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

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 will inevitably come, and tag applications can be the one saving grace through the long, dark winter.

In early spring, 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.

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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.

In the meantime, here are our top picks:

The State: Montana

A female hunter poses with the ram she harvested.

The Tag: 482 Bighorn Sheep

Montana remains the number one destination to draw a coveted bighorn sheep license. Ask any hunter what their dream hunt is and you’re going to hear a lot of “a bighorn sheep hunt in Montana.” The Big Sky State is home to giant world-class rams, and it has plenty of them. Over the years, more than 900 Montana rams have been entered into Boone and Crockett’s record books. While no other state can claim even 100 total B&C bighorn entries, the famed Missouri Breaks unit 482 has produced 100 book rams alone in just the past 25 years.

Located along the southern edge of the Missouri River in central Montana, unit 482’s sheep population is estimated to be around 550. The terrain these sheep call home varies between rugged clay breaks and rolling hills and coulees. There is plenty of public access on the unit along with options to hunt from a road, by foot, or by jet boat. Throw in a 100% harvest success in most years and this is a great hunt for anyone.

The only downside to this hunt is the difficulty in drawing a tag. With almost 7,000 applicants applying for only 20 tags each year, the math speaks for itself on the probability of ever being drawn. The lucky few who can beat the odds will soon find themselves on a true hunt of a lifetime, along with a great chance at notching their tag on a 180+” ram.

Runner-up Tag: 690 Archery Elk

Prime habitat, lower tag numbers, and plenty of private land provide the perfect recipe to help these bulls reach maturity and the potential the genetics in this area are known for. Between the limited BLM land and Block Management opportunities, it will take some effort for a self-guided hunter to work around the limited access on this hunt. For most, the opportunity to hunt a unit that produces a few giant bulls every year is worth the effort.

The State: Arizona

A full curl ram stands in a rock outcropping.

The Tag: Unit 22 Desert Bighorn Sheep

Pound for pound, Arizona has as many unbelievable once-in-a-lifetime hunts for mule deer, elk, Coues deer, and antelope that grow as big as anywhere on the planet! However, the rams that call Apache and Canyon Lake along the Salt River in Southern Arizona home are some of the most majestic animals in the world. The 180+” rams in this area only tell part of the story. The few lucky hunters who hold max sheep points in Arizona have a chance to find out the rest of the story. 

The best mode of transportation is by boat, but that will only get you close. The canyon walls and rocky bluffs tower above the water in this long, winding canyon. That’s the real barrier to entry. Finding sheep is not the problem in this area, it’s finding one of the Boone & Crockett rams that call this unit home. 

The only downside is that every tag issued for this hunt is awarded to applicants with the maximum amount of sheep bonus points. Unless you had 32 points in the 2022 state draw, you had a 0% chance of hunting this area.

Runner-up Tag: Unit 13B Arizona Strip Mule Deer

This can be as tough of a hunt as you will find in the West, but the rewards can be as big as you can imagine. Max deer point holders have the upper hand in drawing one of these coveted tags, but there are always a few lucky hunters who beat less than 1% odds and get a crack at hunting an area that has produced bucks as big as 300”.

The State: Utah

A male hunter wearing camo poses with a velvet buck and his bow.

The Tag: Paunsaugunt Deer

Excluding Colorado, there is a special band that runs across northern Arizona, southern Utah, and into Nevada. Smack dab in the middle of this is the Paunsaugunt, which produces some tremendous mule deer bucks. The Paunsaugunt, much like the Henry Mountains, is a “premium limited-entry” hunt, which in layman’s terms means it is the state’s golden child. The goal of the Paunsaugunt is to have great deer numbers with great buck-to-doe ratios (40-55 bucks to every 100 does) and give hunters the opportunity to harvest a buck of a lifetime.

Utah goes to great lengths to ensure the greatest genetic potential gets passed along to deer offspring by holding additional management/cull hunts. These hunts vary from cactus buck-specific hunts, as well as point-restricted hunts that limit the permit holder to only harvest an antlered deer with no more than three points (not including eye guards) on one side. 

Tags in this unit run from mid-August until the last day in October. Depending on the season you select and with a fairly migratory herd, you can be hunting upon the Paunsaugunt Plateau with its unparalleled scenic beauty or all the way down in the vast desert country along the Arizona border.

The downside to this tag is that if you are starting now, you’ll never catch the points it takes to guarantee a draw. However, one of the great things about Utah is that if you apply in the draw, you will always have a chance to get lucky and draw a permit as they allocate up to 50% of the available permits to the random drawing.

