Over the past several years, I've written a few articles about how I like to merge the equinox and moon phase timelines into planning my annual archery elk hunts. Recognizing the profound impact these two factors can have on elk behavior, I have come to appreciate the importance of timing when it comes to the best elk hunting opportunities.
Elk season is almost upon us and now is the perfect time for this discussion. The question of precisely when to schedule your archery elk hunt is a common one among hunters and it comes with a myriad of considerations. While there's no definitive answer or magic solution, incorporating reliable factors into your planning can potentially increase your odds of encountering more elk during your hunt. Undeniably, this process is neither easy nor straightforward.
Having pursued elk in the vast western landscape for over three decades, the excitement and anticipation of each hunting season never seems to dwindle. As the season approaches, we find ourselves diligently juggling schedules, managing life's responsibilities and getting our significant others on board — all while eagerly counting down the days: #IsItSeptemberYet.
Of course, this excitement assumes you’ve had the good fortune of securing an elk tag. Today, that is not always an easy task. If you currently don't have an elk tag, be sure to check out a few recent videos Trail Kreitzer recorded on how he planned out an elk hunt after not having an elk tag in his pocket after the draws:
For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that you have a tag in your pocket and now it’s time to pick your perfect hunt dates.
This year, the equinox will occur on Sept. 23 and the full moon will be on Sept. 29. The equinox is the pivotal moment when daylight hours equal the night hours, signaling the waning of summer and the arrival of winter. After this date, the nights begin to grow longer once again.
While the equinox itself may not directly trigger the elk rut, it undoubtedly plays a substantial role in influencing the timing of this significant event. Experts agree that the elk rut is largely affected by changes in daylight hours associated with the equinox. The hormonal changes induced by the diminishing daylight prompt the elk's endocrine system to produce crucial hormones, such as testosterone in males and estradiol in females. This hormonal shift signals the onset of the rut.
In most western states, archery elk seasons coincide with the equinox timeframe and hunters can effectively utilize this knowledge in planning and scheduling their hunts.
I've explored the relationship between the equinox and moon phases throughout my hunting career and I’ve found this combination to be essential to my archery elk hunt planning. While the moon phase itself might not significantly impact the elk rut, it can have a considerable effect on hunting success and tactics.
My approach is simple. I want to zero in and place myself in the middle of the elk rut mania. If you’ve been in the backcountry during a rut-crazed bugle fest, you know exactly what I mean. These are incredible days in the mountains and they always leave a lasting impression.
It is important to keep in mind that there are always exceptions to this timeline and, in some western areas, I’ve seen some deviations. I utilize this same odds-multiplying strategy with my e-scouting and hunt planning work. Chasing elk is an odds game and my goal is always to stack as many odds in my favor as possible. I look at odds as they relate to the state, harvest and unit statistics as well as how bull elk might respond to calling or make themselves more visible for spot-n-stalk tactics. If you place yourself among the elk at the right time, you dramatically increase your odds of success.
In Montana, we have a very long archery season. I’m also incredibly blessed with a wife who allows me to spend several months in the backcountry each year. This remarkable combination allows me to chase rutting bulls with my bow each year in multiple states during the entire month of September and usually several weeks into October.
This has not always been the case. Like most elk hunters, I had a finite number of days I could spend in the mountains. Planning my hunts around the equinox and moon phases allowed me to maximize those precious days and increase my odds.
I’ve tweaked my theory slightly over the years, but I still feel that the best time to insert yourself among the elk is heavily weighted towards the 10 days leading up to the fall equinox and the seven to 10 days following. This certainly does not mean there is not good rutting, bugling or even hunting before or even after those days. It simply means that this is the timeframe when bulls are generally the most vulnerable. Remember: we are playing the odds game!
Early in September and, even, possibly late August in some areas, bulls begin to advertise and locate other bulls to establish their dominance. They sense the rut is coming and they begin to sound off, letting other bulls and cows know they are in the area. In the early days of September, bulls may respond to calls and be quite interested; however, at this time, you often need to be pretty darn close to get a real strong reaction out of them.
We have had this exact scenario happen to us over and over. We pack in early in September and hike several miles during those first days of the season using locating bugles. We get a few bulls to respond, but many of those bulls did not make a sound until we got within a few hundred yards of them. More often than not, our location bugles were virtually ineffective at any significant distance. This scenario forced us to stay on the move, do a lot of calling and set up for several cold-calling sequences.
The takeaway is that in those early rut days, the bulls seem to be interested in who is in the area, but less keen—even resistant—to responding or coming in from longer distances. The other problem during the early days is that younger, less mature bulls often come in silent, making them harder to anticipate.
As elk enter those magic days preceding and following the equinox, the bulls begin to find and smell more cows entering estrus. It does not take many cows coming into estrus to get the whole area on fire. Elk can act plain dopey when there are receptive cows around. This is the perfect time to take advantage of that weakness. As the equinox approaches, the testosterone is increasing and the bulls are becoming more aggressive and anxious. They are working hard to show dominance and draw cows to them.
During this time, bulls announce and proclaim their presence to attract more and more cows. Cows are looking to hook up with the most mature bulls in the area. As more cows continue to enter estrus, mature bulls will take more chances in an attempt to gather more cows. This can make them more susceptible to calling tactics and can make them more visible for spot-n-stalk methods. The five days leading up to the equinox is usually a great time to be among the elk.
