It seems like just yesterday we were chasing bugles, and now here we are, already working on plans for this fall’s elk hunting adventures. Many hunters need to lock in the dates for their hunts to be able to secure time off from work, which means it’s time to figure out which week (or weeks) are going to be the most productive for hunting elk this fall.
To determine the best week to hunt elk each fall, there are two primary factors that can be helpful in determining which week – or weeks – to hunt. Those factors are the Fall Equinox and the 2023 Moon Phase Calendar.
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 several other uncontrollable conditions – that happens 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 2023, the Fall Equinox occurs on Saturday, September 23rd. So, if you’re looking for the peak rutting “action”, the 18th-29th 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, it’s important to also consider what the moon is going to be doing during this timeframe as well.
In 2023, there will be full moons on August 31, September 29, October 28, and November 27.
Starting with September, you’ll find that the moon will be pretty bright during the first few days of the month, but waning quickly and reaching New Moon (no moon) on the 15th. From there, we’ll have a really good moon phase clear up until the last week of September. The moon will gain brightness during that last week, and ultimately reach Full Moon on the 29th.
Here is how I would break down the moon’s effect on elk hunting for 2023:
For September, I’ll break the month into 4 weeks:
Week #1 (September 2-9)
Week #2 (September 9-16)
Week #3 (September 16-23)
Week #4 (September 23-30)
Week #1 will have a handful of factors working against it. Namely, hotter weather, early-season rut activity, a nearly full moon, and Labor Day weekend. I would anticipate the first few days of that week to likely be a bit slower from a rutting perspective. However, during this timeframe, you’ll find elk that haven’t been pressured as much as they will be over the next 3 weeks, and once the Labor Day traffic returns home, the elk woods should settle down pretty quickly.
Additionally, the bright moon will be waning, and by the end of the 1st week, it shouldn’t be much of a factor at all. Temperatures and moisture are always a wildcard during this time, but historically, hotter weather usually places a damper on elk activity during the first part of September. During that 1st week, you should be able to find mature bulls still by themselves though, which bodes well for getting in close – or for calling a herd bull in close to you before they establish their harems.
Week #2 will be the best week in September from a moonphase standpoint. There will basically be no moon to content with at all the entire week. Elk will be forced to feed longer into the daylight hours in the morning, and you’ll likely find them heading to feeding areas earlier in the evening. Simply put, you should find more general elk activity during this 2nd week. Additionally, the bulls will be starting to establish their harems – and their dominance – during this week, which means the calling action could really start heating up and you’re likely to find some very aggressive herd bulls that are willing to fight to gain or protect a harem of cows. You’ll also be hunting elk that are generally less pressured than the elk that will be hunted during Weeks 3 and 4, which can translate to elk that are also less “call-shy”. I wouldn’t hesitate to spend a week’s vacation hunting during Week #2 this fall.
As we head into Week #3, the moon will start waxing toward full moon, but it’s really not going to be an issue during this week either. You also have the Fall Equinox hitting at the end of the week, which means cows should start coming into estrous during this timeframe. However, the peak of the breeding probably won’t happen for another 7-10 days, so the herd bulls shouldn’t be completely locked up on cows that are ready to be bred, and should still be susceptible to aggressive calling tactics. By now, many elk will have probably heard plenty of calls from other hunters, so they might not coming running right into your setup as soon as you call. They’re likely to be a bit more wary, and you’ll need to pay extra attention to your setups – especially the wind – as the elk will most likely be a bit skeptical of the calls they are hearing. I would probably predict a slight advantage on hunting this week compared to Week #2, but both weeks should provide plenty of elk calling action this fall.
Week #4 is often the main event – cows ready to be bred, bulls running themselves ragged chasing cows and fighting off intruding bulls, and often accompanied by magical mornings covered by a hard frost and bugles from daylight until dark. But I wouldn’t necessarily count on that this fall. The last week of September will be filled with moonlight, and lots of it. The moon will be pretty much full the entire week, which means the elk can take care of a lot of their activity during the night. Additionally, it has been theorized that with a full moon during the 2nd half of September, the light entering a cow’s pupils won’t decrease as rapidly as when there is no moon, which could potentially delay the triggering of the estrous cycle by a few days. Regardless, the last week of September will always be the last week of September, and you’ll most likely find plenty of vocal, rut-crazed elk, regardless of the moon. Plus, a full moon when cows are ready to be bred can make for some exciting Midday Madness!
I certainly wouldn’t write off the last week of September this season, but definitely be aware that there will be some disadvantages to hunting that week – elk that have been pressured for the past 4 weeks, a bright Full Moon, and bulls that are likely going to be very pre-occupied with cows that are ready to breed. Even with those potential downsides, a couple of slight adjustments to hunting tactics and strategies should still provide you with an action-packed week of hunting elk during the peak of the rut.
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 once the rut starts winding down. For 2023, October looks very similar to September from a moon phase perspective. The moon will be waning through the first 2 weeks of the month and not hitting full brilliance until 28th, which could bode really well for elk activity throughout October.
The true peak of breeding usually takes place the last few days of September into the first few days of October. This typically translates to vocal elk well into the first week or so of October. Keep in mind that if there is validity in the theory of a delayed estrous due to the full moon late in September, there could be some really good bugling action well into that first week of October, possibly extending into the 2nd week as well. With the moon being pretty dark throughout the 2nd and 3rd week of October, elk will be forced to feed and travel longer during daylight hours, which should help with spotting more elk, even after the vocal activity tapers off.
Most rifle seasons open at some point during mid-October, so as pressure from those seasons hit, the elk will modify their behavior and not be as visible in areas of high pressure and higher hunter activity. However, with the dark nights during this time, they will still need to spend more time up and moving around during the daylight. Find the sanctuaries where they retreat to as they attempt to escape pressure, and you’ll likely find elk moving and feeding into the daylight during the mornings and evenings.
Keep in mind that October 15th lands on a Sunday this year, so for states that have an October 15th opening, opening weekend will likely be somewhat crowded. Many hunters will be setting up camps on Friday the 13th, scouting on the 14th, and hoping to fill their tags on opening morning. I wouldn’t necessarily skip out on opening day this year, but realize it will likely take a couple days into the next week before the elk recover from the barrage of pressure that is sure to hit over the weekend.
By the time the elk start transitioning from post-rut to late-season behavior in November, the moon will be waning again, which will force the elk to feed more during daylight hours. This, coupled with a switch to a late-season feeding pattern, could provide more elk visibility than normal during the first few weeks of November. The bulls will likely be emerging from their post-rut sanctuaries and starting to get back together with other bulls, and spending a lot more time out in the open looking for food.
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.
From my experience, elk are elk, and they are going to rut regardless of the moon phase. However, on a really good year where the new moon directly precedes the Fall Equinox – like 2023 – I really think we’re going to see some great rut activity during the middle of September, and that activity could potential remain strong well into October as well. Plus, with Full Moons landing at the end of the months, elk should be more active during daylight hours during prime hunting dates in September, October and into November, which should align well with hunting seasons in many western states.
Understanding the effects of the moon phase on the elk rut is important, and it can help you plan not only when to hunt elk, but also help you understand how to hunt them as well.