Runner-up Tag: Central Utah Bison

You could go either way between the Henry’s and the Book Cliffs. One of the most unique things about these hunts compared to other states is that they are high success and free range. Unlike most of the surrounding states where you are either hunting bison in a park or watching them in a park that you cannot hunt, the bison on the Henry Mountains and Book Cliffs are completely self-sustaining and live most of their lives on accessible public land. 

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The State: Oregon

A backcountry hunter holds his bow in one hand and binoculars in the other, facing out into a vast swath of mountainous timber.

The Tag: Unit 56 Wenaha Archery Rocky Mountain Elk

This elk hunt is undoubtedly the best hunt for Rocky Mountain elk that Oregon has to offer. Every year, the steep knife-edge ridges of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness come alive with bugles and cracking tines of bull elk fighting for dominance. 

Despite the popularity of this hunt, it can be no easy feat to find one of the giant bulls that roam here. The Wenaha unit has an estimated elk population of 1,400, and hunters have over 250,000 acres in which to find them. The steepness and remote nature of the unit demand hunters come well-equipped with stamina and a strong will to be successful. If you have those qualifications, you could be rewarded with a trophy-sized bull that is second to none.

As if the barrier of entry wasn’t steep enough, applicants (resident and non-resident) currently have to wait up to 22-25 years to guarantee their spot in this year’s hunt. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and opportunity.

Runner-up Tag: Unit 28 Applegate Muzzleloader Columbian Blacktail Deer

If you can operate a primitive-style muzzleloader, this hunt is one of the best—if not the best—hunt for true Columbian blacktail deer. Populations and trophy quality are at an all-time high in the Applegate, and the chance for a Boone and Crockett buck is real.

The State: Colorado

Two mule deer bucks stand together in the mountains. One of the bucks is highly non-typical.

The Tag: Unit 44 Rifle Mule Deer

Few places in the hunting world command the attention of mule deer enthusiasts like Eagle County, Colorado. This county should have its own chapter in the record books with over 100 B&C entries for mule deer. Colorado is king of the mule deer, and Eagle County is the king of Colorado mule deer. With 41 B&C entries netting at or over 200”, there is no other area in the state that touches it.

Not all rifle hunts are created equal, as the third and fourth rifle seasons are the ones that take over 25 years of applying to secure a tag currently. The season dates for these hunts put them right in the middle of the mule deer rut and give a few lucky hunters an advantage of catching the big boys with their guard down.

Unit 44 sits at the base of the Holy Cross Wilderness and Red Table Mountain, which paints the perfect picture of what a Colorado deer hunt should look like. It’s fitting that this area sits in the middle of western Colorado and acts as the heart of the state that is responsible for the most trophy mule deer bucks in the West.

Runner-up Tag: Unit 76 Weminuche Shiras Moose

The Weminuche Wilderness makes up over 500,000 acres in some of Colorado’s most pristine mountains. The landscape looks as though it was sculpted for moose to thrive in, with willow-choked valleys that stretch from 10,000 to 12,000 feet amidst scattered conifer forests. Those lucky enough to draw this once-in-a-lifetime tag have an excellent opportunity at finding a bull that will hit that magical antler spread mark of 40”.

The State: Wyoming

A pack train of horses moves along a single track in the mountains. Three of the horses carry horseback riders.

The Tag: Unit 128 Deer

The heyday of Wyoming mule deer is no doubt way behind us, and with the continual decline of numbers and tags throughout the West, sportsmen are frustrated. However, there are still a few great areas left in the Cowboy State to find trophy mule deer, with unit 128 taking the top spot.

The November 1-20 dates along with great genetics and a recently increasing older age class of bucks have caused this to be the go-to spot with max points. Also, there are only 50 tags given each year for this hunt and there is the opportunity that every deer hunter dreams about to harvest a trophy buck.

The terrain in 128 is very diverse from the high, rugged peaks of the Wind River Mountains to the rolling sage bottoms near Dubois. This hunt can be as physically easy or difficult as you want to make it. With plenty of road access into the best areas, it’s a hunt for any and all hunters.

The downside to this hunt is obtaining the tag. With the low number of tags available, the draw odds with max points range from 5% to 10% and are less than 0.5% in the random draw. However, if drawn, it will likely be a hunt of a lifetime.

Runner-up Tag: Unit 38-41 Shiras Moose

The Snowy Range is producing some of the best Shiras moose in the West right now. With a healthy population and very few apex predators, this area is showing it has the genetics to grow big, mature bull moose. With moderate to slightly rugged terrain, it’s a hunt for just about anybody, but you are going to need several points as it took 24+ points to draw this tag in 2022.

The State: New Mexico

A hunter in camo and wearing a pack carries his rifle up a ridgeline.

