Pay to Play: Tackling Once-in-a-Lifetime Hunts

Once you’ve made your strategy for obtainable permits, you may be wondering about the once-in-a-lifetime species as well as the species that add that cool factor to your trophy room. A majority of Western hunters want to harvest some of these once-in-a lifetime species but have little to no points and are on the far end of the drawing potential curve. In most cases, even if you’re just a few points off max, you can be looking at decades more than just years to enter the ring. If you fit this category, the first question you should ask is, “Where do I apply to have the best chance of drawing a tag?” 

The easy answer is everywhere you can fit into your budget, but the right answer is that it depends. With the demand for once-in-a-lifetime permits, every hunter should look financially and realistically at their application strategy. I’m going to focus on my personal application strategy to give you an idea of how I’m playing the once-in-a-lifetime permit game, but everyone’s application strategy will be different.

Father and son hunting big horn sheep

Purely Random Opportunities

When it comes to the random draw, there are no states more random than Idaho and New Mexico. There is no point system in either of these states, which is very convenient for those of us who have no points across the West or for those who just want to apply in the years they have an opening in their schedule. The problem with these states for me and my budget is the amount of money needed to front the fees.

In Idaho, you must first purchase a $195 hunting license and then you will also have to choose between moose, sheep, or goat as you may not apply for all three. Once you have chosen which species you would like to apply for, you’ll be charged $2,626, but after the hunting license, app fees, and online processing fees, you should be prepared to pay closer to $2,957.53 if you apply online. If unsuccessful, you will be refunded all but $330.78. The positive thing about Idaho is that the rest of the field has to choose between moose, sheep, or goat as well, so you could potentially get away from some applicants who are forced into other applications. 

Hunting oryx in New Mexico

The other big random state is New Mexico. This is where the “cool factor” comes into the game, as the state offers tags for oryx, ibex, aoudad, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and desert bighorn sheep. First, you have to purchase a non-refundable $65 hunting license and then pay your application fee. For sheep, the application fee is over $3,000, which is a deterrent for me to apply. The application fee for oryx and ibex is around $1,600, and the application fee for aoudad is $373. That is a lot of money to have out there, but with a low interest credit card, it isn’t terrible because New Mexico is very fast to send you a refund. If you are unsuccessful in the draw, you will be refunded the full amount of the tag minus the $13 application fee per species. If you wait until the last week to apply, you should get a refund to your card in less than four weeks.

Big California bighorn sheep come from Oregon every year. Once you choke down another non-refundable license of $172, it’s a very minimal barrier of entry to actually apply for sheep and mountain goat. Sheep and mountain goat don’t have a point system so, ideally, you could draw a permit your first year of applying. Oregon offers a great opportunity to hunt deer and elk, so if you are wanting to add that to your list, you just as well throw your name in the hat for sheep and mountain goat. I can’t see myself using the $172 license each year, though, so it doesn’t fit into my hunt budget.

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If you are looking to hunt bison, don’t look too far past Montana. Unlike their sheep and goat draw, the bison draw is completely random with no points associated. The base hunting license is fairly inexpensive, and a $50 application is a good, cheap way to have your name in the hat for a great free-range bison adventure.

Another good bison state is Wyoming. A point system is used for other species here, but not for bison. There is a bull bison as well as a cow/calf option when applying, and you must front the fees at $4,417 for bull and $2,767 for cow/calf. These hunts can be tough between weather and the bison not cooperating in and around the national parks. Nevertheless, i’s an awesome opportunity for a free-range bison hunt. In addition to bison, Wyoming also allows hunters to apply for mountain goat with no points, while requiring an up-front fee of $2,177.

Father and son hunting a bison in Wyoming.

In Colorado, you can play the weighted point game for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep or you can choose to apply for desert bighorn sheep. You have to choose between the two, and for desert sheep, there are fewer options for non-residents. Each year, there is one non-resident permit available for one of their desert sheep units. The draw does not use points, and the unit usually alternates each year. However, it has stayed the same for the last few years. You do not have to front your fees, but you will need to purchase a small game hunting license for $93.78 and habitat stamp for $11.50 to apply each year. If you are already applying for deer and elk, you have already purchased your qualifying licenses and it’s a cheap $10.00 application to add your name in the hat for desert bighorn sheep.

