Draw-only states might hold big deer, but applying for and receiving tags can be a pain. Experts weigh in on whether this laborious process pays dividends
Some hunters question the quality of draw states and whether applying to hunt those spots is still worth the effort. Image by Russell Graves
Deer hunters have been applying for draw hunts for decades. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, some states require nonresident hunters to draw a tag to hunt deer. Others even require it for some resident opportunities.
Of course, many outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with the whitetail tag drawing process. Big-name draw states include Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and more.
Historically, hunters flocked to these states because of limited nonresident hunting pressure. That let bucks reach older age classes and grow bigger antlers, and it made hunters happier. Additionally, many of the top record-book states are also draw states. Coincidence? Not likely.
The Changing Whitetail Draw Landscape
Obviously, lottery states have changed in the past couple of decades. That’s true for residents and nonresidents. “Overall, tags are harder to draw,” said outdoor writer Tyler Ridenour, who travels extensively for whitetails. “[With] states that had units with leftover tags a few years ago, now [it] might only be possible to draw every couple of years. As a state’s popularity increases, access typically decreases because of outfitters and nonresident hunters leasing or purchasing farms where hunting by permission was once allowed. The increase in hunting pressure obviously affects public land as well, often making it difficult to find a prime stand location where another hunter hasn’t recently been.”
So, the whitetail lottery game is changing. In states such as Iowa and Kansas, it’s getting more difficult to draw a license. Simultaneously, the hunting quality — especially on public land — is reportedly decreasing in those states, among others. That begs the question: Is the whitetail lottery still worth it?
The short answer? Yes. Lottery states are still worth the effort from quality, tag availability, and competition standpoints. Draw states aren’t immune to the challenges many OTC states deal with, but the overall quality of draw state ground is still largely better than that of most OTC states, especially on public land.
“If whitetails are what make you tick, applications and draw results are now just a part of life,” Ridenour said. “Aside from moving to a whitetail hotspot, stacking up points is the only way to ensure you’ll have a top-tier deer tag every fall.”
Maximizing Odds of Success
Lottery states are still worth the time and money, but that’s only true for folks who put in the effort. “It can be worth it for the lottery states for sure, but you have to do your homework,” said Backwoods Life’s Michael Lee. “Kansas and Iowa, for example, have some amazing public ground. But you don’t need to go in blind. You have to do your homework ahead of time.”
The changing landscape isn’t just affecting DIY and public land hunters, though. Those paying to play also need to do more due diligence. “Going with an outfitter is good, too, and again, homework needs to be done,” Lee said. “Also, hunt prices have really climbed in the past several years, and with waiting to draw, you really want to get the best for your money.”
People who are still finding ways to consistently string together successful hunts and seasons have developed systems to ensure maximum odds. Some hunters are doing things differently.
“I'm fortunate that I’ve been building points in several states for a long time,” Ridenour said. “If you’re a serious whitetail hunter and you haven’t started applying or buying points for multiple states, you should be. If you generally take one out-of-state trip a year, it’s a simple solution. Pick three or four states that work for you, and put them in rotation. Each fall, you’ll have a prime buck tag, and you’ll get to experience hunting different parts of the country. If you’re someone who’s able to take multiple out-of-state trips each year, I'm afraid to tell you the good ol’ days are no more. Cast as wide of a net as you can in your application strategy.”
Then, consider mixing in one or two OTC states each year. Pairing those with your prime draw tag should form a promising deer season.
At home, don’t forget about in-state quota hunts. These opportunities provide limited access to great deer herds, quality buck age structures, and some dang big deer. But that’s another discussion.
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