If you’ve been following Modern Hunters on Facebook or Twitter, you are likely aware that I punched my first deer tag on Saturday during the last weekend of rifle season. To any hunter, that sentence right there makes perfect sense. But relaying the same news to some of my non-hunter friends produced some looks of confusion and a wave of curious question-asking. What is a tag? How many do you get? What do you mean by rifle season? Why are there so many regulations? It’s easy to forget just how much jargon there is in the hunting community. So for the new hunters or hunting-curious folks out there, here’s a primer on understanding hunting seasons and tags in the United States.
Hunting, like fishing and trapping, is an endeavor regulated at the state level for the vast majority of cases. While the federal government does become involved for some migratory birds, your experience with the regulatory side of hunting will depend almost entirely on the state you hunt in. As such, this article will focus more generally on what each of the below terms mean. For specifics you will need to visit the website of the institution that governs hunting activities in your state. In California, it’s the Department of Fish and Wildlife. In Arizona it’s called the Game and Fish Department and in Florida it’s the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Michigan deviates even further from this naming theme with their Department of Natural Resources. Alas, if you’re not sure what it’s called in your state, a quick google search of “yourstatename hunting” should do the trick. Look for the site ending in “.gov” and you’ll be on the right track.
Hunting licenses are the most basic level of certification that every hunter needs before they can pursue an animal. Unlike a driver’s license, hunting and fishing licenses are only valid in the state they’re issued in, though you can have valid licenses in more than one state simultaneously. But if you want to be a multi-state license holder, it will cost you. Licenses for state residents will always be cheaper than licenses for non-residents. There may be discounted license fees for youth hunters, senior hunters, and veterans.
In the vast majority of circumstances, a Hunter Education and Safety course will be required before a license can be issued, especially if you’re a brand new hunter. Think of this as the equivalent of driver’s ed. Once you pass the test you may purchase a license. If you’re already licensed in one state but want to move to a new state, check to see whether your previous Hunter Education completion will transfer; many times it will.
In some states like California, there will be one very general license required to hunt all species. In other states like Washington, you may purchase animal-specific licenses, for example: a deer license, a cougar license, or more generally a “big game” license or a “small game” license. Licenses are usually valid for one year, though I have seen multi-year license for sale too. Many states offer ‘lifetime’ licenses as well, for a substantial up-front sum.
A good rule of thumb with licenses is this: hunting licenses are always necessary, but often not sufficient. This is where tags, stamps, and other permits come in.
Tags are additional permits that can be added on top of a basic hunting license to allow the hunter to pursue certain animals (typically big game animals such as deer, elk, bear, pig, antelope, etc). One tag equals the right to harvest one animal. A tag is actually a physical permit that you carry with you while hunting that you must attach to an animal immediately after you kill it. The tag will have areas on it that you’ll need to mark if you kill an animal, such as the date and time of harvest, the location of the harvest, and the sex or other descriptive features of the creature. The widely accepted way to mark a tag is by punching out (making a hole with your knife) the sections corresponding to the correct information pertaining to your hunt. So when someone says they “punched a tag” or “filled a tag”, it means they successfully killed an animal. If someone says they had to “eat their tag” it means that they were unsuccessful — instead of eating fresh wild game they are stuck dining on their permit. Mmm tag sandwich…
Tag systems can be fairly complex. One reason is that unlike hunting licenses, tags are limited in number. These limits come in a variety of forms. For example, there are limits on how many tags of a single type one person can have. For example, where I hunt each individual is allowed only one rifle buck tag per year. There are also limits on the total number of a certain tag given out each year. There are a few thousand of those buck tags given out in my hunting region each year. That means that a few thousand people have purchased the right to try to shoot a buck. About 80-90% of them will fail, meaning that only a few hundred bucks are killed each year in my area of the state. State wildlife management agencies use information about how many tags are filled in combination with their assessment of the local animal populations to determine how many tags can be sold in the subsequent year. Limiting the number of animals killed each year helps preserve the species as a resource and keep ecosystem dynamics in balance.
So, if tags are limited, what happens when demand exceeds supply? When there are more hunters than animals that can be sustainably killed in a year, tags will be given out based upon a draw or lottery system. A hunter can gain advantage in these lotteries by building up “preference points”. Where I live, if I enter a tag drawing and don’t get my top choice tag I earn one point, which will give me a little leg up next year. The points are a pretty decent system to help spread around tags more fairly than just a purely random drawing each year. Hunters may try their luck and “put in” (enter the tag lottery) for many different animals in different states in a given year, knowing that they may only draw a couple of those tags. The whole thing requires some planning ahead — tag drawings happen many months before the hunting season starts. Some hunters think even further ahead when it comes to preference points for highly desirable but highly limited hunts, entering a lottery years in advance of when they think they’re likely to get drawn for that tag. Some tags are so limited that drawing one is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity.
So, tags have a clear role in regulating how many animals can be hunted in a given year. But tags actually get even more specific. There may be tags for male animals vs. female animals. There may be tags for taking animals with a standard firearm vs. a muzzleloader firearm vs. a bow and arrow. Tags are also geographically bound, typically valid only in a certain area.
