Draw Tags: A Double-Edged Sword

Every spring, thousands of hunters nationwide apply for limited tags, coveted units, and once-in-a-lifetime hunts, then anxiously refresh their email when results draw near. The hope (understandably so) is to draw a special tag, have an incredible hunt and take the buck, bull, or ram that has always haunted your dreams. And while drawing a controlled tag might increase your chances of success, it certainly doesn’t mean that the hunt is going to be a slam dunk. 

wall tent with lanterns at night in hunting camp

Obviously some tags are just downright incredible, and perhaps a few offer a reasonable chance of success on an exceptional animal with minimal effort. But those tags are few and far between, and as point-creep sweeps across many Western states they’re becoming increasingly unattainable, especially for younger hunters. Among other things, most controlled or special tags provide hunters the opportunity to hunt more mature animals, be afield with less competition or hunt during a certain time of year. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a special tag, none of those things are a guarantor of easy success. 

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Every hunter has a different rolodex of hunting experiences and their own personal metric for what success looks like. That said, managing expectations on special tags can be a critical component in having an enjoyable and “successful” hunt.

In a perfect world, I like to allocate three full days of scouting prior to the season. One full day is often consumed with learning roads, popular areas and campsites, the other two for actual boots-on-the-ground scouting and locating animals. Unfortunately prior commitments, family, and work can all whittle down your time budget, leaving you in a new area with no prior scouting. 

Man glassing while hunting in front of mountains at sunset

For example, last fall I applied for—and drew—a controlled permit for elk in Idaho that offered non-resident hunters a 6-10% chance of drawing, depending on the year. Everything I could dig up about the unit referenced a healthy elk herd, with hunters doing well on six-plus point bulls. But the reality of the situation was a bit different. The unit was an eight-hour drive from my home in southwest Montana and I wasn’t familiar with the country. My sister drew the tag, too, along with a good friend from back home, and my dad offered to bring stock and tend camp in case we killed a bull in a tough spot. I sandwiched the hunt between an already busy fall schedule and headed for the unit a couple of days before the opener to meet my father. 

man with campfire in the mountains with a bull elk he harvested while hunting

Despite what I thought to be effective research, ample time, and excellent rifle dates, I struggled to find a bull of the caliber I’d expected. Two-tracks criss-crossed the unit and wound upward into the best looking habitat. Bowhunters swarmed the unit during the last days of September while I scouted and glassed and grew increasingly anxious. Back in Montana, my freezer languished, void of fresh elk steak and burger. I was torn between hunting hard from dawn to dark, and spending time with my father as he closed in on his seventieth year. 

In the end, I killed a younger bull after a fun morning chasing bugles in an alpine basin. I was pleased of course, but I’d be lying if I said that the hunt was everything I’d hoped for. Often the pressure to kill the biggest buck, bull, or otherwise can sap the fun right out of the hunt if you’re not careful. In hindsight, I’m incredibly grateful for the time spent with family and friends and fresh elk meat in the freezer, though at the time I’d been a bit disappointed with the quality of the hunting. 

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Controlled hunts are great, and I truly enjoy hunting and learning new country—a large part of why I often apply for units I’m not familiar with in states I haven’t hunted. If you’re after antler size, getting to know your own backyard can produce more mature animals than traipsing cross-country into unknown areas with the expectation of an easy hunt for mature game. Taking into account the distance to your unit, your knowledge of the unit, and how much time you can realistically spend are all critical factors. Are you willing to eat the tag? Or is your freezer running on fumes? What kind of animals does the area consistently produce, and what does success look like to you? Is it inches of antler or just the opportunity to hunt a new area? 

man with elk antlers while hunting

At the end of the day, controlled hunts are an awesome way to see new country and put more tags in your pocket, or to build points until you draw a really special hunt. Using resources like Toprut, Huntin’ Fool, and Hunt Reminder (all available with onX’s Elite Membership) are another great way to maximize opportunity and time in the field. Tracking application deadlines with Hunt Reminder, and utilizing Toprut’s accurate draw odds can also help you make the most of your points. And, if you are lucky enough to draw that once-in-a-lifetime tag, Huntin’ Fool provides previous tag holder lists for many draw areas across the West, giving you a great place to start your research.

Sam Averett

Photographer // Writer
Three Forks, MT