If you have hunted elk before during any season, you will agree that they are amazing animals. They weigh hundreds of pounds, are incredibly strong and can carry enormous racks. They live in some of the most remote and hard-to-reach elevations and have an uncanny ability to avoid predators, including hunters. Anyone who chases elk in the mountains can attest that they constantly change their travel routes and activities nearly every day. Some days you will find them out hours after sunrise and some mornings they are bedded by first light. Though we may never understand why they act in certain ways, several factors can contribute to some of these elk behaviors — behaviors that can become even depending on the weather or moon phase. To understand elk behavior and movements, it’s essential to comprehend typical behavior during different situations because this knoweldge will aid you in your next hunt.
No matter what deer or elk species you are hunting, the moon phase is always an important and hot topic of discussion. Though biologists can write books on animal behavior during different moon phases, the basic rule of thumb for the moon phase is the brighter the night, the less daytime activity you will see from elk. The darker the night, the more daytime activity you tend to see from elk. This means on a full moon, expect to find success hunting closer to the elk’s bedding areas and less success hunting travel corridors. One exception is that if there is significant overcast weather; the moon phase may have less impact.
It does not matter if it is pre-rut, rut or late season; you will see that elk are less active during hot weather. They will typically be in bed quickly, holding tight to high elevation northern slopes where the cover is thick. Hot weather can make for some tough hunting and is usually not ideal. The only positive of hot weather is that elk need to get water sometime throughout the day, so if you are sitting on a water source or a wallow, you may just find a bull heading your direction mid-day.
When the weather is cold, elk are typically very active. You may notice that they may feed later into the morning and earlier in the evening. Their coats are built to retain heat, so they seem to enjoy the colder nights and days and can be spotted in the open grazing on mountain grasses. If it is the rut, the cold weather has a way to turn things up and increase bugling activity.
When the temperatures are frigid, elk go into survival mode. Typically, this happens post-rut in November through February. During this time of year, elk will travel a long distance to find prime food high in nutritional value. It is common to see elk on their feet during sub-freezing temperatures, feeding mid-day on open south-facing slopes or local agriculture fields. Concentrate your hunts on agriculture by setting up blinds over food or southern-facing open slopes.
During light to medium rain activity, elk seem to be primarily unphased and continue their daily activity. If it is the rut, they will still rut; if it is pre or post-rut, they will feed into the morning hours and bed down in an area with cover. However, if the rain is substantial; you will usually see elk heading to cover early and remaining in their beds throughout the worst of it. If you can be in the mountains when the storm has passed, elk will typically get up from their beds to mill around and shake off the moisture. This is an excellent time to be glassing and set up a game plan for an evening stalk. Rain in the mountains has its benefits with providing quiet stalking ground as well as masking some slight movements.
Similar to rain, elk are seemingly unphased during light to medium snowfall. They will be going about their normal activities and feeding on the way to their bed and back. When the snow is extremely heavy or accompanied by high winds, elk will bed down and stay in their beds for a while. They typically will get up now and then to shake off the snow, but then bed down again. A good snowfall can provide excellent conditions to spot and stalk bedded elk or to find and follow fresh tracks.
Elk benefit from the wind and its directions. On a day with light to moderate breezes, they will travel into the wind in order to check for the scent of predators as they move. This is frustrating when you are trying to pattern elk and they constantly are changing their bedding areas and their travel corridors. A strong wind can benefit a spot and stalk hunter and allow you to sneak within range while the wind covers some of your movements; however, elk are on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary during these days. During a day with no wind, elk will solely use thermals to decide their paths of travel.
Though we cannot do much about the weather or moon phase, we can understand that elk behave differently during different weather patterns and moon phases and change our hunt strategies accordingly. For example, if it is hot, do not expect elk to move late into the morning or mid-day, except to water. If it is raining heavily, you can bet on finding elk bedding in thick cover with good protection from the elements. Find a glassing point and be ready for when the rain stops. If there is a wind, you can assume elk will move into it as they move up or down the mountains. Ultimately, a successful hunter understands and adapts to all of the changing aspects and is willing to find a way to make any weather work. Pay attention to the moon and weather and adjust your future hunts accordingly.