In late May of 2000, Beaverton hunter Ron Wold thought he had his checklist covered for a coveted deer hunt in Central Oregon that coming fall.
He had vacation time away from his engineering job and, most importantly, he had enough preference points in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's controlled-hunt lottery that he felt guaranteed to land one of the hard-to-get tags.
But Wold didn't draw a tag. Those with more preference points did.
"I was really frustrated by it," recalls Wold, 49. "I had my entire fall planned around getting that tag."
Instead of complaining that he got jobbed by the system, Wold turned to his inner math geek to figure out the system.
The result is a computer program that actually predicts the odds of landing a tag in every one of the state's limited-entry hunts, telling hunters how many preference points it takes to guarantee a specific tag in a specific year and how many years hunters can expect to wait to get a tag they don't qualify for yet.
His program even predicts how many leftover tags he expects the agency to garner for their first-come, first-served fire sale in July.
And Wold provides it all for free on his website, https://sites.google.com/site/oregontags/. With the May 15 application deadline looming, the site should soon see its largest traffic of the year.
"It's a strange hobby," admits Wold, an engineer who works on digital simulator software by day. "I don't know why I find that stuff interesting; it just is to me."
The website is a boon for hunters who unwittingly reduce their ability to take advantage of their preference points to get the tags they want within the confines of the system.
"You're either in the know or you're not," he says. "If you're not in the know, you're in a real disadvantage."
It also fills a void in ODFW's controlled-hunt system, which doesn't provide the information that Wold generates by downloading all the agency's data.
"He has a genuine interest in helping hunters understand their odds," says Michelle Dennehy, ODFW's Wildlife Division spokeswoman. "We appreciate that."
The controlled-hunt preference point system is how ODFW distributes limited-entry tags. Each year a hunter fails to draw a tag, he gets a preference point to better his odds the following year.
The first 75 percent of tags are awarded based on the number of preference points (the more points, the better the hunter's chances). The remaining 25 percent of tags are drawn randomly, so every hunter who applies has a chance of drawing a tag.
Hunters can choose to apply for a "point saver" rather than entering the draw, so that year's point is saved and accrued for another year.
Based on the number of applicants and the number of tags, some hunts need just one preference point to move up enough in line to guarantee a tag. Others require double-digit points. Once used, the preference points disappear.
Most hunters look at hunts and guess how many preference points it would take to earn a coveted tag and decide whether they should use their points then or save them for later.
Instead of guessing, Wold actually computes those odds for hunters annually, and posts the odds in the form of percentages.
"It's a way to shop your points, to get the most out of your points," Wold says.
For muzzleloader hunters, the 119A West Cascades buck tag is likely a slam-dunk even without a single preference point. But if you have your eyes on a tag for the South Indigo, you'll probably burn four preference points to ensure you draw it.
The toughest draw of all? It's tag 644A3, allowing its holder to kill either a buck or doe deer on the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge using a shotgun or a muzzleloader. It's a five-day hunt and a certain draw — if you have 20 preference points to blow.
That's even worse odds than the legendary 470C tag for pronghorn on Hart Mountain. Wold figures you have a .28-percent chance of getting that tag with 17 preference points. It's a 24-percent chance with 18 points, but burn 19 preference points and you're golden.
Wold's system allows hunters to spend their preference points intelligently with expectations of results.
"I think everybody should be able to understand it and be in the know," he says.
His website last year generated more than 30,000 unique visitors. About half the questions emailed to him come from nonresidents who end up realizing they can't buy their way into better odds like they can in other states.
"In a lot of cases, what they learn isn't what they want to hear," he says.
Wold also has created a list of common misconceptions about the system. Oregonians, for instance, generally don't understand that they suffer reduced odds of drawing tags because of the presence of nonresidents and tags earmarked for hunting guides and outfitters.
Wold has done major rewriting of his software four times in the past 13 years.
If his work has shown anything, it's that the people who complain that the system is rigged when they don't get tags simply don't know the system.
"If you look at the numbers, you see consistency," Wold says. "If there was something corrupt, you'd see it."