Planning your 2019 archery elk hunt by using the moon and equinox

How to stack the odds of bugling bulls in your favor

Mark Livesay

Elk season is fast approaching! When exactly is the ideal time to schedule your archery elk hunt? This is the magic question and the one I get asked most often. Of course, many factors are at play and the answer is not always easy or straightforward.

I’ve been chasing elk out West for over 25 years and the anticipation never seems to dull. During the off-season, most of us juggle our calendars, butter up our wives or significant others and arrange our work commitments to accommodate for that precious and anticipated time in the mountains. This all assumes you are among those lucky enough to have an elk tag in your pocket. Now is the time to evaluate and plan out your potential hunt dates.

Last year, I wrote the article, How to use the equinox and moon phase to time your archery elk hunt. That article dealt with using the equinox and moon phase to plan your 2018 archery elk hunt. Here we are a year later and in 2019, the full moon will occur on Sept. 14, which is right in the middle of prime elk rut action. This could make things a little more challenging, but the fact remains that the rut will be on and that means we need to be out there.

The 2019 moon phase and equinox timing does present a new set of challenges, so I felt I should update this article for the upcoming archery elk season. Even with the moon phase quandary this year, using the equinox and moon phases to plan your archery elk hunt could really help stack some odds in your favor.

Stack the Odds in Your Favor

The equinox and moon phase combination continues to play an integral part in the planning of my annual archery elk hunts. Even so, I think it’s important to mention that any days that you get to spend chasing elk is better than those days you don’t. My approach is pretty 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 and always leave a lasting impression.

As you read this article, keep in mind there are always exceptions. I utilize the same odds strategy that I use with my digital scouting methodology. Chasing elk is an odds game and my goal with both is to stack as many odds in my favor as possible. Odds not only as they relate to the state, harvest and unit statistics, but also the odds of how bull elk might respond to the calling tactics I use during the rut and archery season. If you place yourself among the elk at the right time, you dramatically increase your odds of success.

When Is the Best Time?

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I live in the big sky and big bull state of Montana. This equates to a liberal and very long archery season. I’m also incredibly blessed with a wife that allows me to spend over 100 days in the backcountry each year. This remarkable combination allows me to chase rutting bulls in multiple states during the entire month of September and usually several weeks into October.

I have not always had this kind of freedom. 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.

Today, most experts agree that cow elk enter their first estrus cycle right around the fall equinox. If you are unfamiliar with the equinox, it is the only day when the sun rises due east and sets exactly due west. This is an incredibly special time in the world of archery elk hunting.

The date does not fluctuate much from year to year and the peak of the breeding cycle usually falls within five to 10 days of the fall equinox. In 2019, the fall equinox is on Sept. 23. If you want to get specific, it is at 1:50 a.m. MST.

With that date in mind, I feel the best time to insert yourself among the elk is heavily weighted towards the 10 days leading up to the fall equinox—not necessarily on the equinox itself. This certainly does not mean there is not good rutting, bugling or even hunting before or after those days. It simply means this is the timeframe when bulls are generally the most vulnerable. Remember, we are focused on playing the odds game!

Early Season Gets Things Started

Early in September, possibly even August in some areas, bulls begin to advertise and locate other bulls to establish their dominance. They sense the rut is coming and they are sounding off to let 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 had this exact scenario happen over and over this past season. We packed into the Montana backcountry on Sept. 2, which was opening day in Montana. We hiked several miles during those first days of the season using locating bugles. We got a few bulls to respond, but those bulls did not make a sound until we got within a few hundred yards of them. 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 several cold calling sequences.

We did have success. In the first 15 days of the season, we called in 18 bulls—all to less than 40 yards. All of those bulls either responded from very close range or came in silent. Many of those bulls came in groups—and/or crazy fast—and some with no regard to wind direction.

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.

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The Magic 10 Days

As elk enter those magic 10 days preceding 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 bulls are also becoming more aggressive and anxious. They are working hard to show dominance and draw cows to them, but are just beginning to establish and build harems.

During this time, bulls announce and proclaim their presence to attract more and more cows. Cows are looking to hook up with bulls with the biggest antlers and, perhaps, the most enticing bugles. 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—both cow calls and challenge bugles. Five days out from the equinox is usually a great day to be among the elk.

They Are Less "Educated"

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 and more pressured areas, it may be more advantageous to hunt the earlier part of the 10-day period.

When Herds Become Established

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 quite 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, weather conditions and, certainly, each other. Once a herd bull has established his 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.

Sure, 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.

Focus on the First Estrus Cycle

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 rutting activity during the other cycles, but we are back again to evaluating the odds game. There certainly won’t be as much.

How to Combine the Equinox with the Moon Phases?

How does this combination apply to our hunt planning? Unlike some, I don’t believe the moon phase changes the actual dates of the elk rut. 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.

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Side note: Moon phase calendars are provided to INSIDER members inside every Unit Profile. You can start to access this data by using Filtering 2.0.

Side note: Moon phase calendars are provided to INSIDER members inside every Unit Profile. You can start to access this data by using Filtering.

Remember the full moon will happen on Sept. 14 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 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, the 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 are, consequently, not in a position to experience it.

Very early mornings during a full moon can also be gold. Get out very early, in the dark and use location bugles to locate elk in those dark 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 in position early 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 can’t predict when success is going to happen. But one thing I do know is that you can stack the odds in your favor.

First, Second and Third Choice 10-day Hunt Options

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 certainly not helping us out much. The moon will be full on Sept. 14 this year—right in the middle of all the prime time rut action. The full moon could make things a little more challenging, but the fact remains that the rut will be on and, ultimately, those are the odds we are looking for. This year, make sure you’re out in the dark hours of the morning and make sure you stay out all day to catch any mid-day action!

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The 2019 September equinox and moon phase elk hunt planner. Source: Mark Livesay

The 2019 September equinox and moon phase elk hunt planner. Source: Mark Livesay

First Hunt Choice

If I only had 10 days to hunt elk in 2019, my first choice would be Sept. 15 to 24. This date range will put you in those critical days during the run up to the equinox. The moon will be fading a little each day as it moves towards its waning crescent stage on Sept. 24.

Second Hunt Choice

My second hunt choice is really a toss-up with the first choice. If those first choice dates do not fall on the best days for work for scheduling or maximizing weekends, this is a great second option. I would start my hunt on the weekend of Sept. 13. This option allows you to maximize two consecutive weekends during your 10-day hunt. Yes, during the first few days the moon will be moving towards full, but this range still includes all 10 of those prime days leading up to the equinox.

Third Hunt Choice

My third choice would be the weekend of Sept. 5. During this range, you will need to keep in mind this could still be in the early stages of the rut cycle and the bulls might not be quite as aggressive. They will still respond but may come in silence. You will be hunting the early stages of the rut as we move towards the full moon on Sept. 14. Get out early and stay out during the middle of the day!

Bonus Fourth Hunt Choice

This year could present an additional opportunity. A few western states open their archery elk season on the last few days of August and then run into September.

A new moon occurs on Aug. 30. This is, of course, very early in the rut stages, but I do love hunting elk during dark moon times. This year, Montana’s archery elk season does not start until Sept. 7, so I’ve planned an additional archery elk hunt in Idaho that will start on Aug. 30. I’m planning to hunt the first six days of the season. This hunt may call for some adjusted tactics, but I’m excited to see how the elk respond to those early season dark moon days.

Remember: Any day hunting elk is better than not!

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