Best of the West: The Most Coveted Hunting Tags for Every Western State

March 17, 2020 | Hunt

Late winter can be a rough time for hunters. In most states waterfowl season is over, snow and cold weather is set in and, if you’re not a predator hunter, all you can do is think about warmer weather and next year’s hunts.

But spring is around the corner, and tag applications can be the one saving grace this time of year.

In the upcoming months tag applications are due across many Western states. Hunters across the country, including here at onX, are already dreaming about seeing the word “successful” next to their drawing statuses.

SUCCESS FAVORS THE PREPARED

Draw Odds and Trophy Records. Available in the onX Hunt App.

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We all think about pulling a tag and going on the hunt of a lifetime, and in that spirit we couldn’t help discussing specific tags each state offers. The coveted tags you hope and pray to pull once in your lifetime.

The West is full of once in a lifetime tags for every big game species, but we tried to whittle it down to the most coveted tag for every state in the region.

We based choices on draw difficulty, trophy potential and the ability to offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We consulted each other, our pro staff and outfitters to narrow down our list. There are no right or wrong answers here, and this could easily be a list comprised of only sheep tags. We would love to hear any other tags you recommend in the comment section.



The State: Montana

The Tag: 680 Bighorn Sheep

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Our home state has an assortment of great tags for multiple species, but the clear winner is a chance to hunt trophy bighorn sheep in Montana’s famed Missouri River Breaks.

Between 2004 and 2013, the three counties that unit 680 resides in accounted for 81 record book rams. This area is also home to some of the easiest terrain you can find on a sheep hunt—the rolling hills and canyons are much easier hiking than rocky shale cliffs and high altitudes usually associated with sheep hunting. According to Eastman’s Membership planning catalogue, 74 percent of the unit is public land. The combination of terrain and access makes this unit friendly to hunters of all physical abilities.

As great as this sounds, however, if you don’t have an arsenal of preference points it may already be too late. Only 25 resident 680 tags are awarded each year and the average Montana hunter has less than a one-percent chance of drawing a tag. Many hunters will apply their whole lives without drawing this coveted tag.

But if one day the planets align and you manage to pull this tag, you will be passing up 180+ rams for something bigger, all while hiking in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

Runner-up Tag: 410 Bull Elk

If you can’t chase rams in the breaks, bull elk are the next best thing. A two-percent chance of drawing a tag gives you slightly better odds than a sheep tag and there is plenty of trophy potential within the public land.



The State: Arizona

The Tag: Arizona Strip 13a Mule Deer

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This is almost too close to call. We could easily go with either an elk tag from units 9 and 10, or a mule deer 13B tag. It came down to numbers and opportunities, however. Mule deer numbers are on a general decline in the West and elk numbers holding steady. This means more tag opportunities for quality elk.

The Arizona strip, however, still offers one of the best chances to harvest a 200+ inch mule deer. The roughly 1100-mile long, 60-mile wide strip has habitat from desert and sage, to high elevation cedars and pines. According to Travis Mcclendon, of Arizona Strip Guides, the average buck in the area reaches 200 inches by age four and has the best trophy potential in the country.

Hunting the strip is not easy, though. Mcclendon said most of the country doesn’t hold deer and the best way to find them is by tracking their habits. Pulling a tag is another obstacle, as well. If you haven’t been acquiring points for 20 years, your chances are slim to none. The reward for such persistence, though, is a trophy buck in one of the most famous hunting units available.

Runner-up Tag: Arizona Unit 9 Elk

The archery unit is full of trophy bulls and the lack of hunting pressure means they won’t be call shy. Like the mule deer tag, plan on applying and building up points for years, but the persistence will no doubt pay off.



The State: Utah

The Tag: Hunt 1003 Henry Mountains Mule Deer

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The Henry Mountains are an isolated range rising up to over 11,000 feet in the Utah desert south of Hanksville, and home to some of the biggest muley bucks in the country.

onX ambassador Brad Carter has taken his fair share of large bucks across Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, but still dreams of putting his scope on a buck in the Henries. “If I could pick one tag, it would be the Henries,” he said.

The state gives out 24 resident tags and it will probably take years to finally pull a tag, but when you do, expect to see a high amount of 170 inch bucks, with plenty of 200s waiting for careful eyes.

Runner-up Tag: Hunt Utah 3025 Beaver East Early Season Elk

This unit hasn’t produced as many trophies as a San Juan tag, but your odds of drawing the Beaver East are slightly better and the area is made up of more public land (87 percent) than San Juan (76 percent).



The State: Oregon

The Tag: Unit 59 North Snake River Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Tag

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This could be the most unique hunt on the list. The best way to find a quality sheep is floating down the Snake River for a week, or more, and listening to the waves lap the shore of Hell’s Canyon every night.

When you’re not glassing the steep slopes for sheep, elk and deer, you can cast lines for fall salmon, trout or sturgeon. You can bring a shotgun along, as well, for unparalleled chukar hunting.

By all means apply for this tag, just don’t plan on getting it. Only one tag is awarded a year, but if you’re that lucky lottery winner you will truly be on the hunt of a lifetime as you glass for full-curl rams from the bottom of the nation’s deepest canyon.

