What Is the Best Month to Hunt Elk?

Timing is everything in hunting, especially when it comes to elusive creatures like elk. An understanding of their habits and the impact of seasonal changes on their behavior is crucial for increasing your success rate. A well-timed trip not only increases your odds of fresh, organic, and healthy meat for your family but also provides a more memorable experience. So when should you set out for elk?

For bowhunters, September is generally the best months to hunt elk. This is when rutting begins and is the start of bowhunting season, causing increased elk activity and vocalizations, making bulls easier to locate. By default, November is the best month for rifle hunters.

There are certainly far more factors that go into an optimal time for hunting elk than just picking a month and rolling out, but in general, the start of fall through mid-October is a great time to pursue bull elk. This article will explore everything you need to know beyond a month on the calendar so you can time your extended hunt just right this season; we'll cover everything from elk behavior to seasonal changes, how they change the timing, and more importantly, why.

Untangling Elk Behavior

If you want to make the most of elk hunting, start with understanding their behavior. Contrary to popular belief, the leader of the herd isn’t a bull, but the matriarch - and the oldest cow at that. She's the boss, leading the entire herd, which usually consist of other cows and their calves.

If you’re wondering, "Where are the bulls?" For most of the year, they're off doing their own thing. Bulls prefer to move in "bachelor groups." They're not typically seen around the herd until it's time to impress the ladies during the rut. They show off their magnificent antlers and make a whole lot of noise to assert their dominance.

As for when you're most likely to spot elk, your best bet is during dawn and dusk, that’s because they are crepuscular, just like a house cat. When the sun's high, they're usually hanging back, conserving energy for their next move.

When Is the Elk Rut?

When it comes to elk hunting, timing is everything. The elk rut, AKA mating season, typically occurs in late summer and early fall, during which bulls are actively seeking cows and are much more vocal about their search. As hunters, this makes locating them far easier than other times of the year - the rut goes hand-in-hand with the success rate.

So if you want to maximize your chance of packing out an elk, then you have to know the ins and outs of this period, as well as the habitat and movement patterns.

What Percentage of Elk Hunters Are Successful?

The percentage of elk hunters who are successful varies from year to year and depends on several factors, such as hunting pressure, weather conditions, and location. In general, the success rate for elk hunts in the United States is around 10% to 20%, at the highest end Wyoming claims around 40% success rate, whereas Washington has a little less than 10% success rate, representing the low end. However, this varies widely depending on the state and hunting unit.

Strategies for Hunting Elk during the Rut

During the rut, elk behavior can be used to your advantage. One popular tactic is to imitate the bugle of a rival bull, triggering a dominant bull's desire to defend his territory and harem. Alternatively, hunters can use cow calls to draw in bulls looking for a receptive female.

Patience and persistence are key, as well as understanding the nuances of elk vocalizations. Elk are cautious creatures with keen senses (their sense of smell is remarkable) this means being careful as you approach taking special note of wind direction.

Elk Habitat and Movement Patterns

Outside the rut, glassing for elk can feel like pulling a needle from a haystack. This requires extensive knowledge of their behavior and habitats. For instance, elk often prefer areas with a mix of meadows for grazing and timber for cover.

Because of their crepuscular nature, elk may bed down during the day, using dense timber for cover or heading to north-facing slopes to stay cool. If your trip falls outside of the rut, both locations are good areas to focus on.

A Closer Look at All Elk-Hunting Months

The hunting calendar for elk is pretty straightforward, running from September through November - during this time, elk behavior is more predictable and thanks to the bravado of mating bulls, they’re easier to locate. But don't be fooled into thinking that's why we hunt them during these months. In reality, it's about regulations and ensuring sustainable hunting practices. There are a few exceptions to the rule, like shoulder season cow tags and special draws, but for the most part, your elk hunting is going to fall into this September through November timeframe.

Now that we've cleared the air, let's dive into what you can expect from each of these prime elk-hunting months.


September is often considered the best month for elk bowhunting, as it coincides with the peak of the rut and the start of bow season. Bulls are extremely active, vocal, and focused on finding cows, making them more susceptible to calls and easier to locate. The cooler weather and changing leaves create a picturesque and enjoyable hunting environment, setting the stage for a memorable backcountry adventure.


October's not just an extension of the rutting season but also a prime time for those archery hunters out there. However, as the weather becomes colder and the foliage starts to thin, elk begin to migrate to lower elevations, becoming more accessible to hunters. This shift in elk behavior combined with a decrease in hunting pressure, as September hunters wrap up their pursuits, makes October an ideal time to be in the field with a bow.


As we step into November, rifle season begins in most western states. This is the period when the hunting territories buzz with the highest concentration of hunters. The rut may have ended, but the elk continue to feed actively, which aids in locating them. While the descending cold of November benefits hunters in preserving the meat once an elk is downed, the competitive hunting environment demands adaptability.

December and January:

In contrast, December and January offer limited hunting opportunities. Typically, the only hunters out during these winter months are those carrying special tags for conservation-focused hunts, mainly targeting cows in hayfields or overpopulated areas. It's crucial to remember that the general elk hunting season wraps up around Thanksgiving in most Western states.

Factors to Consider Before Planning An Extended Elk Hunt

Although the prime months for elk hunting are generally September through November, several factors should be considered before planning your extended elk hunt. These factors include location, weather, hunting pressure, and personal preference, which can all impact your hunting experience.

Location Largely Determined by Your Tag

Hunting success hinges significantly on the location. Elk behaviors and migration patterns change based on the geography. Understanding your hunting terrain and aligning it with your valid tag area is a critical aspect of hunting. Conduct thorough research and engage local hunting communities for insights to fine-tune your strategies, ultimately raising the odds of a successful harvest.


Weather can significantly impact your elk hunting experience. For instance, heavy snowfall can push elk to lower elevations, making them easier to find. However, extreme weather conditions can make navigating the terrain more challenging and tracking your quarry more difficult. Needless to say, monitoring the weather and adapting your plans accordingly can make or break a successful hunt.

Hunting Pressure

Hunting pressure is another factor that can influence elk behavior. If an area experiences high hunting pressure, elk may become more nocturnal and elusive during daylight hours. Considering the hunting pressure in your chosen area and adjusting your approach accordingly will help you locate and harvest elk more effectively.

Personal Preferences

Some hunters may love hunting during the rut, while others may prefer the cooler temperatures and scenery of fall. A good place to start planning your elk-hunting trip should be plotting out your goals. Think beyond a head and quarter hind, rather, think about the experience, and what you want out of it. Perhaps, what you want to remember most. This can help you lead with the right preferences and priorities.

Timing Is Subjective and Heavily Regulated

In hunting, as in life, timing is often the key determinant of success, especially when pursuing elk. A deep understanding of their habits and the impact of seasonal changes on their behavior dramatically influences the odds of a successful hunt. 

Whether you're a bowhunter eying the months of September and October or a rifle hunter ready for November, it's important to remember that the hunt's success isn't solely decided by the calendar.

The point is, as you grasp the interplay of elk behavior, seasonal changes, and location restrictions, your hunting trips become less of a game of chance and more of a strategic pursuit with a hint of good fortune.