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 2021 Moon Phase Calendar.
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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 naturally 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 2021, the Fall Equinox occurs on Wednesday, 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 just 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 2021, there will be full moons on August 22, September 20, October 20, and November 19.
Looking at September, you’ll find that the moon will be mostly dark during the first week-and-a-half of the month, then getting brighter until it reaches Full Moon on the 20th. Here is how I would break down the moon’s effect on elk hunting for 2021:
I’ll start off by stating that the moon phase for 2021 Elk Season is about as bad as it gets for archery elk hunters. Don’t panic yet though. There may be a couple of ways to minimize the moon’s effect this fall.
September 2020 was one of the toughest elk seasons I can remember for rut activity – or at least rut intensity. We hunted hard here in Idaho for the first 8 days of the season, and had VERY little calling action. I typically like to hunt this earlier part of the season where I can find mature bulls still in their “staging” areas, and much less tolerable of competing bulls – and therefore, more cooperative with aggressive calling. That was not the case in 2020. However, in 2021…
I wouldn’t necessarily get too aggressive from a calendar standpoint, as early-season/pre-rut is always a little unpredictable. But, from a moon phase standpoint, the first 11 days of September are going to be really, really good. In fact, those dates will provide the best moon phases all season. If I was looking at hunting one of those weeks, I’d definitely opt for the 5th – 11th, as it will provide very dark night, mature bulls on the prowl for cows, and vocalizations increasing daily. The 1st – 4th provides a good moon, but going that early could be a little risky.
As we get into the mid-season, this is usually my favorite, preferred time to hunt elk. The bulls are aggressively establishing dominance and their harems, which makes them susceptible to calling. They are moving more, which makes them easier to locate. And, with the peak rut approaching, they are usually plenty vocal. The dates for this mid-season week in 2021 will be the 12th – 18th. If you refer to the moon phase calendar, you’ll see we are gaining brightness all week, and ending the week with a nearly-full moon. I think we will still be OK during this week, as there are a lot of other factors that are going in our favor – lead-up to Fall Equinox, cooling weather (typically), and aggressive bulls – especially in the mountain states (Montana, Colorado, Idaho, etc.).
By the next week though, the moon is going to be flexing its muscles, and possibly having a more negative effect on elk hunting. The Fall Equinox falls right in the middle of this week (19th – 25th), and if you remember how the Fall Equinox triggers the estrous for cow elk, one would assume this could be a good week. And in some areas, it may very well be. However, if I was hunting a desert-like climate (Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, etc.), I might be concerned.
A few years ago, I hunted elk with Randy Newberg in New Mexico during the last week of the season – a time when the big bulls of the Gila should have been bugling their heads off. But they weren’t. In fact, we had a very hard time finding elk, especially vocal elk during daylight hours. Bulls were still hanging out together and tolerating each other’s company, which seemed incredibly strange to say the least. It’s only a wild guess, but with a full moon during that week, I really feel like the cow elk had more “light” entering their pupils during the week, which delayed the timing of the estrous/rut. I feel that may be the case in 2021 as well.
If I was hunting a desert state, I would be very careful about going during this 3rd full week in September. I feel that a full moon isn’t as detrimental to elk activity in the mountain states, but I do feel there will be a lull in activity in those states as well. By the next week, the moon starts to fade away, but so does elk season in many states.
That last week (26th – 30th) could be productive, and I think the elk will be quite vocal. However, the bulls will have their harems, the cows should be in estrous, and relying on calls to coax a herd bull away from his cows could prove to be challenging.
There are always so many factors – several outside of our control – during the month of September, that it’s always difficult to predict which week is going to be the “best”. However, in a generalized nutshell, I feel the first half of the month will likely be more conducive to calling in and killing bull elk than the second half of the month. Either of those first 2 full weeks (5th – 11th or 12th – 18th) should be equally productive. And while the rest of the season has the approaching peak rut in its favor, the intensity of the moon could definitely affect the behavior of the elk in a negative way for elk hunting.
Rifle seasons in many states open during mid-October, so it’s important to recognize what effect the moon might have on elk behavior during this time as well, especially after the rut. For 2021, October looks very similar to September from a moon phase perspective. The moon will be hitting full brilliance during that 3rd full week of the month, meaning post-rut elk will have more protection for feeding during the nighttime hours when we aren’t able to hunt.
As always, opening days are going to be the most effective as the elk haven’t been shot at and chased from one end of the unit to the other. In states where the rifle seasons open on the 10th or 15th, those should be really good days. However, as Randy Newberg says, there are actually 2 different parts to a rifle season – opening day, and all the other days.
The first half of the month (1st – 15th) will be good from the moon phase standpoint. With little to no moon, the elk will be staying out a little longer in the mornings and coming out a little earlier in the evenings to feed. If I had an opening day opportunity that landed any time before the 15th, I would take advantage of it for sure. However, I probably wouldn’t take my week’s vacation aligned with the 3rd full week of October, if I had a choice.
The first 10 days of October should be really good. There should be some good rut activity still taking place (especially if my full-moon-during-the-Fall-Equinox theory holds water and the rut is slightly delayed).
If your season opens on the 10th, I would be hunting opening day – for sure – and the rest of that week (10th – 16th) should be pretty good as well. You should be able to find some lingering rut activity during that week, and the moon shouldn’t have a negative effect on your hunt.
Hunting the 15th – 17th could be good if you’re hunting a 15th opener, but also keep in mind that the 15th is on a Friday, which means more hunters may be taking a 3-day weekend and potentially crowding the elk woods that weekend. With the full moon hitting during the middle of the next week, if I had to choose just one week to hunt, I’d probably hold off until the last full week of October. That 3rd week (17th – 23rd), with its accompanying full moon, could be a tough week to hunt post-rut, recovering bulls.
By the end of the month and into the first couple weeks of November, cooler weather, a waning moon, and a desperate need for food, should keep the elk out feeding for longer periods of time, thus increasing your chances for success.
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 questionable years like 2021 when the moon phase doesn’t align well with the pre-Equinox rut-activity, it is definitely worth using some caution when scheduling your time off for hunting.
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.