There's a certain day in February that can really bum a girl out. It's painful to watch your Facebook newsfeed fill up with people sharing their excitement when you're not one of the lucky ones. My February heartbreak came early this year, at 5 a.m., when my boyfriend called with the news; there would be no celebrating for either of us this time.
If you're a hunter, you know the exact day I'm talking about -- the third Friday in February, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game releases its draw, Tier I and Tier II permit winners.
While hunting opportunities in Alaska are plentiful, draw hunts are something special. They are also hard to get.
"I've been told that some folks actually have draw-hunt parties. I've never been to one, but I assume folks gather to celebrate the wins and lament the losses," Ken Marsh, wildlife information officer for ADF&G, said in an email.
Getting picked for a permit means a once-in-a-lifetime hunt. I'm talking about getting a chance to see the biggest Dall sheep of your life in your crosshairs or to shoot a moose on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Many people never get those opportunities.
These hunts are harder to get because there are too many hunters interested in the same areas, forcing ADF&G to limit the number of permits in order to keep the game population at a healthy level. For the 2014-2015 hunting season, 28,125 hunters applied for big game permits in the state of Alaska, according to ADF&G.
The application period opens in November and ends in the middle of December. Hunters then brace themselves for the two-month wait period. It can be agonizing not knowing whether to book flights and guides or request time off from work. The amount of time it takes to plan a trip is the reason the ADF&G releases results in February.
"A major change occurred a few years ago when the application period was moved from May to November-December. This was done largely to provide permit winners more time to make hunt arrangements," Marsh said.
To award the permits, names are drawn at random in a lottery. "You pay the fee and take your chances," said Marsh.
The non-refundable application fee for most hunts is $5 per permit. Bison and musk ox will cost a hunter $10. The system can feel a lot like gambling; you spend money you will never see again, but if you win, you win big.
"The most sought-after permit is Delta Bison Hunt DI403. We received 11,320 applications for that hunt last year. Only 80 permits are available for that hunt. Next in line are the Tok Management Area Dall Sheep Hunts DS102 and DS103, which received 3,226 and 2,318 applications respectively for 40 permits apiece," said Marsh.
There's some strategy that goes into applying. Hunters are allowed to apply for a maximum of three hunts per big game species, with the exception of moose (the limit for those is six, three of which can be for bulls). Hunters can only pull one permit per species, but can draw multiple permits for different species. According to ADF&G, most people apply for six hunts.
While selections are totally random, there are some tricks to getting picked. A yearly "Draw Hunt Supplement" is issued during the application process, which includes information about the permit boundaries and the number of applicants from the previous year, along with the number of permits issued. But it's not always the best strategy to apply for the permits with the best odds.
"Knowing what to expect before applying can save you money on hunts that might be too expensive or that occur in terrain beyond your abilities," said Marsh. "Applicants often don't research in advance the hunts they apply for. When they actually win a permit, they look into the hunt to discover that travel costs exceed their budgets or that they are unable to hunt during the time frames offered or in the difficult terrains the country features. As a result, their money is wasted, and so is a permit that could have gone to someone better suited to tackle the requirements of the hunt."
While the permit itself is relatively inexpensive, additional costs can add up quickly. Nonresidents who win permits to hunt Dall sheep or brown bear also have to buy a hunting license ($425 for Dall sheep and $500 for bear). Nonresidents are also required to pay a licensed guide for those species, which usually costs several thousand dollars.
Certain permit hunt areas can be expensive to access because they require planes or boats, Marsh said. Hunters need to research access and terrain before applying for the permit. He suggests studying the most recent copy of the Alaska State Hunting Regulations and analyzing the Game Management Units. Wildlife biologists in the region are also a good resource for information about wildlife populations and terrain.
Also, what hunters do in their off season can affect their chances in the following year. If hunters don't turn in their hunting harvest reports for drawing, registration, Tier I and Tier II hunts, they become ineligible for permit hunts the next year. ADF&G recommends reading the rules and regulations, doing research and applying early to ensure all the information is entered accurately online.
Hunting has taught me a lot about patience, persistence and strategy. These are lessons I exercise every year in the field, and I'm learning to apply them to the permit process as well. While permits provide rare and excellent opportunities for hunting in Alaska, there are plenty of others in our great state.
"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again -- next year," said Marsh. "Meanwhile, go hunting anyway. Alaska offers general season hunts for most big game species. Leaf through the Alaska Hunting Regulations Summary booklet to come up with ideas about hunts/seasons available in the region you would like to visit. You won't get to stalk Delta bison, but you might end up with a pretty good shot at a moose, caribou, deer, bear or Dall sheep in a general season hunt."
The anticipation is over and the answers are in. Lucky permit holders can begin planning and fantasizing about the upcoming hunt. Along with thousands of others who wound up empty-handed, I will begin making arrangements for a general season hunt -- just because I didn't draw it doesn't mean it won't be once-in-a-lifetime. But those draw hunts are always on my mind and 10 months from now I will start the process over again, researching, applying and hoping that on that third Friday in February I'll be the lucky girl.