Squared Point Systems

Montana is the mecca for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, so it only makes sense to start with Montana sheep. All species that require points in Montana are on a squared point system, which means you get more chances. If you have two or more points, they’ll square your points plus give you an additional chance for the current year. For example, an applicant with two points will essentially have five chances. When we’re talking about the biggest sheep in the United States, I like to have my name in the hat as often as possible. It is a minimal fee to apply at $50 each for moose, sheep, and goat, and you will not be charged the $1,250 fee until you are successful in the draw. Another option in Montana is unlimited sheep. These hunts are difficult both physically and for the quantity of sheep, but on most years the quotas are filled in a timely manner.

Unlimited mountain goat hunting tag in Montana

Although it’s ridiculous to apply for deer and elk in Washington as a non-resident, they offer a pile of opportunities (especially for youth) to have your name in the hat for moose, sheep, and goat. As far as cost goes, you are looking to be out $110.50 for each application. I have other things in mind (such as raffles_ that I spend that money on, but you can bet that once my kids are old enough, I will be applying for them in Washington as it’s dirt cheap for youth to apply. The cost is $3.80 for an application and only $57 if they are successful. They can apply for moose, sheep (ram), sheep (ewe), and mountain goat.

License Fees Required Up Front

Nevada, much like Montana, is a squared point system, but it is also a must-apply-for state once you purchase a license. A unique thing for Nevada is that you have five choices and all five matter. If your application is pulled, they will look through all five of your choices before moving on to the next applicant, so make sure you make them count. With that being said, make sure you arrange your choices in order of quality/preference because the first one they come to in order that has an available permit is your permit. The license is $156, and each application after that for points or for the draw is $14. 

Nevada issues the most desert bighorn sheep permits, and with the randomness of the draw, you should definitely have your name in the hat. They also issue some great California bighorn permits. Currently, non-residents are not eligible to apply for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. A low-point option that Nevada allows you to apply for is ewe sheep, but you still have to pay the full tag price of $1,200. Another hunt that is great to apply for is mountain goat, when they have it. Nevada has been back-and-forth with offering this hunt, and even though the hunter did not kill in 2017, they still believed the population wasn’t great enough to have a non-resident permit since. However, numbers are looking promising for non-residents in years to come.

desert big horn sheep hunting tag

To apply in Utah, you have to purchase a $72 hunting license. A cool trick with Utah is that you have to have a valid license to apply, so as long as you apply the following year before your license expires, you can usually stretch one license for two years. As far as permits go, it is worth applying for all species you are interested in. Utah has great quality once-in-a-lifetime hunts for moose, Rocky Mountain sheep, desert sheep, bison, and mountain goat, and at $15 per application, you can’t not get in on these draws. Non-residents can apply for all once-in-a-lifetime species, but residents can only apply for one of these species each year. I bounce back and forth in my once-in-a-lifetime application as I know I’m random no matter what and the likelihood of me ever chasing down a preference tag is non-existent. However, I highly recommend that non-residents apply for all species. 

Another thing that makes Utah intriguing is the way the state allocates permits. If there is only one non-resident permit available for a given hunt, the permit is allocated randomly through all applicants. If there are multiple permits available to non-residents for a given hunt, they’ll split the quota 50/50, with half of the permits going to applicants with the most bonus points and the other half being allocated randomly.

Arizona is known for giant deer and elk, but they also have great desert sheep and Rocky Mountain sheep populations. Non-residents are issued up to 10% of the total number of sheep and bison tags with no more than 50% per hunt. Up to one non-resident tag can be drawn for sheep with a hunt code that offers between two and three tags. If a hunt code offers four or more tags, a maximum of two tags may be issued to non-residents. Like the other states above, your fees are not bad with a mere $15 per application once you’ve purchased the $160 hunting license for the year. Nevada, Utah, and Arizona are must-apply-for states. Once you’ve purchased the license, there is a chance with minimal cost to draw a highly sought-after permit. I’d advise you not to apply for points in these states unless you have restricting time conflicts for the year as it will cost you the same to apply for the draw as it will to purchase a point.

Weighted Point System

Unlike deer, elk, and antelope that are purely preference, Colorado runs a weighted point system for their Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and Shiras moose hunts. Colorado changed it to where you no longer have to front your fees on paper to apply, so for a total of $10.00 (after purchasing qualifying licenses), you can be in the draw for moose, sheep, and goat, but you must first apply for three years. You must accumulate three weighted points before you start to gather your preference points. Youth have no point fees, but adults will need to purchase an optional point each year, at least for the three years to get you into the weighted draw. When applying, you will be assigned a random number and then that number will be divided by your points. At the end of the day, the lowest number wins the permit. There is a chance that you can draw the first year after you have accumulated your weighted points, so for $10.00, it is definitely worth applying for all species that interest you.

