized I wanted to bowhunt places where I needed points to hunt species like elk and mule deer on a regular basis. Since that time, I am constantly researching hunting opportunities in new areas. Through this process, I have built a strategy that keeps me afield every season. As I mentioned previously, I believe hunting opportunities will become more difficult to come by in the not-so-distant future, and having a strategy will be instrumental in making sure you always have an elk hunt on your calendar.

For the sake of not being too wordy, I am going to focus below on building an elk strategy, but the same process can be applied for other species you wish to pursue. Your research will just have to help you dictate the different states and draw options for the varying species.

Long-Term Goal

When I began my process, the first state I started building points for was Arizona; it’s my Holy Grail as far as elk goes. I have dreamt my whole life of hunting giant bugling bulls in the big cedar flats of Arizona. At 40 years old with 13 elk points in the bag, I realize I could still be more than a decade from drawing the tag I want. That said, I am 100 percent fine knowing this because I know I will have plenty of elk hunts in other places while I wait. Drawing an elk tag in states like Arizona, Nevada and Utah can take many years. Of course, there are units within these states that are more easily drawn, and units in other states that also take many years to draw as well. I recommend picking a state or two, along with the specific tag you want, then start applying. Hold strong until you draw it. The wait will be long, but I almost assure you the trip will be worth it when it arrives.

Short-Term Goal

Here, I am discussing states that you cannot hunt every year, but you can likely get a tag every other year or every few years. Sticking with the elk theme, if I were just starting to build an elk strategy I would use states like Wyoming, Colorado and Montana. Yes, every one of these states offer tags that take many years to draw, but if I were just starting, I would steer clear of the most difficult areas and focus on easier-to-draw units. The reason being, in states like Wyoming and Montana, point creep is out of hand and actually drawing these top units is quite a task. In states like Colorado, the tags that you could actually draw in 10 to 15 years, the hunt is just not worth the wait — in my opinion.

Wyoming has some great general elk hunting that used to be drawn every other year as a nonresident, but nowadays it takes a couple preference points to draw a tag. Not long ago, you could draw a Montana general elk tag every year, and many years even buy a leftover tag after the draw. Like most places though, Montana is seeing a big increase in applicants. For most, it takes a point to draw a tag, and it looks to be trending toward maybe a couple points to ensure a tag. Like I mentioned above, Colorado has some tags that can take 20 plus years to draw, and they have over-the-counter hunts in many units.

If I were to start building points today in Colorado, I would be doing so with a focus on tags that take one to four years to draw. Otherwise, you’ll end up like me, sitting in a virtual no-man’s land with 10 elk points. It’s too many to burn on the easier tags and nowhere near enough to — maybe ever — draw a top unit. If I could go back now, I probably would have already drawn two to three decent elk tags in the time it has taken me to build 10 points that I don’t know what to do with at this point.

While waiting for the draw-of-a-lifetime in Arizona, the author bowhunts elk in states with over-the-counter tags.
While waiting for the draw-of-a-lifetime in Arizona, the author bowhunts elk in states with over-the-counter tags.

Every Year

One thing that is non-negotiable for me is that I am going to bowhunt elk — every year for as long as I am able to do so. Luckily, I live in Idaho where I can simply buy a tag. I hope that never changes, but I am not so sure that will be the case.

When looking for over-the-counter options, Colorado and Idaho get most of the press. Both states offer plentiful country in which to pursue elk, but hunting pressure is heavy in most areas. Most of these areas have a success rate of only 10 to 15 percent. Finding and killing any elk can be a chore, but getting to bowhunt elk regardless of the outcome is still a nice option.

One way to combat over-pressured hunting areas is to do a little homework. In years past, it was as simple as finding an area with plenty of elk and go hunting, but simply put, everyone is doing that now, leading to crowded trailheads and educated elk. I am perfectly happy to hunt an area with less elk as long as it means less people, too. I know my odds of killing an elk — once I find one worth killing — are better if the area has not already had multiple hunters in hot pursuit.

Another overlooked OTC state is Oregon. It offers some good OTC elk hunting on the eastern part of the state and great OTC hunting for Roosevelt elk on the western side of the state. With plenty of elk and public land, as well as private timberland open to the public, Oregon can be a real sleeper for an easily obtained archery elk tag.

Put It All Together

It would literally take a well-researched book to lay out all of the options that there are for drawing tags in all the states across the West. With random draws, bonus points and preference points, it can be difficult to decide which route to go. However, for many, once they get a taste for bowhunting elk out West, they will acquire a thirst that must be quenched every year. With states trying to figure out how to provide opportunity while also enhancing the experience of people’s hunts, limiting hunters will likely become the reality. It is time to start building a strategy to stay ahead of the competition.


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