Best Dates for Bowhunting Trophy Elk

Best Dates for Bowhunting Trophy Elk

Best Dates for Bowhunting Trophy Elk

By Dave Hoshour

Is there a best time to be in the field with a stick and string pursuing a trophy bull elk? There definitely is for deer. What about elk?  

Pope and Young Records for Elk

To find out, I went to Pope and Young Club’s record book online. I wanted to look at monster bulls taken with a bow and I consider 350 and better a huge bull. So, I asked for all bulls over 350 gross in the 11 western states taken since 2000.

Here’s the breakdown by state.

Pope & Young 350 Entries Since 2000 Treemap

I don’t know about you, but the number of entries from Oregon and Washington surprised me by being larger than expected and Idaho came in with fewer than I would have thought, only third from last. California is the sliver of blue in the corner and like the other coastal states, only looks at Rocky Mountain typical elk.

Colorado also surprised me a bit. It has the nation’s largest elk herd but most people don’t see it so much as a trophy elk state as say Nevada, Utah and Arizona

Day of Harvest

Next, I plotted out the day of harvest for all the entries since 2000 that grossed at least 350 and put a LOESS trendline on it to smooth the results.

Pope & Young 350 Entries Since 2000

First thing, the chart is remarkably symmetrical. It looks nothing like a chart would for deer.

Second, there is a definite peak time and across the West that turns out to be Sept 11 to Sept 20 with 28 entries on both dates.

Prior to that range, the first week of September only comes in with 10 to 20 entries a day and just a day or so after the peak it drops sharply into the end of September.

So, the next question is why? The three candidates are the timing of the rut, moon phases and how many hunters are in the field.

State Season Dates

Western Elk Seasons 2020

As you can see, three states open for archery in late August and only Montana is open after September ends, so the dropoff afterward is to be expected. But even though Nevada, Utah and Oregon are open before September, they’re not putting many mega-bulls into the book during August.

By September 5 every state except Arizona, Washington and California is open and if it were more like deer or antelope, you would expect that first week to be the biggest. It’s big, but the peak isn’t for another week.

So, while the number of hunters is a big factor, it has to be moon phases or the timing of the rut that account for the rest of why mid-September is the peak of the archery elk trophy-taking endeavor.

Moon Phases

Because I look at almost 20 years of data, the effect of moon phases, while they are important in any particular year should cancel out, so that leaves the timing of the rut as the other big factor.

Having said that, let’s talk about when to plan your hunt for 2020.

Ideally, you want to hunt during days when there are dark night skies. Here’s the moon phase chart for September 2020.

Moon Phases Sept 2020


  • You don’t necessarily have to be out there the first week, in fact, hunter pressure is probably less the 2nd and 3rd week
  • If you only have one week to hunt archery elk, the statistics would say that your best bet is September 11 – September 18.
  • Check and adjust for the moon phase. Ideally, you want hunt a dark moon. In 2020, September 11 is the waning quarter moon and September 20 is the waxing quarter moon, so that reinforces the dates I mentioned.

Here are a couple more comments from Guy

  • Based on the moon phase calendar for this year, September 16, 17 and 18 should be the best three days of the month and the elk rut to hunt this year. For the first time in more than a few years, the moon phase cycle will support a dark moon during peak elk rut dates.
  • The weather has been very favorable this year for antler growth north of Interstate 70 and the summer is so far turning off very cool and damp. This should bode well for some big bulls, that will peak out in their rut activity right smack in the middle of the historically peak kill dates for big bulls during the week of September 11 to September 20th

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