A Quick Overview of Big Game Hunting Point Systems – Foundry Outdoors
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A Quick Overview of Big Game Hunting Point Systems

If you are someone who primarily hunts in the Eastern or Midwestern United States, chances are you are used to a straightforward over-the-counter hunting tag and license purchase system when it comes to the majority of game species. As a teenager in the Midwest, I would drive to the big farm store in my hometown a few days before the opening day of whitetail deer season and buy my hunting license, stamps, and deer tags—simple as that!

It wasn’t until I decided to apply for an antelope tag West of the Mississippi that I encountered a drawing system for tags for the first time. While I was researching my options for applying for a tag, I learned some of the ins and outs of Western point systems that I will share here to help other hunters who want to better understand those kinds of tag application processes.


One of the benefits of a Western big game hunt is that there are many options for public land hunting opportunities, which reduces the need to buy a hunting property lease or gain permission on private land as is common in places with little public land.

Most states are divided into a type of game management unit system, where individual areas can be targeted with harvest goals specific to that place. Wildlife managers monitor population trends and take data such as survival and harvest success rate into account when calculating the harvest goals for a unit. Based on these numbers, state agencies can allocate a certain number of tags for each area. The tag drawing system comes into play when the demand for tags exceeds the number available. It is important to do careful research on specific state regulations for a given species and unit when you are getting ready to apply, as each area can be a little bit different. Here is a breakdown of the most common types of point systems.


  1. Bonus point system:

A good way to explain a bonus point system is to compare it to a raffle: the more tickets you have in the basket, the greater the chance is that yours will be drawn. Some states square an applicant’s number of points to improve his or her chances with higher numbers of points. While those applicants who have been in the game longer and accumulated more bonus points statistically have a greater chance of being drawn for a tag, everyone who is entered in the drawing still has a chance of being drawn.

  1. Lottery system:

In a lottery system, everyone who is entered in the draw has the same chance of getting a tag. Statistically, there is no advantage for those who have entered the same draw year after year because no points are accrued over time.

  1. Preference point system:

A preference point system gives “preference” to the applicants who have accumulated the highest number of preference points over a period of time, which can range from no points to over a decade of buying points. Tags are allocated to those with the most preference points, then trickle down to hunters with fewer points until no tags are left.

This is one area where careful research is very important because of the long-term financial investment involved in accruing preference points. In most systems, once a hunter with a high number of points is drawn for a tag, their point count goes back to zero. This means that if you are hoping to accrue enough points to draw a tag for a trophy unit or a unit in high demand, you don’t want to put in for a unit that requires fewer points because you will lose all points if drawn for that unit. There are plenty of excellent hunting opportunities in units that don’t require years and years of waiting while collecting points, but if your heart is set on a specific unit, strategizing your application is important. In some states, you can select multiple units with a “first”, “second”, and “third” choice on your application. If you are not drawn for the first choice unit but you do draw your second choice unit, you can keep your points and still get a tag for a different hunt. That way, you can still hunt almost every year but continue accruing points for a hard-to-draw hunt.

When it comes to putting in for a big game draw, doing your homework is crucial. Each state has different draw systems and laws when it comes to managing its hunting opportunities. Not to mention, buying preference points in multiple states each year can become a significant financial investment that adds up over the years it takes to draw certain units. Many of the state fish and game agencies publish a wealth of information on their websites about their game management units.

Some useful data to peruse would be harvest success rates, public land access, other access programs in place, draw odds, and minimum points. Keeping deadlines in mind and reading the game laws carefully can also help you set yourself up for success. Another great tool is a mapping app such as Google Maps or OnX to help with finding access and campsites. Many draw systems give an advantage to state residents, so while traveling to hunt is a great time, keep in mind some of the hunting opportunities in your own state to save some money and gain an advantage over nonresident applicants.

Once again, each state differs in its laws surrounding hunting tags. With some quality time and research spent planning future hunts, you can set yourself up for a lot of great hunting adventures in the future!


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