Runner-up Tag: Oregon unit 56 WENAHA Elk

This tag puts you in Oregon’s Blue Mountains in Wallowa county. The county is tied for the most Boone and Crockett entries for Rocky Mountain Elk and allows the use of any legal weapon.



The State: Colorado

The Tag: Units 7, 8 and 191 Moose

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Colorado is a moose haven right now. The state seems to be the only one in the lower 48 with a growing population. According to the Denver Post, Colorado’s moose population was at 2,300 animals and up 35 percent in two years.

These units sit on the Wyoming border and have produced the most Boone and Crockett bulls in the state since 2004. Chasing a bull in Colorado is literally a once in a lifetime experience too. According to Colorado resident and onX ambassador Curtis Elmore, Colorado hunters can only draw one moose tag ever. Knowing that, Elmore said the state is helpful with planning for a hunt. The state collects data on every moose harvested and provides the size and location information for hunters. According to Elmore, the state also allows you to change your weapon preference, before the season starts.

Ellmore also noted the state is taking such care of the rising moose populations, when a new unit opens for hunting, it probably could have been opened five years beforehand.

Runner-up Tag: Colorado Units 2/201 Elk

A classic Colorado hunt, these tags come from one of the highest trophy producing counties in the state. It will take 21 preference points to even be in consideration and if you haven’t been applying, you may never catch point creep.



The State: Wyoming

The Tag: Unit 2 Bison

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Wyoming is one of few states which offers free-range public land bison hunting. You only have around a three percent chance of pulling this tag, but if you’re one of the 90 lucky people, you will hunt the most iconic animal of the West in the shadows of the Teton Mountains.

The only issue lies with what you do after filling your tag. Bison are the largest mammals in North America and can top out at 2,000 pounds. Your best bet is to hire a local outfitter for a “tag and drag” service, where horse teams help get your trophy back to the truck.

Like the Colorado moose tag, your first general bison tag is also your last. The silver lining is you can still draw a once in a lifetime cow/calf tag after you draw a general tag.

Runner-up Tag: Red Desert Pronghorn Units

Wyoming beats out every other state for trophy pronghorn. In 2015 Wyoming was home to 33 percent of Boone and Crockett bucks, with the majority of them coming from the 50s and 60s red desert units.



The State: New Mexico

The Tag: Unit 16b Elk

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There may be no better landscape to chase monster bull elk than in the country’s first wilderness. The Gila Wilderness area is over 500,000 acres of ponderosas, aspens, streams, open meadows and more. It’s also fitting that the area was created in part by Aldo Leopold, one of the most famous conservationists of all time. (The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area is adjacent as well.) The area is high desert and sits between 4,800 feet at the river bottom to over 10,000 foot mountain peaks. If you draw a tag, be sure to do plenty of scouting also, because over 800 miles of trails weave through the area.

For an added bonus, more record book bulls come out of the 16s than any other zone in the state. Between 2003 and 2012 the tri-county area around Gila National Forest produced 27 bulls for the record book.

Like most drawings, your best shot to draw a Gila tag is for the archery season. The lack of hunting pressure will help with calling bulls in, although several guide services do operate in the area. Out-of-staters may be interested in hiring one of the outfitters in the area, as they have a much higher percentage to draw than a DIY out of state hunter.

Runner-up Tag: New Mexico Unit 18 Pronghorn

The two counties that make up this area have produced more than 70 trophy bucks. That makes New Mexico second only to Wyoming in pronghorn potential and unit 18 second to none in trophy potential.



The State: California

The Tag: 406 Cache Creek Tule Elk

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This one is tricky as it could easily be another sheep tag, and because California has a surprising number of great elk hunts. The real opportunity is hunting a species of elk found nowhere else in the country. Tule elk are smaller than the Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain species and rut earlier, in August.

The neighboring Bear Valley tag should be your go to for guided hunts. But for the public land hunter, the Cache Creek Wildlife Area offers 2,300 acres loaded with black tail deer, black bear, quail and feral pigs. Be sure to pick up that pig tag just in case.

Tule elk tend to inhabit foothill oak woodlands with low brush. The rolling hills of California are easier to navigate than the terrain your typical Rocky Mountain species inhabits and the oak stands allow for good spotting.

The rough aspect of hunting tule elk, however, is the heat of August.

Colusa County, the county the hunt occurs in, has an average August temperature in the 90s, and the foothills outside it don’t get much cooler. Monterey County is tied with Colusa for most trophy tule elk taken and used to offer elk hunting opportunities on the army’s Fort Hunter Liggett, where the August weather would undoubtedly be cooler. Unfortunately the hunt was canceled in 2016 due to the increase of army activity on the base.

Runner-up Tag: x2 Deer Tag

California isn’t generally thought of as a premier mule deer state, but light winters made life easy on deer herds. In the far northeast corner, bordering Oregon and Nevada, California’s X zones are the premier destination in the state to chase big muleys.



