Elk Hunting the Full Moon

A full moon slowly rises in the eastern sky, lighting the nighttime landscape. Visions of creatures creeping from their hiding places overtakes the mind, and our pulse quickens. A full moon illuminates not only the landscape, but the uncertainties and fears of hunters as well. A dreaded full moon during the third week of September can be sheer terror for elk hunters who take to the woods to pursue screaming bulls.


During the lazy days of summer, elk tend to ignore the full moon compared to later in the year. Often, undisturbed elk are found lounging around, feeding in open meadows and on exposed ridges throughout the day. They will take advantage of the moon light to move about and feed in darkness, but they are not overly concerned with being exposed during the day. This time of year, the focus for elk is nourishing the calves and building fat in preparation for the rut and the impending winter.

As summer fades, the days grow shorter and tension builds among bulls. They split off from their summertime bachelor groups, and begin staging for the upcoming rut. During this transition, elk begin to seek the security of cover for longer periods of time. As the moon grows from a new moon to a full moon, elk spend even less time out and about during daytime hours. With the added pressure of hunters now taking to the woods and the bright full moon, elk become more nocturnal and use the moon’s illumination to feed and rut at night, and rest in thick cover during the day.

Midday Madness

IMG_0965While the weather encountered during the fall can be unpredictable, the factor that arguably hampers the elk rut most is heat. Hot, “Indian Summer” days in the fall coupled with a full moon can spell disaster for conventional dawn and dusk elk hunting tactics. The window of opportunity during this time can be very small. Even when you have a solid idea of where the elk will be found at first light and are able to position yourself as close as possible to set up, it can be very frustrating to find the elk already on the move and headed back to bedding grounds. What is the best option for overcoming these difficult scenarios? I like to call it “Midday Madness.”

“Midday Madness” involves resisting the urge to return to the comforts of camp after the morning hunt. Don’t be alarmed, a nap on the mountain can be just as invigorating as one at camp, and your opportunities for catching elk in rutting action can increase exponentially. As the midday heat begins to rise and the elk retreat to their cool, shady daytime haunts, continue to follow the herd, rather than return to camp. It’s important to keep a close watch on thermals as they typically switch from pulling downhill to rising during this time. As the herd settles in for the day, try to move to the same level and position yourself a safe distance away. Then, wait patiently until noon.

IMG_0385Oftentimes during the middle of the day, herd bulls will get up to stretch their legs, check cows, or visit a nearby wallow. This is the perfect opportunity to slip in close to the elk’s bedding area. Once there, set up with good shooting lanes, nock an arrow, and let out 2-3 soft cow calls. When the herd bull replies, hammer him with the most insulting challenge bugle you can muster. Be ready, as many times the bull may come running towards a fight with the interloper! You are in his bedroom and close to his cows. Even on the hottest of days, and despite a full moon, this is often the key to turning a slow hunt into an action filled rut-fest.

If he doesn’t come in right away – repeat. Give him more cow calls, and when he bugles again, cut him off with a challenge. Raking a tree with a stick during this bugling challenge can add to your threats and help bring the bull in close, but I usually save that until the argument has escalated a bit (4-5 bugles exchanged). It might sound counterintuitive to waltz dangerously close to the bedding area, but the bugling action and success can be pure madness!

Cloud cover from unpredictable mountain storms can drastically decrease the moonlight during the night, which can also increase elk activity during the day. Rain from these storms can instantly change the attitude of previously quiet bulls, so be sure to take full advantage of the cooler, quieter woods, especially during a full moon.

Scheduling the Hunt

Moon Phase Calendar September 2015The amount of light entering the cow elk’s pupil triggers the estrus cycle, or the “rut” as it’s more commonly referred to. Of course, not all cows come into heat at the same time. The older cows usually start first, with the younger cows coming into estrus later. Cows are triggered to come into estrus (and cause the peak rut period) within 5-10 days of the Fall Equinox. The Fall Equinox is when the day and night are of equal duration, and this year, the Fall Equinox occurs on September 23rd.

In 2015, there will be full moons on August 29, September 28, and October 27. This is good news for the states where the peak of the rut hits in mid-to-late September, especially if you are planning a hunt leading up to the Fall Equinox. For states where the rut hits a little earlier, it may be productive to be in the woods from the 13th on, as there will be a New Moon on the 13th. For hunters who like to hit it early, the 6th – 12th of September should prove to show a fair amount of daytime elk movement as well (waning crescent moon phase).

October’s full moon hits late in the month as well. Hunting during the middle part of the month will be ideal, and should align with many October elk seasons. After the 3rd of October, the waning gibbous moon should produce more daytime animal movement, provided the pressure from hunters doesn’t send the elk into hiding. The new moon hits on the 13th, and this timing may be fairly productive as the second estrus cycle should be starting soon (18 – 28 days after the initial estrus cycle for cows that weren’t bred previously).

Many factors can and will affect the elk rut: weather, hunting pressure, the presence of wolves, and the moon phase. From my own experience, hunting the waning gibbous phase of the moon through the new moon has consistently held the best daytime bugling action. If that phase lands during the days leading up to the peak rut, even better. Don’t sell yourself short though, the Midday Madness of the full moon can be pretty insane. Understanding the effects of the moon phase on the elk rut will enable you to better nail down your planned vacation time this elk season, and hopefully, capitalize on the bull of your dreams.

Moon Phases Simplified

Moon Phase Calendar October 2015It’s probably easiest to understand the moon cycle in this order: new moon and full moon, first quarter and third quarter, and the phases in between.

The new moon occurs when the moon is positioned directly between the earth and the sun. The three objects are in approximate alignment (why “approximate” is explained below). The entire illuminated portion of the moon is on the back side of the moon, the half we cannot see, which makes it appear as if there is no moon.

At a full moon, the earth, moon, and sun are in approximate alignment, similar to the new moon, but with the earth now directly between the moon and the sun. The entire sunlit side of the moon is facing us and the shadowed side is entirely hidden from view.

The first quarter and third quarter moons (both often called a “half moon“), happen when the moon is at a 90 degree angle with respect to the earth and sun. This means we are seeing exactly half of the moon illuminated while half is in shadow.

With an understanding of the four main moon phases, the phases between should be fairly easy to visualize, as the illuminated portion gradually transitions from one to the next.

An easy way to remember and understand those “between” lunar phases is by breaking out and defining 4 words: crescent, gibbous, waxing, and waning. The word crescent refers to the phases where the moon is less than half illuminated. The word gibbous refers to phases where the moon is more than half illuminated. Waxing essentially means “growing” or expanding in illumination, and waning means “shrinking” or decreasing in illumination.

Thus you can simply combine the two words to create the phase names, as follows:

After the new moon, the sunlit portion is increasing, but less than half, so it is waxing crescent. After the first quarter, the sunlit portion is still increasing, but now it is more than half, so it is waxing gibbous. After the full moon (maximum illumination), the light begins to decrease. The waning gibbous phase occurs next, still greater than half, but decreasing. Following the third quarter, the moon is waning crescent, and decreases until the light is completely gone – a new moon.

(Moon phase Information can be found at www.MOONCONNECTION.COM)

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