Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Four years ago I jumped into the western big game points race by purchasing my first preference points in Wyoming for Bighorn Sheep and Moose. A year later, I let my initial excitement about the hunting opportunities across the west get the best of me and started building points in four additional states (Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Nevada). Since then, after enough hours pouring over GoHunt and various state Game and Fish agency websites to equate to a semesters-worth of college courses, I have refined my goals and strategy for building points in the western U.S. In many states, preference point and bonus point systems have been around long enough to make it very improbable for a newcomer to ever build enough points to catch up to point creep in many top-tier units. However, rather than throwing my hands up in the air and pulling out all of my nonresident applications, I have conducted a lot of research on various units in several states and overhauled my goals and application strategy to something much more realistic for someone like myself holding less than 5 points in three states.
This article is not meant to be a "how-to" for someone looking to get into the western points race, but more so an account of my experiences as a newcomer and how I've adjusted my goals and application strategies, to give potential newcomers an idea of how they might consider their own goals and attack their western big game points and application strategy.
When I first got started in building points across the west, I was absolutely wide-eyed with the opportunities and, admittedly, was completely enamored with the top-tier units that give out single or double-digit tags every year with a great chance at a 180" deer or 350" elk. I started building points in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and my home state of Wyoming. I had much less of a concern for budget back then as I viewed it as a solid investment in future experiences.
The more I researched and learned, the more bleak the outlook became. I was determined to hunt moose and sheep in multiple states before I died, sharing that same desire with upwards of 30,000 other hunters in each state I was applying in each year. I started to give stronger consideration to my budget and the realistic odds of ever drawing many of these tags, wondering how much money I would be donating without ever drawing a tag. I didn't find myself to terribly discouraged, simply in need of a strategy adjustment. I decided to sit down and clearly define my goals as a western big game hunter. Living in Wyoming, I am blessed with the excellent opportunity to hunt elk, deer and antelope every season. I also have the chance to roll the dice on top-tier units in my home state for deer and elk through the random resident draw. I can hunt a wide variety of terrain across the state in general units, and came to realize that investing my money in Montana and Colorado every year wasn't going to provide me with an experience that would be terribly exotic compared to those I could find in Wyoming. Additionally, Colorado swiftly jumped their prices for purchasing preference points for moose, sheep, and goat from $7 a piece to $100. Colorado and Montana got crossed off the list.
I knew that I was very interested in bowhunting high country mule deer, hunting the juniper hills of Arizona for elk during the rut, and at least keeping some hope alive for sheep hunting. I also knew that if I ever wanted to experience a change of scenery and hunt elk during the rut in some different country, over-the-counter tags in both Colorado and Idaho would be an option, and would not be something I would need to purchase preference points for every year. Being primarily a bowhunter, my odds for drawing tags would be slightly better in states with preference and bonus points systems than if I were committed to hunting top-tier units during rifle season. For around $200 per state, I decided to stick with Arizona and Nevada and commit to looking at lesser-quality units for archery tags where I had much better odds.
I figured by deciding to hunt more frequently in less sought-after units, and by committing to bowhunting, I could give myself the opportunity to draw tags 2-3 times in these states, if not, at least once in a lifetime. I made the decision to alter my application strategy once my goals were clearly defined.
Developing a Strategy
Thankfully, Wyoming is a no-brainer for me. The chance to swing for the fences in "blue chip" units in the random draw every year is very attractive because (call me an optimist) I figure I can draw one of these units once in my lifetime. When I don't, I can pick up a general tag and spend the season hunting out my back door. Even now, moose and sheep are not a tag I necessarily expect to draw in my lifetime as a resident, but at a total cost of $14 for preference points each year, it's worth it in my eyes to start throwing my name in the hat in the next 5-7 years.
Colorado and Montana I decided against with increasing point fees, point creep effecting units across the state, and the fact that the hunts available there weren't quite in line with my out-of-state goals. Again I can still hunt Colorado over-the-counter for elk, and I plan to cash in my 2 accumulated points in Montana for a high-odds elk hunt in a less-than-desirable unit.
I decided I would stick with Arizona and Nevada as they still fit my overall budget and still seem to be in sync with my out-of-state hunting goals. I certainly don't ever plan to pull a Unit 1 archery tag in Arizona for elk, or a 131 archery mule deer tag in Nevada - but there are still plenty middle-of-the-road units to keep my interest. Additionally, I can purchase points for $15 per species in Arizona and $10 to $30 per species in Nevada, which fits my current budget, and allows me to build points for Bighorn and Desert Bighorn in both states. I don't ever plan on drawing a sheep tag in either of these states, but for the cost of a few twelve packs every year, I still see it as a worthwhile investment to possibly be pleasantly surprised someday.