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Minimal Up-Front Fees

Texas is a must-apply-for state. The odds are terrible, but for a minimal fee of $10, your name is in the hat to draw a fantastic guided desert bighorn sheep hunt. Besides your $10 application fee, you will not be charged anything until you are successful in the draw, and at that point, who isn’t willing to purchase a $315 hunting license? You will receive a bonus point for each year you are unsuccessful, but you are eligible to draw your first year.

South Dakota offers a trophy and a non-trophy bison hunt in Custer State Park. These animals are eligible for B&C, and for a $10 application, you better believe all of us at Huntin’ Fool have our names going into that hat.

Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont offer a low-cost option to get your name in the hat each year for Canadian moose. Draw odds are not in our favor—as is to be expected—but there’s plenty of good moose hunting in these states if you get lucky and draw a tag. In New Hampshire and Vermont, you’re going to be looking at $25 for an application. Maine runs their draw a little differently and allows you to purchase multiple chances from $15 for one chance up to $55 for 10 chances. I always have money heading back East for that longshot that I will get to hunt a big ol’ swamp donkey.

Other States

I do not currently apply for sheep, bear, moose, or goat in the Last Frontier. However, I have been flirting with the idea of throwing my name in the hat for muskox. The best part about Alaska is that there’s no point system, so it’s a great state to be able to come in and out of, depending on the year. One thing to note about Alaska is that if you are applying in the draw for sheep, brown/grizzly bear, or mountain goat, you must have a Guide-Client Agreement signed prior to applying. Unlike most situations in the lower 48 where it will likely save you money to obtain your permit in the draw, in Alaska, you can book a hunt with a guaranteed permit with one of our Endorsed Outfitters and it will be about the same price. 

Caribou hunting tag with a bow

As mentioned before, Wyoming does not have a point system for their bison and mountain goat hunts, but they do have some awesome moose and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep hunts that have a point system. In Wyoming, 75% of permits are allocated to the guys with the most points and then the rest are allocated through a random draw. New for 2023, the license split for moose, bighorn sheep, bison, and mountain goat has changed to 90% resident and 10% non-resident, basically eliminating hope for random permits. Factoring the 90/10 and 75/25 split, there would need to be a minimum of 40 permits to have a single random permit for non-residents. Wyoming is pretty unique when it comes to their random draw as it truly becomes random. What I mean by that is that in the random draw, your points don’t mean anything. Everyone goes into the draw with an equal chance to draw the permit. It does you no good to purchase points as they will not do you any good until you are on top of the points board, and with the current supply and demand curve, that will not be anytime soon.

As a non-resident, I have a hard time applying for California and recommending other non-residents apply there for sheep. To apply, you must first purchase a $188.74 license and then there is a minimal application fee of $8.13. For non-residents, California currently issues up to two sheep permits, and I don’t like those odds for the amount of money that I am out of pocket. With that being said, it’s very situational in my book. As I grew up in California, I have aspirations of returning to hunt deer with some of my friends, so on the years I’m planning to hunt deer there, I will purchase the license and apply for sheep.

Raffle Opportunities

One of the most underutilized tools in our application arsenal is raffle tags. Each year, multiple states offer limited permits that can be acquired through a raffle drawing, most of which offer you the opportunity to have your name in the hat multiple times. We write an article about these permits, along with the Commissioner and Reservation permits, each year in our January issue. This gives another option to those of us who play the random game as you can take the money you would normally have sunk in the draw and purely put it into raffle drawings or have an additional budget to supplement the state draws with raffle opportunities.

To get yourself going in the right direction, the best first step you can do is allot yourself a budget that you are willing to have invested into these draws each year as it can be overwhelming when you look at your statement after the fact. Another point I can’t drive home enough is to not be what we call “a point collector” who always applies for points but never applies for the actual hunts. Yes, there are situations each and every year that give our hunting season dates restrictions, but at the end of the day, you cannot draw one of these permits unless you are in the draw. Also, in some situations, it will cost you the same amount to be in the draw as to be building points. Don’t forget that your onX Elite Membership gives you full access to our digital version of the magazine. Make sure you follow along in our state sections January through June to get the most up-to-date information.

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