Understanding The California Big Game Draw

The Draw 

California holds a big game draw for the opportunity to hunt deer, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn. The draw occurs in June and archery hunting seasons for deer start as early as July! The deer draw is slightly different than elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn but opportunity to hunt is greatest in the deer draw. To draw a tag, you'll need to understand the difference between preference points and random choice drawings. Let's jump in!


Preference Points vs. Random Choice

Preference points are awarded each year that an applicant is unsuccessful in the draw or when an applicant chooses to just purchase a point rather than enter the draw. Accruing preference points moves an applicant up in the line giving them preference in drawing a tag the next year. Applicants are ranked ordered by most to least preference points and those holding the most preference points are considered first when awarding tags. When there are multiple applicants with the same number of preference points, the winners are chosen randomly from the group. Preference points are only used in the 1st choice round

In the random choice draw, all applicants have the same odds of drawing. Effectively everyone has one entry into the lottery and therefore has the same odds of drawing a tag. California utilizes both of these processes but varies the percentage of tags available based on the species and hunt type.


Califronia Deer Draw Process

California has 3 types of tag categories:

  • Premium Tags - are any hunt where the quota filled on or before the first business day after July 1, of the previous year. Hunters may only obtain one premium hunt tag per license year. To apply for a premium deer hunt tag, hunters must apply in the Big Game Drawing using a First-Deer Tag Drawing Application. Except junior hunters who may also apply for premium Apprentice Hunts using a Second-Deer Tag Drawing Application.
  • Restricted Tags- are any hunt that filled on or before the first business day after August 1 of the previous year. Restricted deer hunt tags may be issued upon the purchase of a First-Deer Tag. Second-Deer Tag applicants may also obtain a restricted deer hunt tag at any time, if you do not have a pending drawing application, have not been issued a premium deer hunt tag or restricted deer hunt tag as a FirstDeer Tag. Restricted tags are issued upon request until the tag quota for the hunt is filled.
  • Unrestricted Tags- are any hunt that did not fill on or before the first business day after August 1, in the previous year. Unrestricted deer hunt tags are issued upon the purchase of either a First-Deer Tag or Second-Deer Tag.

Draw tags are by definition Premium Deer Tags. To view units that had non-premium hunts, just check out the map view of California by selecting Explore Units and filter on the "OTC Opportunity" column.

Deer hunting applicants may select up to 3 hunts on their application in preferential order. For all non-apprentice deer hunts, deer quotas are split according to the following logic:

  • 90% of the hunt quota is awarded by preference point
  • 10% of the hunt quota is awarded by random drawing
  • In instances where the quota is less than 10 tags, 1 tag will be awarded randomly

For apprentice deer hunts the quota is split according the following logic:

  • 50% of the hunt quota is awarded by preference point
  • 50% of the hunt quota is awarded by random drawing

The actual draw process is conducted in the following manner:

  1. A random number is assigned to every application and all applications are sorted by their 1st hunt choice, then sorted by highest preference point to lowest and tthen lowest random number to highest. 
  2. The preference point quota is awarded for each hunt to the highest point holders with the lowest random number until either the preference point portion of the quota is filled or all 1st choice applicants for the hunt have been awarded. 
  3. The random draw quota is then awarded to 1st choice applicants purely based on the lowest random number.
  4. If any tag quota is left the 2nd choice round is conducted. Preference points are not used in this round so applications are sorted purely by random number.
  5. If any tag quota is left after the 3nd choice round, then a 3rd choice round is conducted. This round also only uses the random number assigned to the application

In general, if draw odds are zero for 2nd and 3rd choices then you should not put those hunts down for your 2nd or 3rd choice! It is possible that a tag quota increased or there is a compelling trend in the number of 1st (2nd) choice applicants to drive selecting a 0% chance from the previous year. However, make sure you aren't throwing away your choice!

Elk, Pronghorn and Sheep Draw Process

All elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep tags in California are allocated through a draw. Tag allocations are split as follows:

  • For quotas of 1, the tag is awarded randomly.
  • For quotas of 2, 1 tag is awarded by preference point and 1 randomly
  • For quotas of 3, 2 tags is awarded using a preference point and 1 tag randomly
  • For quotas of 4 or more, 75% of the quota is awarded by preference point. The remaining 25% is awarded randomly

Hunters may only choose 1 hunt for their application. The actual draw process is conducted in the same manner as steps 1-3 above.


For deer hunts nonresidents are placed in the same pool as residents and therefore have the same odds. There is no separate resident/nonresident tag quota or maximum allocation.

For elk and pronghorn hunts, only 1, yes 1, tag is available per species. Yup you read that right.

For bighorn sheep, nonresidents are limited to no more than 10% of total tags.


Group Applications

When applying as a group remember the following rules:

  • When computing preference points, group applicants points will be averaged and rounded to the nearest whole point.
  • If drawing a group would cause the quota to be exceeded:
    • In the deer drawing the party application will be skipped
    • In the elk and pronghorn drawing the party leader will be drawn and party member will be an alternate if the leader cannot hunt

Posted: December 2, 2022

Written By: Matt Habiger

About: Matt grew up running around the oaks, pines and birches in central Minnesota. He spent his youth hunting, fishing and riding bmx. For better or worse he's a restless hunter, prone to wandering the reaches of public land. Many youthful days were spent dreaming about chasing elk, deer and bear across mountain sides with a butterscotch maple Interarms 300 Weatherby from his father. 25 years later he still has the same dreams they just happen to come true every Fall and Spring.

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