With very few exceptions, nonresident tags for big-game animals in the Western states are issued in a drawing. From January to July, there’s an application deadline looming somewhere. Shortly after the Christmas holidays, I start preparing my application for a nonresident elk tag in Wyoming. Early July finds me pecking away at the keyboard of my computer, submitting an online application for a deer tag in South Dakota.
Even with reminders on the calendar, I sometimes miss the deadline to get my name in the drawing. Some years my luck is just bad. This past season I failed to pull any nonresident tags and couldn’t even score a resident antelope tag in my home state. At other times, when applying for nonresident tags with exceedingly low odds or requiring a high number of accumulated preference points, I know my prospects for a nonresident hunt are as skinny as a cross-eyed coyote.
But even if I’m unsuccessful in every drawing, I can still motor away for an out-of-state hunt. There’s always the option of a nonresident over-the-counter license for a bull elk tag in Colorado. But that’s not the only game in town. Numerous states routinely fail to entice enough applicants to fill their quotas in the initial drawing for a variety of tags, including elk, antelope, mule deer, and whitetail. At some point, after tags have been awarded to all the applicants in the drawing, those leftover tags go on sale to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Lapping up leftover tags is a sure bet for a nonresident hunt.
Of course, you’re not going to score a bull elk tag in a hot unit on a leftover play. The bulk of the leftover licenses available in most states are for antlerless animals, tags that can sometimes be purchased at a substantially lower price than those required for an antlered animal. In Wyoming, for example, a cow/calf nonresident elk tag costs less than half the price of a bull tag. Although some hunters might scoff at the idea of investing the time and effort into an out-of-state hunt to kill an antlerless animal, there are a number of reasons to do so. First of all, seeking a cow elk or mule deer doe in a hunting unit in which you’re acquiring preference points for a bull or buck tag is a superb way to engage in some invaluable scouting ahead of time. If you’ve never hunted the West before, latching onto a budget antlerless tag is an ideal way to acquaint yourself with unfamiliar game animals and habitat. As an added incentive, dropping a cow elk will put around 100 pounds of some of the tastiest meat on the planet smack-dab in your freezer.
But tags for antlerless animals aren’t the only big-game licenses that go begging in the nonresident drawings. Last fall I snagged my sweetheart a leftover deer tag in north-central Wyoming. A recent transplant to Montana from New Hampshire, Lisa had killed antelope and a whitetail buck in previous years. This time she wanted a mule. We picked up a single-region deer tag for $300 in an area southwest of Gillette. The first morning of the hunt we spotted a nice 4×4 buck on a small parcel of public land in a riparian area. Attempting to loop around on the feeding buck, we bumped a half-dozen whitetails from the mixed stand of cottonwoods and ash trees along the watercourse. The waving white flags spooked our buck from public acreage to private land across the county road.
We ate lunch then motored toward a large block of public land about an hour away. Halfway through the journey, I glanced down a draw to see a forkhorn mule deer buck standing in the sage. The animal was located squarely on a small parcel of public land. Bedded nearby were three other bucks, including a heavy-antlered old fellow with two ears nearly hanging in tatters; relics, it appeared, of many previous battles with rivals during the rut. A short, nerve-rattling stalk brought us within range of her .308 Marlin Express. Punched through the ribs with a Hornady FTX bullet, the buck made a half-dozen leaps before collapsing in the sage. Large of the body, the buck’s antlers sported a basal circumference of 5.5 inches, with nice height and a spread of just under 22 inches. It’s about as fine a first mule deer buck as one could hope for, tagged on a leftover license.
Over the past few years, the nonresident tag equation and the subsequent availability of leftover licenses has changed dramatically. When the economy was roaring along toward the close of the last decade and consumers were spending freely, demand for nonresident hunting licenses in the marquee Western states (Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) was very high. Several states responded by hiking their license prices to unprecedented levels. As one friend of mine put it, they seemed to think nonresident hunters were the proverbial fat hog to be cut in the rump. But then the economy tanked and Americans pulled in their horns on discretionary spending. While that may be bad news to state game agencies and outfitters, it’s produced a bumper crop of leftover licenses for hunters who may not want to commit to an out-of-state hunt early in the year or fail to pull a desired tag in a drawing.
Tag availability varies from year to year, but based on recent trends, here’s some of what can be savored from the leftover plate. Prices are rounded and estimated.
Nonresident big-game combination licenses (good for elk, deer, upland birds, and fishing) used to sell out in the first drawing. For the past two years, combo licenses have been available for online or over-the-counter purchase at the beginning of the big-game seasons in late October. In 2012, deer and elk combination licenses were also available as leftovers. Along with these, the state commonly has antlerless tags for deer and sometimes antelope. Plan to spend about $950 for the big-game combo license.
Unlimited nonresident tags for bull elk in many hunting units makes Colorado a sure bet for anyone wanting to embark on a Western hunt on a whim. However, the state routinely has a host of leftover licenses for species as diverse as whitetail deer, antelope, and black bear. Many of the leftover licenses are in hunting units with difficult access to public lands, so do your homework. It’ll take about $600 to land a bull elk tag and $400 for a cow elk, buck deer, or antelope.
Tags in areas with the chance of downing a better than average buck antelope or deer are the highlights of the Cowboy State’s leftovers. I’ve killed a 28-inch mulie and a 13-inch antelope in hunting districts with leftover tags. Buck tags for deer run about $325. Plentiful tags for antlerless elk, deer, and doe/fawn antelope at reduced prices are attractive to state-hopping meat hunters. Costs are approximately $300 for elk and $35 for deer and antelope. Want to take a kid on an out-of-state hunt? Leftover youth tags for female animals are a bargain at $100 for elk and $19 for deer and antelope.
Idaho’s general big-game tags are issued on a first-come, first-served basis, beginning on December 1. In 2012, literally thousands of general season deer and elk tags were available for purchase less than a month before seasons began. Beginning in late August, nonresidents can buy a second deer tag, allowing a hunter to harvest two bucks. Along with unsold nonresident general tags, Idaho has a wide array of leftover tags for controlled (limited entry) hunts for deer and elk. A nonresident hunting license ($155) is required to enter the drawing or purchase a nonresident tag for any big-game species. If you don’t want to cough up that much cash early in the year, there are enough licenses leftover in the weeks before the general deer and elk seasons to make an Idaho hunt a sure bet. Elk tags cost $420, and a deer tag will run you $300.
Other states also have leftover licenses. Just because your luck fails in the drawing doesn’t mean you’re out of options for a nonresident hunt. There’s nothing wrong with lapping up leftovers.