The Tag: Units 13 and 17 Ladrones Desert Bighorn Sheep 

This is possibly the most sought-after tag in all of New Mexico and arguably the most sought-after desert bighorn sheep tag in the United States. The Ladrones mountain range is in the central part of the state south of Albuquerque in GMUs 13 and 17. The elevation is between 2,807 feet and 9,210 feet. There are a couple of areas in these units that do not allow hunting, which include a university property, mining property, and the Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge. However, if you are lucky enough to draw one of the three tags offered for this hunt, you will have plenty of awesome country to hunt. For the most part, all public land is BLM and the sheep wander back and forth between public and private land. Over the last few years, the Ladrones have consistently produced rams scoring 180+” with only one ram being turned in in 2021 scoring 185 3/8”. This hunt is managed for 100% harvest.

New Mexico is a completely random draw, so you have the same shot as everyone else each year. You could draw this awesome tag in your first year of applying if you’re that lucky. With your chances being less than 1% of drawing this tag due to such high demand, it is still one of the better options out west due to the random draw system New Mexico offers.

Runner-up Tag: Unit 16D 2nd Archery Elk 

As we continue to see a decline in trophy potential in the Gila and all of New Mexico, this is one tag that seems to produce great bulls each year. Located in the famous Gila National Forest east of Reserve, New Mexico, unit 16D is an archery hunter’s dream. With only 60 archery tags, this is a great hunt for 340+” bulls with a few true giants each year. This hunt lines up right in the heart of the rut with September 15-24 hunt dates.

The State: California

A red desert landscape with mountains in the distance and a large bird of prey flying overhead.

The Tag: Orocopia Desert Sheep

Desert bighorn sheep tags in the Orocopias are known to produce giant rams. Year after year, this unit is scouted hard for gov tags as well as for the lucky draw hunter who pulls this permit, and with good reason. It’s not out of the norm for this unit to produce a state record, surpassing a previous state record that came from this unit. Most famously, Jason Hairston’s ram “Goliath” scored 190+” and held its own in size to any state in the West producing giant desert bighorn sheep. 

No doubt, the ability to produce big rams comes from many factors. One of the biggest—besides genetics—is California’s conservative approach to issuing sheep permits. We wouldn’t be surprised if more rams died each year due to old age versus by hunting. With easy winters, environmentally, California desert bighorn sheep have an advantage. The biggest hardship sheep in California face is finding a drink and avoiding predation. 

The biggest negative when it comes to hunting the Orocopias is that there is traditionally one public draw tag with well over 1,000 applicants on an annual basis. However, with harvest success and giant rams on your side, it is sure to be a phenomenal hunt if you are lucky enough to score this tag.

Runner-up Tag: Grizzly Island Tule Elk

The tag itself could go any way between the giants killed on the La Panza or the more than exceptional amount of public land in the Owens Valley. We decided to run with the Grizzly Island tag that offers both. Without a doubt, having a Tule elk tag in California is a great achievement alone, especially when you factor in that there is only one elk permit total for any species available to non-residents in the California draw. If you are in the market for a Tule elk, this is the only state where you can accomplish that goal.

The State: Washington

A hunter in blaze orange and camo hikes down the mountain. He is silhouetted by blue skies.

The Tag: Unit 14 Swakane California Bighorn Sheep 

On average, California bighorns tend to be noticeably smaller than Rocky Mountain bighorns. However, this is not the case with many of Washington State’s mega-rams. The Swakane unit consistently produces world-class rams in a scenic setting that overlooks the Columbia River basin in Central Washington. If you are lucky enough to draw one of the highly sought-after permits on this unit, you can expect a true hunt of a lifetime for one of nature’s most majestic species.

Unlike many Western states, Washington does not distinguish residents and non-residents in separate quotas for these tags, so even though the odds of drawing are very low, every applicant has a legitimate chance at drawing one of these permits. If you’re feeling lucky, throw your name in the proverbial hat, along with thousands of others, and cross your fingers for this incredible tag.

The rams can be found at elevations that range from 1,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level in terrain that is relatively mild when it comes to sheep country. As an added bonus, the unit primarily consists of public land that provides ample vehicle, livestock, and boot-leather access. Harvest success has been 100% for the last five years, and most hunters tag out within a few days.

Runner-up Tag: Unt 5-6 Mount Margaret Backcountry Mountain Goat

Washington State is very conservative with its management plans for mountain goats, and lucky tag winners are the beneficiaries. The Mount Margaret Backcountry hunt is relatively new, which means there are a lot of older age class billies on this backpack-only hunt. No livestock is allowed in this permit area, so once you’re armed with the tag, you’ll have to acquire a hiking access permit, lace up your boots, and head for one of the most scenic locations in the Lower 48. All mountain goat hunts are special, but this one is as good as it gets.

