As elk hunters, we don’t always have the luxury of hunting elk during the “prime” week each season. Even if we are able to carefully choose when we hunt elk, there are multiple factors that can affect how productive that week might be for elk hunting. Heat, moon phases, intensity of the rut, hunting pressure — they are all contributing factors that can affect the outcome of a hunt.
Since we aren’t able to control the heat, and hunting pressure is somewhat unpredictable, I’ll focus on two factors that are worth considering as we head into the elk woods this fall:
Timing of the Rut and Moon Phases.
Timing of the Rut
The amount of light entering a cow elk’s pupil is what 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 when the day and night are of equal duration, and for 2016 it occurs Sept. 22. So if you’re looking for the peak rutting “action,” the Sept. 17-27 should get you close.
Personally, for archery season, I prefer to hunt before the peak of the rut. Once the peak rut kicks in, the bigger bulls can be much more difficult to call in. There will be a lot more calling action during this time, but the effectiveness of calling decreases for sure. Most years, I prefer to hunt from the 8th to the 18th or so. This provides a great transition time between the pre-rut and the peak-rut, and calling can be incredible during this time. However, there is one more factor to consider before I blindly put in for this week of vacation — and that is the moon phase.
Hunting elk during a full moon can bring its share of challenges. As the moon grows from a new moon to a full moon, elk spend even less time out and about during daytime hours. With the added pressure of hunters being in the woods in addition to the bright full moon, elk become more nocturnal. They use the moon’s illumination to feed and rut at night, and seek refuge in thick cover to rest during the day.
The combination of heat and a full moon can spell disaster for conventional dawn and dusk elk hunting tactics. The window of opportunity during this time can be very small. Even when you have a solid idea of where the elk will be found at first light and are able to position yourself as close as possible to get set up, it can be very frustrating to find the elk already on the move and headed back to their bedding grounds.
However, there are definitely several tactics that can increase your success, even if you are hunting during a full moon. The perfect scenario I can think of would be a full moon hitting early in September (around the 5th), waning into the week before the fall equinox, and going completely dark at the start of the peak rut (around the 19th). This scenario would provide some awesome calling action from the 8th to the 18th, and hard rutting action from the 18th to the 28th as the moon becomes full again.
In 2016, the full moons land Aug. 18, Sept. 17 and Oct. 16. For September, this means that the moon will be fairly bright from Sept. 12 to Sept. 20. Not ideal, as that is the timeframe I’d prefer it to be dark, but it is workable. I will break September into three sections to evaluate when I want to hunt.
For early-season hunting tactics, including finding mature bulls away from the herds, I would target the dates between the 1st and the 10th. There will be limited moonlight, which is a great thing for hunting during this time. I usually like hunting the following week, but since it lands right during the full moon, I would at least recognize that elk activity during daylight hours is going to be somewhat limited from the 10th to the 20th. The last 10 days of September are often accompanied by very vocal elk, but this week can also prove difficult to pull rutting bulls away from the cows. If you combine that week with a full moon, it can be incredibly frustrating. Fortunately, for 2016, the moon will be waning which could make for some great all-day elk hunting action during those last 10 days.
The rifle seasons in many states open during mid-October, so it’s important to recognize that in 2016, there will be a full moon hitting right about this time. A full moon in mid-October can be a challenge, as the elk are naturally starting to transition into the post-rut and become less active anyway. Throw a full moon and a sudden increase in hunting pressure into that time frame, and elk movement during the day can become quite limited. If I was able to choose, I’d probably consider holding off a week, and hunt as the full moon starts to dissipate, sometime between the 20th and 31st. I’d also target primary feed sources that the elk will be concentrating on during this time frame.
From my experience, hunting the days after the full moon leading up to a new moon has consistently held the best huntable bugling action. If that phase also happens to land during the days leading up to the peak rut, even better. Don’t sell yourself short, though — midday hunting during a full moon can be pretty insane for both archery and rifle hunters. Understanding the effects of the moon phase on the elk rut can help you plan when to hunt, but also help you understand how to hunt as well.
Corey Jacobsen of Boise is a nine-time World Elk Calling champion and owner of Elk101.com. He also provides elk hunting content and information through the University of Elk Hunting Online Course. For more information, visit www.Elk101.com.