Mule Deer, Elk and Western Big Game Hunting -

Building an Effective Strategy for Applying for Premium Big Game Tags
By Brad Vargo Freelance Writer

Mule Deer Tags
So you'd like to start applying for some out-of-state premium big game licenses, but you are unsure of how to start. Or maybe you already apply in one or two states, but you'd like to expand your efforts. The first and most important thing to do is to ask yourself how much I have to spend on tags. Most beginners just jump right in and only think of the annual costs of applying and not the big picture. How much will the license cost if I draw? Will I have to hire an outfitter? Is it even legally possible to Do-It-Yourself (DIY)? Many people waste their time applying for a premium tag they can't afford. After you setup your budget, make sure you give yourself a small raise (say 5%) each year to account for inflation. State game agencies tend to raise their license fees from time to time and you'll want to prepare for it so you don't get priced out in the long run. After you have a budget, it's time focus on your second step, defining your goals.

What do you want to hunt? Are you only interested in elk? Do you want to hunt any of the big three…moose, sheep, or mountain goat? These are just some of the questions you're going to have to ask yourself. In defining your goals, the earlier you define them the better. Some sheep tags can take decades to draw, if ever, so the sooner you start applying the better your odds will be to eventually draw a license. Break down your goals into two categories, short and long-term. Short-term is anything that takes five years or less to draw; long-term is anything longer than five years. If you only have long-term goals, you can tend to get discouraged with the long wait. At the very least always keep a couple of short-term goals to keep the excitement up. Now that your goals are well defined, write them down. They will come in handy later on when you combine them with the states you apply in, the areas in those states that you apply for, and the recurring drawing deadlines. Now that you have a budget and some goals, it's time to decide which states should you be applying in for licenses.

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There is no easy way around it, you're going to have to research each state you potentially want to apply in to see if that state is right for you. Here's a list of the most popular states (with corresponding websites) hunters tend to apply in:

New Mexico:

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Some states like Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah make you buy a hunting license before you can apply for any big game permits. Utah's and New Mexico's hunting licenses are relatively cheap whereas Arizona's, Idaho's, and Nevada's hunting licenses are on the expensive side. Some states have bonus or preference points that give you increased odds the more years you apply and some states have just a straight draw like Idaho. Some states like Utah and Wyoming let you just buy and accumulate points without any chance of drawing which can be a good, inexpensive way of getting started. Once you have your budget and your goals, try and not get too overwhelmed with all the details. Approach this systematically, make a ranked list of the potential states you'd like to hunt and start researching their websites from top to bottom. Look at their maps, license areas, fees, and see how long it'll take you to get a license. All the states' websites have statistical pages that can be used to decipher unit success, unit quality and how long it will take to draw a license. After a state has made the cut, buy a state Atlas & Gazetteer map. They can be found either at a local sporting goods store, map shop, or online. They are invaluable for identifying the amount of public and accessible land within the areas you are applying for. Now that you have your list of states, how do you decide on hunting units?

Figuring out what areas to put in for within each state you are going to apply in is the hardest part of this whole process and the only way to accomplish this is with lots of research. The state hunting websites can be a good first place to start to get a feel for the landscape as the areas with the lowest drawing odds tend to be some of the best areas to draw (but beware this is sometimes not true). For a small fee you can research the Boone & Crockett Club's record book archives which lists where each trophy was taken. You can conduct online research. I recommend joining an online hunting site like, but you'll need to be an active participant in order to get good information from its members. You can also buy a magazine subscription from Eastmans or Hunting Fool which gives you state by state breakouts/recommended areas to apply in. These two magazines are to be used as "starting points only" for research. Never take a single piece of information at face value, verify it against supporting research. Call the local wildlife biologist, game warden, or conservation/range officer in the area you want to apply in. They are usually very friendly, very willing to talk, and the information they provide will be some of the best information you can get. Another source of valuable information is past hunters. They may not give up the area they hunted when they had a successful hunt, but they'll usually tell you all about an area if it was a bust. The exception to this is some hunters will be more willing to give specifics about an once-in-a-lifetime hunt as they know they'll never draw the same tag again. A good tip to remember is the more states you apply in, the better your odds will be to at least draw one tag in your lifetime. This is especially true of low odds sheep tags. After your research is done and you have the areas in the states you want to apply in, write them down.

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Make sure you keep a spreadsheet on your computer or keep a journal. Log all the pertinent details including any 2nd or 3rd choice areas. Why would you want to keep 2nd and 3rd choice areas? Because you are constantly researching as the years go by. This builds flexibility into your strategy. Your #1 unit for elk may not be your #1 unit for elk in ten years. In fact, it may not be anyone's top 20 elk area in ten years. Things change all the time. Big game populations rise and fall and you want to be flexible in your approach. In other words, don't get your heart set on a particular unit. You don't want to be switching units every year, but be open to changing units when current research dictates it's time to change. Use a yearly three question Pass/Fail test to decide on whether to keep applying for each specific hunt.

  • Does this hunt have the quality I want? This can be trophy quality or quality/success of the hunt experience.

  • Do I have enough time left to draw this license? Some tags may take 30+ years to draw. Will you be physically capable of hunting when you draw?

  • Is the overall cost to achieve this goal still reasonable? Some draws may be losing propositions and the overall cost of success may be more expensive than a fully guided hunt in Alaska/Canada. If in doubt, do a full cost-benefit analysis.

    Mule Deer Tags
    If a potential hunt fails any of the three questions, you should seriously consider dropping it off your list. Lastly, set yearly reminders on your phone or computer so you don't forget application deadlines and keep an ear out for any major changes from any states you apply in. If this is a little too complicated for you, don't worry there are several Licensing/Application Services, Cabelas T.A.G.S. is one of them, that for a fee will manage and apply for all your licenses in any of the states you want to apply in. Now go get applying!

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