So to give a few more examples, my deer tag this season could only be used for a buck (regulating sex of the animal) with at least forked antlers (regulating the age of the animal) shot with a standard rifle (regulating the method of take) in just one of many zones in the state (regulating the geographic area). I entered the drawing for a small number of doe rifle tags in my zone this year, too. This is a desirable tag for anyone like me who is hunting purely for meat because does are much more plentiful and easy to find than bucks. I didn’t win the doe rifle lottery, which wasn’t too surprising since I had no preference points built up, but I have a good chance of drawing that tag next year.
Tags can vary enormously in price. Just to give you a flavor, in California a resident bobcat tag is $3 and a resident deer tag is $30. A non-resident deer tag is $270. A non-resident elk tag is $1300. (Yes, that is the correct number of zeros).
Stamps and Other Permits
As I mentioned above, tags apply almost exclusively to big game. So you may be wondering about small game (birds, rabbit, squirrel, groundhog, etc.). Often a simple hunting license will be sufficient for a subset of small game species, typically those that are most plentiful and/or least desirable. For instance, where I live I can hunt rabbits and hares without doing anything beyond renewing my hunting license each year. But if I want to hunt quail I need what’s called an “upland game validation” — just a small extra permit that allows me to hunt those animals. If I wanted to hunt duck I would need a federal duck stamp and a California state “duck validation”. Like licenses and tags, stamps and validations need to be renewed each year.
One key difference between these other permits and tags is that stamps and validations aren’t something you physically attach to each animal you kill. They’re just an extra license you keep in your pocket. Instead of regulating the number of animals that can be hunted with the ‘one tag = one animal’ method, small game hunting is regulated by what are called “bag limits”. The term comes from the practice of placing harvested small animals in a bag for easy carrying. A bag limit is the maximum number of a certain species you are allowed to kill in a given time period. Depending on the species, there may be daily bag limits and/or seasonal bag limits. Those species that are most plentiful (perhaps overpopulated) sometimes have no bag limit, meaning you could harvest literally as many as you could find. Interestingly, in my area jackrabbits are a no bag limit animal. Again, for the most part all of this is based on wildlife management strategy.
So far I’ve covered many ways in which the hunting of animals is limited and regulated. Tags and other permits can limit the number of animals taken in a day or a year, the sex and age of animals taken, and the areas they are hunted from. The last piece of the wildlife management puzzle is timing.
There are relatively few creatures than can be hunted year round. Most game animals have a “season” in which hunting them is legal. A season might be two weeks long or might be two months long, but either way it will have a specific start and end date. When a hunting season has started, hunters will say that it has “opened” and the first day of the season will be called the “opener”. Conversely when the season ends, hunters will say it has “closed”. So when Nick had his first successful mule deer stalk, he was unable to take the shot on the doe he had stalked because the tag that would allow a doe harvest wasn’t going to open until the next morning. Shooting an animal even half a day out of season would be a major violation. Many states have put together useful charts displaying the key dates for various hunting seasons. Check out the hunting season chart for Maine for a great example.
The timing and length of hunting seasons are also set strategically to manage wildlife populations. For instance, birds would likely be too vulnerable to hunters during moulting and for many species it would be too disruptive to hunt during breeding season or during the time when baby animals are born. It turns out that the optimal time to hunt most game species is the fall, though there are some winter and spring hunts too. For many hunters, fall is the time to fill the freezer with wild meat to last for the rest of the year. With sometimes only a few weeks to try to fill a tag, hunters want to be out in the field as much as possible during these times. So non-hunters take heed: if it’s the middle of the fall hunting season and your hunter friend or family member is slow to return your calls and can’t make it to your Halloween party, don’t worry. They’ll be back to their normal selves soon enough.
Regulation as a Means of Conservation
With so many states and so many separate “zones” within those states, so many species, so many different tags and permits and seasons, how does any hunter keep it all straight? The truth is that we can’t memorize it all, so we learn the general regulations and the regulations that pertain to the specific animals and zones we hope to hunt. Yes, it’s still a lot to know and follow, but it matters. You see, hunters care enormously about conservation. We truly care about the health of our local ecosystems and the long term preservation of animal species. Wildlife populations and the gorgeous lands they inhabit are a precious resource that we want to tap sustainably and responsibly.
Locally-tailored rules, licenses, and permits help us to accomplish this goal in two primary ways. First, as I mentioned, hunting regulations place reasonable limits on how many animals can be killed each year, preventing populations from being harmed in the long run by over-hunting. State governments can scale up or scale back hunting each year depending on ecosystem needs. Second, remember all of those fees for licenses, tags, stamps, and validations? Thanks to those fees alone we are able to raise almost $800 million dollars for conservation programs nationally every year. Much of that $1300 for a non-resident elk tag in California goes back into protecting the land and the animals that live on it. It’s a pretty good deal, I think.
The world of licenses and tags is messy. Hunters have to do their due diligence and unfortunately read some fairly dry, boring regulation pamphlets from time to time. But it’s worth it, in my opinion, to spend a little bit of time figuring out how to respect the laws. It’s also our responsibility to protect ourselves from inadvertently violating the rules. Taking an animal out of season, lacking a tag or improperly following tagging procedures, and exceeding bag limits are taken very seriously.
See something about the licensing and permit systems that I didn’t cover? Have more questions about hunting seasons and tags? Whether you’re a hunter or non-hunter, I’d love to hear your thoughts!