The State: Idaho

Two hunters pose with the bull moose one of them harvested.

The Tag: Unit 54 Shiras Moose

Located in the Sawtooth National Forest at the extreme southern border of Idaho lies quite possibly the best Shiras moose hunting anywhere in the world. Pristine mountain vistas encompass the entire area just south of Idaho’s Banana Belt. Moose populations have been thriving in these rolling aspen and conifer mountain hillsides since the mid-2000s.

Since its inaugural hunting season in 2015, this has been the holy grail for moose hunters seeking trophy bull moose that stretch the tape at 50” wide. At 100% harvest success since the very first season, this hunt is all about the experience and being able to look over countless mature bulls before finding the one that sets himself apart from the crowd. 

One amazing factor of this hunt is the access and availability for hunters to pursue moose on public land and within reasonable distance to a road, which can make a difference when you have a 1,000-lb. animal on the ground. 

Runner-up Tag: Unit 11 Hells Canyon Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

Not very many places in the world produce 190-200” Rocky Mountain bighorn rams, but this area is one of them. Nestled along the long and winding Snake River, sheep in this country have the luxury of year-round great forage from the river’s edge all along open green grass-filled breaks that ascend to 5,000 feet. With only one permit issued on average every year for this hunt, it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The State: Nevada

A hunter with a pack walks in a high-desert mountainous landscape.

The Tag: Units 111-115 Elk

The Schell Creek Range is most often thought of when giant Nevada bulls come to mind. The sheer, almost vertical nature of this mountain range can be intimidating, to say the least. With a valley floor that sits at 5,500 feet and shoots up into the sky to almost 12,000 feet in a matter of five or so miles, it certainly gets the attention of first-timers. 

Not to be outdone is the ruggedness and beauty of the Mount Moriah Wilderness that sits straight across the valley with towering peaks that house Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, elk, and mule deer. However, these are only a couple out of many breathtaking mountain ranges that bulls in excess of 400” roam in this unit grouping.

The early archery season in August/September is something that can only be described as chaos. Rut-crazed bulls pile into herds of cows, fighting for the right to pass on their genetics by the hundreds. Screaming bulls and antlers popping is an everyday occurrence, and the biggest obstacle to closing the distance is often a rogue bull or cow that stands between the hunter and the giant herd bull.

Although the late rifle seasons are not as glamorous, they are still full of bulls wandering the same mountains, only this time, they are in search of solidarity and shelter instead of receptive mates. This area’s rifle hunt boasts one of the highest percentages of six-point bulls harvested in the state with nearly 80% of them having six points or better, despite the rifle seasons being conducted in November/December.

Although this is not a once-in-a-lifetime tag, very few hunters will ever get to experience it one time through the draw with the less than 1% draw odds all hunts have.

Runner-up Tag: Unit 263 Desert Bighorn Sheep

The Highland and McCullough Mountains are only a stone’s throw from the illuminating haze of lights from downtown Las Vegas, but in these mountains lie some of the biggest desert bighorn rams in all of Nevada. With less than a 0.1% chance of drawing for non-residents even after 20 years of applying, this tag is one that will be cherished.

The State: Alaska

A group of about five muskox huddle close together in the tundra.

The Tag: Nunivak Island Muskox

This tag gives an opportunity to hunt one of the most prehistoric-looking creatures that inhabit the north country. Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea is home to the most robust population of Greenland muskox in Alaska. This tag gives a Lower 48 hunter the only chance at hunting muskox in the world without the need to hire a guide. Hunting and harvesting a bull muskox is not inherently difficult, but the luck it takes to draw the permit coupled with the logistics and planning it takes to make it on the hunt and return home is enough to make even the most seasoned traveler scratch their head. 

Once your bull muskox is down, you’re faced with transporting a shaggy hair hide weighing in at more than 100 pounds, and some of the most amazing marbled game meat that will for sure become your new favorite. This tag is offered in two options, a fall and a mid-winter hunt with draw odds less than 1% for either season. For the most wild experience including snowmobiles and frozen sea ice, the winter hunt is one you will want for a true hunt of a lifetime. 

Runner-up Tag: Unimak Island Brown Bear

It’s hard not to include the best brown bear hunt in the world in this list. However, with the ability to hunt brown bears on over-the-counter permits throughout the remainder of the state, this hunt is only a short tick above other easier-to-obtain tags. A registered guide must be hired for this hunt for all non-residents who are the lucky few who draw the annual permits. 

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