Now that it’s late August, and the trees are just starting to change, the days are a little shorter and the nights a little cooler, those people who don’t eat, sleep and breath hunting are now thinking about sighting in the rifles, flinging a few arrows around the yard and dreaming of hunting big game in far off places. For those who want to hunt this year, navigating the leftover and OTC license options can be very difficult. If you’re coming from a place where you are used to having general licenses or the unfamiliarity of the draw processes was intimidating to you, you may have let too much time slip by and lost out on many of your options for the year. I’m going to write this from the perspective of the new resident and/or nonresident western state hunter, but even those long time residents may be able to benefit from reexamining their options.
The big three of western hunting are deer, elk and antelope. Most hunters would like to have a crack at them at some point in their lives, and if you didn’t know about or weren’t comfortable with the application processes that each state requires for a limited license hunt, that doesn’t mean you aren’t without options if you just decided you wanted to hunt one or all of the above this fall. Every state does something just a little bit differently, but even antelope have OTC tags in some states.
So, let’s start with antelope. The 800 pound gorilla of antelope hunting is Wyoming, and all antelope licenses are sold on a limited quota basis. I went over Wyoming’s antelope leftover options a few weeks back, and if you missed out on those, the only licenses that are left are going to be for private land heavy areas. So what’s left after that, and where can you get an OTC antelope license? For starters, Colorado and Nebraska have unlimited archery antelope licenses. In Colorado, you are still stuck hunting in some mediocre areas (many units lacking public land, antelope or both), but Nebraska’s Oglala National Grasslands are open for bowhunting, even for nonresidents.
Another hot ticket item out west are deer licenses. I’ll go over your limited leftover options in just a minute, but there are plenty of states that have a general license available even this late in the game. And unlike antelope, you have rifle opportunities. For starters, what is likely the best option for someone looking for a western experience on a general license, is Idaho. Idaho does sell a limited number of nonresident deer licenses, but they almost never sell out, so they are effectively unlimited. If you go further west, Washington and Oregon offer OTC deer licenses for much of the state. Washington even has mule deer areas and the high country early season buck hunt is available on the general license.
Let’s not forget about Alaska either. Alaska is extremely generous with the blacktail licenses, allowing nonresident hunters up to 4 buck tags each for some islands.
Nebraska, in addition to having first come, first served licenses, has an unlimited statewide buck tag that is valid for mule deer in Western Nebraska, if for some reason you were too slow to buy one of the still available Pine Ridge deer tags.
For those who are open to private land hunting, you might also consider West Texas, where a mule deer tag is included with every license. Public land options are available, and it’s not too late to put your application in for the better properties like Big Bend Ranch State Park, Matador, Elephant Moutnain or Black Gap WMA (deadline is Sept 1, but odds are extremely long). Arizona has an unlimited archery deer permit with some important unit restrictions.
As for the limited leftovers, I’m just going to focus on the buck tags, but you have quite a few options still available. Wyoming has several regions with public land where the licenses almost never sell out, including D,F, J, M, and Y. Colorado had even fewer deer licenses than normal available this year, and all but a few archery tags for mediocre at best areas are now gone. I was going to do an article on New Mexico’s deer leftovers, but all they had were muzzleloader licenses. I’ve bought these before, but unless you live nearby, you have far better options in either Wyoming or Idaho if you want to deer hunt. California has quite a few decent leftovers for public land areas. The desert mule deer tags are all gone, but there are quite a few tags available for decent blacktail areas with lots of public land. Nebraska’s first come first served tags for the Western 1/3 of the state usually don’t sell out until a few days before the season starts.
Regarding elk options, there are some excellent choices available still. Colorado is probably the first place that comes to mind, and is an excellent bet to get into great elk country with minimal hand wringing. The archery season, 2nd season and 3rd season are the only OTC seasons. Those tags allow you to hunt about half of the public land units in the state. Idaho, Oregon and Washington are the only other places that offer an over the counter bull tag. All of those states are rich in public land, clear cut forests, heavily timbered wilderness and high alpine basins, allowing you to hunt elk in whichever way you’re most comfortable.
At this stage in the game your leftovers are pretty slim. Colorado probably has the best options remaining when you look at the 4th season bull and either sex tags. 1st season hunts are incredibly popular, but because of the uncertainty of the weather or maybe because the elk have been pressured for a month, 4th season tags receive scant attention, leaving some excellent areas with leftovers. Since Idaho has a few limited quota areas, you may as well consider them leftovers. Most notably, some of the units that allow you to rifle hunt during the rut are still available, such as the Middle Fork B and Selway B.
Though the Western Big Three garner much of the attention, you really shouldn’t discount Alaska’s offerings. Getting a moose tag without purchasing one or winning one in an auction at this stage in the game is pretty much impossible in the lower 48, but many of Alaska’s moose units can be hunted with a $400 over the counter license. Though small populations of caribou exist in Washington and Idaho, they can’t be hunted by the DIY hunter anywhere outside of Alaska because the Canadian provinces all require a guide.
While there is a “gotcha” on many of these opportunities, you certainly can hunt antelope, elk, deer, moose and caribou on leftover or over the counter tags this fall if the mood strikes you. Heck, many of these seasons are open right now, or will be open by next weekend if you want to scratch that itch. Archers probably have the most leeway in terms of tag availability, but rifle hunters have no shortage of elk and deer opportunities in areas with plenty of deer and public land. Combo hunts will be much more difficult, but Idaho offers one of the better opportunities for a place to pull off a rifle deer and elk combo this late in the game. If I were forced to choose a state for a last minute deer hunt, I’d probably choose Wyoming. For elk, no doubt I’d choose 3rd or 4th season in Colorado, unless I was up for a backpacking or fly in trip in Idaho’s backcountry.
Western hunting isn’t exclusively a draw-only proposition and some states have made themselves friendlier to a traveling hunter than others. It’s great to have all of these options to go antelope, deer or elk hunting in late August, but a large percentage of hunters don’t understand what’s available in their own state. It’s certainly understandable to not have a great idea of what’s available outside your state, but hopefully you now have a few ideas if you were up for hunting out west this fall.