My main strategy for these two states is to focus on lesser-desired units with better draw odds. I look at a variety of factors: archery-only permits, more difficult access due to a lack of public land or steep, rugged country, lesser animal numbers or lesser quality of mature animals. I would rather actually get out there and hunt and maybe not make the record books than spend over a decade chasing top-tier units that I'm likely to never draw. Besides, I've already seen enough monsters in general units that keep me up at night to believe that it's not absolutely necessary to get into a maximum points unit to have a shot at a true trophy.
In Nevada, my goal is to bow hunt for deer every 5-7 years, and build points for sheep and elk at the outside chance of maybe drawing a once-in-a-lifetime tag. I've had such horrible luck with scratch-offs and casinos throughout my life that I feel like I'm due for it. At the time of writing this, I count 9 units that give me a 90% chance or better of drawing an archery mule deer tag in the Silver State, even if point creep starts to really effect these units, I still anticipate at least 25% - 50% odds when it's time to throw my hat in the ring in the next 2-3 years. Like Arizona, Nevada gives you five choices which are equally weighted, giving me the opportunity to swing for the fences with my first choice, and get more progressively modest down the line. I still like those odds.
In Arizona, my only real goal is a once-in-a-lifetime elk tag. Like I said, I certainly don't anticipate pulling a Unit 9 or Unit 1 tag, but currently, I count five units that give me a better than 75% chance of drawing an early archery tag with ten points. Arizona also offers five choices, allowing me again to go after my favorite units and hunts with my first couple of choices, and put in for something more realistic for choices 3-5. If point creep does indeed get really bad, I can still count on late archery tags offering pretty good odds. If the absolute worst-case scenario comes true and there are simply no options for me when I am looking to apply with 10+ points, I can at least head down to hunt coues or mule deer every year on an over-the-counter tag with the $160 license Arizona requires you to buy when applying. At worst, and barring any significant increases in point fees, I would be looking at a sunk cost of ~$150 over the course of ten years for my investment in drawing an elk tag. I can stomach that.
I believe that the most significant point creep you see is a product of people's fixations on top-tier units. Although, I do find it entirely possible that as the units start to seem impossible to ever catch for low-to-mid point holders, we may see that same thing in units that currently offer pretty good odds.
But the truth is, I have no idea what is going to happen to the western points game over the next decade. Western hunting could fall out of vogue and see a lot of low and mid-point holders dropping out. Maximum point holders could start cashing in rapidly and we could see point creep slow down significantly. Point creep could scare off a majority of point holders who just don't see it as worth the investment anymore. An economic recession could force many out of the race. Or, with the continuous explosion of social media, message boards, and other forms of promotion, western big game hunting could continue its trend of rising popularity and cause point systems in a number of states to fail entirely. The fact is I simply don't know what the future holds, so for right now, I remain confident in my strategy and will continue to make the investment until it appears to be completely not worth my time or money.
My investments in building points are simply an effort to have more and a larger variety of western hunting experiences. If I fall on my face in a few years, I will chalk it up as a charitable donation to U.S. wildlife, and I will be able to rest easy knowing there are still plenty of over-the-counter and random draw opportunities throughout the west. I certainly do not feel like my opportunity to hunt every year is limited by any sense of the word at this point. Currently, on any given year, I have a huge amount of options at my disposable to hunt guaranteed over-the-counter tags, or roll the dice on random draws in New Mexico and Idaho. My list of guaranteed and sub-guaranteed hunts:
Guaranteed every year:
- Wyoming elk, deer and antelope
- Idaho OTC elk
- Colorado OTC elk
- Arizona OTC coues or mule deer (early or late archery)
- Alaska sitka deer, caribou, moose, black bear
- New Mexico random draw elk
- New Mexico random draw deer
- Idaho random draw elk
- Idaho random draw deer
Swing-for-the-fences (hey, someone has to draw):
- New Mexico random sheep
- New Mexico random antelope
- Idaho random sheep, goat, moose
- Wyoming random goat
Overall, I'm not discouraged by the state of the western big game points race. Do I wish I started putting in when I was 12 years old and had 16 points in a variety of states right now? Sure, but I had no idea I would be living out west back then, or that any of these hunts would even be a possibility. I stand by the viewpoint that someone has to draw these low-odds tags, and that I have no idea what is going to happen with the state of western big game applications over the next several years. Instead of bemoaning the fact that it's getting harder and harder to draw, I would much rather be ready with points in hand if opportunity does so happen to come knocking.