During the 10 days preceding the equinox, hunting pressure and hunter calling will be escalating. Even so, I’m still able to find more bulls that are willing to respond. Bulls can quickly become call and encounter “educated” later in the season. This is especially true after the equinox. If you are able to hunt more remote areas, you may find more bulls willing to play the game for longer periods of time because they have not been exposed to as many hunters. If you hunt less remote, more pressured areas, it may be more advantageous to hunt the earlier part of the 10-day period or even before.
The closer you get to the actual equinox and the days following, the more established the elk herds and harems become. This is when herd bulls become more difficult to entice. They are still interested in breeding and can be very vocal, but they can be much harder to persuade with calls. At this point in the season, they have faced hunter contact, all sorts of crazy calling and, certainly, each other. Once a herd bull has established its harem, they are far less likely to leave their cows for a distant challenging bugle or even a cow call. It’s the bird-in-hand scenario. This is a great time to utilize spot-n-stalk methods.
For those who like to call elk, you might see and hear a lot of bugling, but getting an actual shot with stick and string might prove to be arduous. It can be a fun and exciting time, but it can also be quite frustrating. When herd bulls become more onerous, so do your odds. It's simple encounter math. Again, there are exceptions to every rule and those times make for amazing stories. In the end, however, success in elk hunting is a game of odds. The best elk hunters do everything they can to increase their odds.
In most areas, the majority of cows become pregnant during the first estrus cycle. Cows are only receptive to breeding for about 24 hours. In cases where cows don’t get bred during their first cycle, there is a second, third and, even, a fourth estrus cycle. Typically, a cow that has not been bred will return to a second estrus cycle in about 20 days. There can be some good rutting activity during the other cycles, but we are back again to evaluating the odds game. There certainly won’t be as much.
How does this combination apply to our hunt planning? Unlike some, I don’t believe the moon phase affects the elk rut much at all. I’m convinced that when cows come into estrus, it is game on, no matter what the moon is doing. The equinox is the key factor in determining the estrus cycle. The moon has little — if anything — to do with it.
However, as a hunter, I don’t think you should just ignore the moon phase. It may not change the estrus cycle, but it can dramatically affect your hunting success and especially your tactics.
Remember the full moon will happen on Sept. 29 and the equinox is on Sept. 23. Hunting elk during a full moon can be particularly challenging. Even so, I believe you must balance those special days running up to the equinox with the corresponding moon phases. A slight adjustment of only a few days could make a huge difference in your encounters and opportunities for a shot.
The more full the moon, the more likely the bulls may be active and rutting at night. This does not mean they can’t and won’t be active during the daylight hours. A lot can depend on rut timing, the number of cows in estrus, hunting pressure and weather, but you may need to adjust your tactics and timing.
I’ve found that during a full moon, hunting can be quite good during the mid-day. During the full moon time, the bulls have been in their beds since early that morning and seem to get restless about mid-day. Many times they will sound off or even respond to a bugle in the middle of the day. Many hunters miss those opportunities because they do not adjust to the elk’s patterns and, consequently, are not in a position to experience it.
Very early mornings during a full moon can also be gold. Get out very early while it’s still dark and use location bugles to locate elk during those hours. Once you locate them, place yourself in very close proximity. You may not have much time before they head for bedding areas, so you must get yourself into position in the darkness and be ready.
Another moon pattern I have noticed is that elk tend to be more active during daylight hours on the days leading up to a full moon as compared to the days following the full moon. It seems once they get used to running at night during the full moon period, it takes them a bit to get out of that pattern. Before the full moon, they are still used to moving during the day.
Elk hunting is never a sure thing — no matter what you do. You just cannot predict when success is going to happen. However, one thing I do know is that you can stack the odds in your favor.
The average hunter typically spends seven to 10 days chasing elk with a bow. This year, the moon phase during the month of September is not helping us out much. The moon will be full on Sept. 29 this year and the new moon is on Sept. 15. This means that the intensity of the moon will be increasing through and past the equinox date. This makes the days leading up to and the few days following the equinox even more enticing.
First hunt choice: Sept. 17 to Sept. 26: If I only had 10 days to hunt elk in 2023, these would be my dates. This date range allows you to hunt during the darker moon days and the critical days before and just after the equinox. The moon will be increasing in visibility a little each day as it moves towards its full stage on Sept. 29. This could be a great time to be chasing elk this year.
Second hunt choice: Sept. 14 to Sept. 23: My second hunt choice is a close call with my first choice. If those first-choice dates do not fall on the best days for work scheduling or maximizing weekends, this is a great second option. This option allows you to maximize two consecutive weekends during your 10-day hunt. The moon will be near its darkest phase early and you will still capture those run-up days to the equinox.
Third hunt choice: Sept. 1 to Sept. 10: Keep in mind that this will be the early stages of the rut cycle and the bulls might not be quite as aggressive. The moon will be getting darker each day during this period and it may help focus more rut activity during shooting hours. During this time, get out early and stay out during the middle of the day!
Remember: Any day hunting elk is better than not!
Also, be sure to check out my new OutdoorClass course, "Next Level E-scouting" where I discuss hunt planning strategies and in-depth e-scouting techniques.