The State: Washington

The Tag: Unit 113 Selkirk Mountains Moose

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The Evergreen State doesn’t get talked about much in big game hunting circles, but the varying habitat from west to east offers more species to chase than most Western states. Three species of deer, two of elk, two bighorns (although the California bighorn is not officially recognized by Boone and Crockett) and mountain goats can all be hunted in Washington. Your best shot at a trophy tag however may be a moose in the Selkirk mountains.

The Selkirks occupy the northeast corner of the state and have the state’s densest concentration of moose. The terrain is rough and is a backcountry hunters dream trip. Be prepared to have some friends who owe you a favor on standby, because getting a 1,000 pound moose out of this area, as with most moose hunts, will be no picnic.

Access in this unit is fantastic and the vast majority is public. The area is heavily forested, however, which can make spot and stalk hunting more challenging. Don’t just stick to the low country to locate a good bull, however. You can spot moose wading in the high elevation lakes, around 7,000 feet, as well.

While glassing for bull paddles, be sure to keep your eyes open for mountain caribou as well. The Selkirks are home to some of the last members of the mountain caribou herd and spotting one would make for an extra unique experience.

Runner-up Tag: Area 4-7 Mountain Goat

The Cascade Mountains are a high alpine paradise situated in western Washington. Seated between Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, you will be glassing for goats among alpine lakes and craggy peaks in some of the most beautiful mountains in the country.



The State: Idaho

The Tag: Unit 40 Early Season Rifle Elk

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Idaho has great options for over the counter rifle tags, but in Unit 40 you will be chasing screaming bulls during the peak of the rut. A privilege usually only reserved for archery hunters.

The area is near 83 percent public, and is a mix of sagebrush flats, rolling hills, woods and the Owyhee Mountains looming in the background. The unit does have a patchwork of private land, making maps an important tool in your arsenal.

Finding elk in this unit can prove to be difficult due to the low desert like terrain. This shouldn’t prove to be a challenge, however, as the sound of screaming bugles should be all the help you need locating bulls.

The good news is, in 2013 the success rate for bulls was 75 percent and, according to Eastman’s research catalog, most were six points, or bigger. According to Eastman’s, this is possibly the most sought after elk tag in Idaho and a 330, or higher, class bull is a real possibility.

Runner-up Tag: Idaho Unit 11 Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

This hunt is essentially the same as the one in Oregon, just on the other side of the river, so it makes the list for all the same reasons. The float down the Snake River makes this hunt such a unique experience and falling asleep to the sound of a running river after harvesting the trophy of a lifetime is an incomparable experience.



The State: Nevada

The Tag: Unit 103 Mountain Goat

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Nevada isn’t associated for mountain goat hunting and that’s why this tag is so special. In 2016 only 13 tags were awarded throughout the state and only one for unit 103. Imagine having the entire southern half of the Ruby Mountains all to yourself as you glass alpine peaks for billies.

Not only will you be the only person with a goat tag in your pocket, but there is a great chance of finding a trophy billy as well. Compared to the other units, this unit also has the best access and most public land at 96 percent. You better be prepared to work though.

Most of the peaks in this unit are deep within the Ruby Mountain Wilderness so you can only get in via horseback or by your own boot power. The highest peak in the Rubies also towers over 11,000 feet so, like any goat hunt, you better be training for a high altitude hunt.

You only have a shot at this tag if you’re a resident and even then you’re looking at a 2 percent chance of drawing it. But if you do, every morning you will watch the sun shed first light over the great basin and range. Gaze upon the unobstructed night sky and glass some of the most impressive animals in the West.

Runner-up Tag: Unit 72 Elk

Unit 72 in the northeast portion of the state consistently produces bulls with main beams over 50 inches. This unit offers a varied and scenic habitat to hunt and, at a 17 percent draw rate, is one of the easier tags to draw. The Jarbridge Wilderness, within unit 72, features over 110,000 acres of roadless area and has not felt the effects of drought like the western portion of the state.



The State: Alaska

The Tag: Grizzly / Brown Bear

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This could just as easily be a Dall sheep hunt, in fact most hunters would do anything to get the chance at a Dall sheep, but while there are two species of bighorns to hunt throughout the continental West (desert and Rocky Mountain) as of now, Alaska is the only place in the country to hunt a grizzly.

The tricky part about a grizzly tag, and Dall sheep for that matter, is if you’re from out of state and have no family living in Alaska, you have to hire a guide. This can make your hunt based more off of, which outfitter you choose, instead of which area you want to hunt.

Hunting options are based on if you want to hunt coastal bears, or head into the mountains of the interior. Regardless of which terrain you choose, chasing the great bear is an incredible experience.

Especially for a self-declared bear hunting enthusiast like onX Ambassador Jason Matzinger.

Matzinger’s situation was unique in that he was offered a cancellation tag from an outfitter. He had almost a month to make a choice, and he ultimately decided there are some life experiences you cannot pass up.

“It was an unreal feeling to be sitting in the middle of nowhere Alaska, hunting grizzlies,” he said. “I had to pinch myself to make sure I was actually here doing it.”

SUCCESS FAVORS THE PREPARED

Draw Odds and Trophy Records. Available in the onX Hunt App.

Available on iOS, Android, and Desktop