It’s officially Elk Season!!! OK, maybe not in the official sense, but one of the most important aspects of Elk season is – or should be – in full swing now! And that is the planning process for this year’s elk hunts. It’s application season and time to start looking at when, where, and how you are going to hunt elk this fall!
To determine the best week to hunt elk each fall, there are two primary indicators I always look at before I start making a plan for which week – or weeks – I want to hunt: the Fall Equinox and the 2020 Moon Phase Calendar.
The full article referenced below can be found in the recently updated University of Elk Hunting Online Course. To sign up for the UEH Online Course and access over 40 Chapters of elk hunting content to help you plan for – and succeed on – your next elk hunt, CLICK HERE. And feel free to use the discount code ‘ElkPlan20’ to save $20 when you sign up!
As elk hunters, we don’t always have the luxury of hunting during the “prime” week each fall. We are often forced to adapt to whatever moon phase – and conditions – happen to exist on the days we are able to hunt. However, if you are able to pick the “best” week to hunt elk, it’s important to understand how the moon might play a part in your success.
Backing up just slightly, I want to mention one important factor to consider, especially if you are trying to plan around the timing of the rut. The amount of light entering a cow elk’s pupil is what actually triggers the estrus cycle, or the “rut”. 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. However, cows are generally triggered to come into estrus (and cause the peak rut period) within 5-10 days of the Fall Equinox. The Fall Equinox is the day when the daylight hours and the hours of darkness are of equal duration. For 2020, the Fall Equinox occurs on September 22nd. So, if you’re looking for the peak rutting “action”, the 17th-27th of September should get you pretty close.
Personally, I prefer to hunt slightly before the peak of the rut. The days leading up to the “peak rut” typically find the bulls establishing harems, and more aggressively fighting to establish their dominance. Once the peak rut kicks in and the bulls begin focusing more on breeding, calling herd bulls away from their cows can become a little more difficult. To find the perfect dates to hunt though, I also need to consider what the moon is going to be doing during this timeframe as well.
In 2020, there will be full moons on August 3, September 2, and October 1 and 31 (a “Blue Moon” on Halloween). Looking at September, you’ll find that the moon will be mostly bright during the first week of the month, then fading out and hitting New Moon (no moon) right in the middle of the month (17th). Here is how I would break down the moon’s effect on elk hunting for 2020:
I typically like to hunt early, and you’ll remember that we had some GREAT calling action on opening day (August 30) in Idaho in 2019. In fact, Donnie tagged out on a great 6×6 opening day! But in 2020, I wouldn’t anticipate things getting off to such a great start. With the full moon on the 2nd, the possibility of hot weather in early September, and Labor Day (think weekend traffic) hitting on the 7th, that is enough for me to contain my excitement and save precious hunting days for later in the month. Things are going to get much better…
Jumping ahead to the 2nd week of September (6th – 12th), the moon will be fading all week, and historically, this 2nd week can be good. However, Labor Day will cut into the first part of the week, and the weather is still a wildcard. With what we have coming over the next 2 weeks, I’d probably hold off on putting too many eggs in this basket. This week can be good, especially for targeting bigger bulls as they are starting to establish harems, and often provides some really aggressive bugling and call-ins. But in 2020, I’d probably suggest holding out until at least the 10th.
As we transition into the 3rd week of September (13th – 19th), this is the week we have been waiting for! The moon will be pretty much non-existent all week, and toward the end of this week, we will be in the prime days leading up to the Fall Equinox. The bugling action will be picking up every day, and if I was going to pick one week to hunt elk in the mountain states (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, etc.), this would be it. However, if you can’t hunt this week for whatever reason, don’t despair. 2020 is one of the few years where you will have 2 full weeks of prime elk rut action!
For as good as the 3rd week is going to be in 2020, the 4th week (20th – 26th) will likely be just as good! If you are one of the lucky elk hunters who gets to take 2 weeks of vacation for elk season, this is your year! The moon will still be fairly dark all week, and you will get to experience the Fall Equinox. The elk should be screaming their heads off! And if you are lucky enough to have a tag in states like Arizona and New Mexico, this is your week as well!
If you are looking for a 9 or 10-day period to hunt elk, you have 2 incredible options: the 10th – 19th should be incredible, and the 17th – 26th should be amazing as well. Honestly, this is probably one of the better moon phase/Fall Equinox combinations I have seen in a while!
Those last 4 days of September can still be good as well, as the peak rut should be in full swing, and even a full moon will often not be able to stop a rut-crazed bull elk from being active all day long!
Rifle seasons in many states open during mid-October, so it’s important to recognize what effect the moon might have on elk behavior, especially after the rut. For 2020, the moon will be hitting full brilliance at the very beginning and again at the very end of the month, leaving a lot of great hunting days throughout the middle part of the month. A full moon coupled with an opening day can make rifle hunting tough….through in some unseasonably warm weather, and you’ll often see success rates plummet over those first few days of the season. But that shouldn’t be a problem in 2020!
If you are looking at an October 15th opening day for rifle season, the moon won’t hinder you at all. The fact that the 15th also hits on a Thursday might give you 1-2 days of less pressured hunting with no moon. Some cold, crisp mornings that week could bring an unparalleled recipe for success! Definitely bring your bugle tube with you on opening day if you are hunting these dates.
Backing up and looking at the month in its entirety, those dates at the very beginning (1st – 10th) should find the elk still bugling their heads off. After the 10th, the rut will be winding down, but you’ll often still be able to get a late-evening or early-morning bugle from a bull looking to drag the rut out just one more day. That leads us into the 2nd full week (11th – 17th), which again, could still be pretty good from a bugling standpoint. If you can find a good-sized herd, the chances of bugling action will likely be higher than what you’ll find from a bull with a couple of cows or a lone bull.
Once the main rifle seasons open up, the increased pressure will start dispersing the elk and reminding them that their vocalizations are a dead giveaway for their location, and they’ll get smart – and quiet – pretty quickly. From a moon phase standpoint though, the entire middle 2 weeks (10th – 24th) of the month should be great. Often, a full moon in October, coupled with increased rifle hunting pressure, will modify the behavior of the elk, and you won’t find them hanging out on open ridges or open hillsides – especially in easy-to-access areas – very long after daylight. With no moon during the middle of the month, the elk will be feeding much less during the night, and will be forced to spend a few more minutes after daylight hitting feed and water sources. The same principle will apply in the evenings, and you’ll likely find the elk coming out a little earlier in the evening than you would if there was a full moon.
As we transition into November, the moon phase – and its effects – will be very similar to the previous month, and by mid-November, the New Moon coupled with some cold weather should keep the elk out feeding for longer periods into the morning, and also get them up and feeding far before sunset in the evenings.
As with any post-rut and late-season elk hunting, targeting primary feed sources that the elk will be concentrating on will be the key. And for more info on hunting elk during the Post-Rut and Late-Season, be sure to check out the University of Elk Hunting Online Course. There is an entire Module devoted to Hunting Elk during the Post-Rut and Late-Season, with detailed tactics and strategies for increasing your success.
From my experience, elk are elk, and will rut to some degree regardless of the moon phase. However, on special years like 2020 when the moon phase does align with the pre-Equinox rut-activity, it can create some all-day bugle-fests that we’ll likely be talking about for several years! Even if you are forced to hunt during a week when the moon isn’t fully cooperative though, don’t hang your head. Great hunting and calling action can still be had, and by adding some mobility to your hard work, you might have the woods to yourself and have the best week of elk hunting you’ve ever had!
Understanding the effects of the moon phase on the elk rut is important, and can help you plan not only when to hunt elk, but also help you understand how to hunt them as well.