Every hunter knows the agony and anticipation of draw day. You've done all your research, triple-checked your applications and credit card info, and have the day of the official Game & Fish draw marked on your calendar. That day comes, and you spring out of bed to check your bank account...no hits yet. You come back a little later...and a little later...hit refresh a couple times...still nothing. Then you start seeing social media posts popping up with ecstatic dudes proclaiming their card just got hit and they are going (insert your dream animal) hunting this year. When the dust settles, your account remains untouched by your local Wildlife Management Bureau, and you accept the horrifying truth that you did not draw a tag this year. You now have the option of putting all your gear into long-term storage and giving up, or adapting and finding ways to still get into the field and put meat (of some sort) in the freezer this year.
This scenario is what just happened to me in the latest Arizona draw for Elk and Antelope...we got skunked! Of course, we drew the elk tag last year and knew that statistically we were not likely to draw it again...but it never stops you from hoping that luck will be on your side anyway. However, a few years ago I got sick and tired of not getting drawn and just accepting that I wouldn't be hunting that year, and decided that I would find a way to hunt a couple times a year NO MATTER WHAT. So, let's look at three options for how to get out and hunt even if you didn't get drawn...
There are absolutely zero guarantees on the availability of a left-over tag, and each state handles them a little bit differently. However, a little paying attention right around draw time can yield an unexpected opportunity. In Arizona, for instance, once Game & Fish has completed the draw process, there is a brief but unspecified period of time where hunters who have drawn end up relinquishing their tags (they can't go this year and want to keep their points, their credit card got declined in the payment process, or they had a vision from heaven and went vegan). Once Game & Fish has determined which tags they have "left over" from the draw, they will post a PDF on their website with the info. Those tags are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and for something like elk...they get snatched up fast.
My advice (and what I plan to do over the next month) is to stalk your state's Game & Fish website like it's your full-time job. Check it daily...maybe multiple times a day. If you don't already, like them on Facebook (most of them have one now), because they may post on there once that list is released. The one thing I have noticed over the years is that they don't always make a huge deal about posting those available tags - no news reports, no sirens going off - the list just quietly appears on the website one day. If you can see that list the day it gets published and get on the phone, an app in the mail, or head straight down to one of their field offices that day, you can secure yourself a tag for that fall. Now, you will most likely be in a different unit than your original first choice, but at least you'll be hunting!
BROADEN YOUR SPECIES SELECTION
Everyone wants to hunt bull elk that are screaming their heads off in the peak of the rut. However, because everyone wants to do that, draw odds are typically not great. This means that might be an every 3-5 year hunting experience for you if you live in a state without over-the-counter (OTC) elk tags (like Arizona). However, hunting big game is an amazing and addicting rush, even if the animal isn't an 800 lb. antlered monster! So, if you can find an animal with great draw odds, or better yet - an OTC tag, then go chase that critter this year. Maybe after polishing off last year's elk, your family might enjoy experimenting with some bear meat for dinner (an OTC tag in AZ with a 2-month season in the late fall). Perhaps next year you want to put in for several species to increase your odds. If you just apply for bull elk in the most desired unit and call it a day, you're not going to be doing a lot of hunting.
Now, if you just found out in the early spring that you didn't draw for this fall, I would encourage you to pull your regs back out and look at ALL the OTC options in your state. Some states will obviously have more than others, but if you make yourself look at the species you never even considered, you'll discover loads of missed hunting opportunities. For instance, I have never hunted turkeys and didn't even put in for the AZ spring turkey draw. However, once I didn't draw elk, I started looking through the regs again and realized there is a two-week season in May for OTC archery turkey in the same unit where I hunted elk last year...where I ran into turkeys almost everyday! So, over the next couple months, I'm going to be getting some calls, doing some scouting, and dialing in the bow to chase thunder-chickens this spring. And to be honest, the newness and steep learning curve ahead of me has me plenty excited, even if I'm not going to be chasing a monster bull this year.
LOOK OUT OF STATE
This is obviously the biggest step to take, and by far requires the largest financial investment. However, unless you're lucky enough to live in a state with abundant OTC options that make getting drawn for a prime unit just icing on the cake (as opposed to the life or death of a season it is for some of us in other states), then this is a legitimate option to consider. Unfortunately, I believe many hunters (myself included) have looked at this option as if it is simply too daunting. It's more expensive, for sure, but also there are so many unknowns. It takes a while just to get your head wrapped around all the rules and regulations of your own state; you sure don't want to go to a new state with a new bunch of laws and find out the hard way that you just killed an illegal bull or wandered onto private land by mistake. However, with all the support available to us in the 21st century - every Game & Fish department having substantial websites, hunting map apps and subscriptions that take ALL the guesswork out of where you are in the field, and even the ability to scout new areas from your computer - we should not be so afraid of venturing over state lines for our hunting needs.
Now, you may have to plan longer and intentionally save up some cash over a period of time, but it's well within reach of most people to do a fairly simple, budget OTC hunt in a new state. Odds are I won't be drawing an AZ elk tag in 2019 either, so I'm already doing research and trying to set aside some money for an elk hunt in Colorado or Idaho next year. Yes, it's daunting, but that's part of what makes it so exciting! Don't let the difficulty and extra cost keep you on the couch all hunting season; look into options that might be available to you just one or two states over and go for it. The worst case is you spend some time in a totally new place, see some different terrain than you're used to, learn a few things in the process, and come back home with some memories. That's a pretty friggin' good worst case scenario, if you ask me!
Believe me, I've been there...I've been on a 3-4 year streak without a tag for deer or elk, and I did almost no hunting in that time (maybe a bird hunt or two). I finally got fed up and realized that there are ways to hunt every single year if I'm willing to be a little flexible and creative. For me, hunting is a necessity. Not just because it's the primary source of meat that my family has grown accustomed to, but because it feeds my soul in a way that nothing else I have found can offer. If I don't get out in the field a couple times a year, I will absolutely go insane! So don't let an unfortunate draw season determine whether you're going to be in the woods or sitting on the couch eating Doritos, reading back-issues of Eastman's, and crying...do a little research, buy a couple unconventional tags, and get out there!!!