Elk Tags Over the Counter

a bull elk bugle

For many hunters, both in and outside the U.S.A., hunting an elk is an adventure that is only possible if you’re lucky to draw a tag. If the lottery results came, and your name is not on the winners list, you take a disappointed sigh and check out other ways of passing the fall… wrong! There are many other options for hunting elk, even if you aren’t successful with the draw. As many as eight states have various opportunities for you to buy tags over the counter.


In alphabetical order, Arizona is the first state where over-the-counter (OTC) tags are readily available – but there’s a caveat. Arizona Game and Fish issues them for the areas where they want to minimize potential conflicts with landowners, or believe large numbers or elk aren’t desirable for other reasons. These areas, along with regulations regarding length of season, type of weapons, etc. change from year to year. Arizona Game and Fish gives an open warning that the areas for which their OTC tags are available are normally “outside natural elk habitat” and the success rates are very low. That’s why hardly any outfitter uses this opportunity, but local hunters with good knowledge of specific areas, or those for whom any chance to hunt elk is a treat in itself, may find it attractive. After all, it sure beats staying at home, where your chance is precisely zero.

Colorado offers a much more attractive OTC tag program. Antlerless and either-sex tags are available for the archery season, and antlered tags for the rifle season. The state has four rifle seasons, and OTC permits are good only for the second and third (Oct 21-29 and Nov 4-12). Colorado also offers special unlimited over-the-counter either-sex permits for some of the WMAs located in the plains. The tags are given only in a limited number of areas, and information about it is available in the Colorado Park and Wildlife Service Big Game booklet or by contacting the service. The first day for the sale of Colorado OTC permits is July 25, and to be on the safe side those who want to buy one should better act quick.

In Idaho, availability of OTC permits varies dependant on the hunting unit.. As with many other states, unlimited OTC elk permits are issued for wildlife management areas where either the number of animals exceed desired levels or the ratio of bulls to cows is found unsatisfactory. From the map, it looks like this is true in half of the state – however, variation in season length, legal weapons, and legal sex and age of trophies is astonishing and difficult to decipher. Idaho’s “backcountry” areas, these are remote areas but many a hunter’s dream adventure destination, have been experiencing declines in elk populations recently. There are still opportunities to buy an OTC tag for these areas on the first come first served basis, but the quotas are limited, so if you plan to try Idaho, there’s no time to lose.


A number of states sell tags that are left over after the draw on a first come, first served basis. This is another option for a hunt in Idaho, for instance, where residents and non-residents alike can buy leftover non-resident tags (if any are left, of course) even as their second elk tag in a year.

Another state that offers a leftover tag program for elk is Montana. Their tag is good for both  rifle and archery season, and the permit includes general hunting, seasonal fishing, and upland bird hunting licenses. Montana releases their leftover tags in mid-May, so many of them could be sold out already, but by acting quickly you may still have a chance.

And in Wyoming the leftover tag program is your only chance to buy a tag over the counter. The number of tags will be, of course, limited, and by definition they will be valid for areas not very popular with elk hunters but some gem tags in great areas sometimes await those who are alert and quick to spot them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good hunt in the other areas, and the popularity of the option shows in the speed with which leftover tags sell out.  The tags will go on sale on June 22 – don’t miss that date!


Some states offer various landowner preference programs, which allows those who own land in the state to reserve a certain quota of tags, and then sell or give the tag to someone else. Mostly, the state laws require the transfer to be direct – that is, without any brokerage or intermediation – so you must know someone who owns land and qualifies for the program. However, some outfitters who are also landowners participate, and obtain tags for their clients through this system. Landowner preference programs exist in Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico and Utah.

So, your opportunities to hunt elk in the USA this fall are numerous and varied, even after the draw process. In fact, there are so many different variants and regulations, varying not just from state to state, but from wildlife management area to wildlife management area, that it would be impossible to cover every bit of necessary information in one blog post. All information above is strictly for orientation, and we encourage you to double-check everything with the relevant authorities of the state where you want to hunt. Better yet, you can leave the matter with one of the outfitters featured on BookYourHunt. They know everything about tag options in the area where they operate, so if you’re pressed for time and/or unsure you can work out sophisticated and confusing regulations – we strongly recommend you to ask the professionals, an outfitter.

Explore your elk hunting opportunities with BookYourHunt.

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