I can still remember the first time I tried to understand the process of applying for deer tags in California’s Big Game Drawing. Not coming from a hunting family I had no idea what preference points were, and realizing that California has a “modified” preference point system only confused me further. I had to read the California Big Game Hunting Digest three times before it began to crystalize into something resembling the English language. So if you’re unfamiliar with the system and find yourself confused, you’re not alone.
Below is a basic description of how the California Big Game Drawing works for deer tags. There are plenty of details that I won’t go into here, but if you’re new to the game then it should give you a good starting point. The deadline to apply is June 2.
The Basics of the Modified Preference Point System
In a standard preference point system, available tags are strictly allocated in order of whichever applicants have the most preference points. So if some applicants have 4 points and others have 3, the applicants with 3 points will only have a chance after everyone with 4 points has been allocated at tag. It really is that simple.
What makes the California system “modified” is that there is a smaller random drawing in addition to the preference point draw – in general, 90% of tags will be allocated through preference points, and 10% will be allocated through a random draw (or “Draw-by-Choice” as CDFW calls it). So if you apply as an individual, even with zero points, you have some small chance of drawing a tag in any zone in California.
Three types of units – Premium, Restricted, and Unrestricted
Whether or not you even need to worry about the drawing system depends entirely on the zone you’re looking to hunt. Zones are categorized into Premium, Restricted, and Unrestricted based on how quickly the tags sold out the previous year.
The Premium zones, such as the fabled X Zones, require that you apply in the Big Game Drawing prior to the June 2 deadline and are, depending on the unit, the tougher tags to draw in the state. Most of these will be allocated through the preference point system, but you have to apply by the deadline even if you’re only hoping to throw your hat in for the random draw. Just remember that some of these units have very few tags allocated to them, so the odds of drawing a random tag may be very low.
In Restricted zones you are guaranteed to draw a tag if you choose it as your first deer tag and apply for it in the Big Game Drawing by the June 2 deadline. These hunts can be great options if you don’t have the points to draw the Premium tag that you’re after. The other thing to keep in mind here is that you cannot be awarded more than one Premium or Restricted tag during the Big Game Drawing; if you apply for a Premium or Restricted tag and are successful, you cannot be awarded a Restricted tag as your second tag. You might be able to buy one later if they don’t all sell out though. There are no Restricted deer zones in California in 2020, so you can ignore this one for the year.
Unrestricted tags are easier – you don’t even have to apply by the June 2 deadline to pick up one of these. As long as tags are available and the quota has not been met for that zone, you can buy one once they go on sale.
There are only two ways to accrue preference points – you apply for a Premium tag as your first choice and are unsuccessful, or you select “PD” as your first choice on your first deer tag. You can still draw a restricted or unrestricted tag as your second choice with either option.
The only way to “lose” points is to be successful in a first choice tag application for a Premium tag, or to go five years without submitting an application in the Big Game Drawing. Restricted tags or leftover tags do not impact your preference points.
If you draw a general season tag in any zone in California, you can hunt during the general season for that zone with any legal weapon – including archery equipment. If you want to hunt in a Premium zone during the specific archery season, however, you have to apply for and draw an archery tag – you cannot hunt a Premium archery season with a general season tag. Even if it’s for the same zone. Premium archery tags are under a G or A preference code.
These restrictions do not, however, apply in every zone. If you buy an A, B, or D general tag, you can hunt those individual zones with archery equipment in both archery and general seasons. The AO (archery only) tag, which is Unrestricted, permits you to hunt with archery equipment in any of the A, B, or D zones both in the archery and general seasons. So the AO tag is more versatile if you want to look at a lot of country, but does not permit the use of a rifle.
One final thing to consider is that if you want to hunt with a buddy or two, you can apply as a party with a maximum of six people. Preference points are averaged among all the participants in a party for Premium zone applications, and either everyone draws a tag or nobody does. Just make sure that the zone you’re applying to has enough tags to go around! If you are hoping to get pulled in the random portion of the draw, it really only makes sense to apply as a party if there are at least a few dozen tags available. It is a common mistake to apply as a party in a unit with too few tags, so make sure to avoid that one.
The most comprehensive source of information on the Big Game Drawing is the 2020 California Big Game Hunting Digest which is linked here.
If you’re interested in getting a deeper dive into application strategies for specific zones, our own J.R. Young presents a great breakdown here.