How to Hunt Everyman's Elk

posted on October 5, 2012

As each bow season approaches, from some far recess of my brain the question inevitably surfaces: Is this the year I finally arrow a monster bull? Truth be told, the question lingers less as the years pass. Perhaps it’s because I realize my small house could never accommodate a head-and-shoulder mount of such proportions. Or maybe the thought of barbequing my way through a year’s worth of tougher meat is unpalatable.

I suspect the real reason is that, despite my love of elk hunting in high-country vistas, I’m not willing to devote an entire hunting season to passing up one bull after another, looking for Mr. Big. And getting within easy bow-killing range of any legal bull then doing everything right to make a clean kill is apparently plenty enough incentive and reward. Whenever I find myself standing over a 500- to 800-pound animal, I’m more in awe of its overall size than of its antlers. Sure, I’ll usually notice the bull’s headgear looked a bit larger when he was coming in and wish it were the other way around (ground shrinkage affects even meat hunters). But I’m still feeling the thrill of the hunt. I’m still on that heady adrenaline high that will soon be replaced with the dread of knowing I’ll spend the next umpteen hours skinning, quartering and packing out the bull.

If you’re like me and you are just looking to arrow a bull, with the tantalizing possibility of something big, you might do better forgoing many of the hunting strategies you’ve watched work so well on television, particularly those advocating pressuring bulls. No doubt they can be effective, and pressuring a bull is sometimes the only way to turn him, particularly when you’re chasing a herd bull with cows. But aggressive tactics more often than not spook younger bulls, not to mention repel mature elk that simply want to be left alone.

There are always exceptions, but if you want to appeal to the greatest number of potential targets, toning down your game plan is a good place to start.

Who Are You Calling For?
First thing to work on is your calling. Most hunters try to sound like the biggest, baddest bull in the woods. Why? Because all those deep, growly notes sound like a testosterone-crazed bull; they sound the way you think a rutting bull should sound. And while it may tickle you to no end making those sounds, trouble is most bulls within earshot won’t necessarily concur.

Contrary to popular belief, elk in rut aren’t constantly itching for a fight, and most actually spend considerable effort avoiding one. Whether it’s a herd bull trying to keep his cows, a subordinate bull that’s managed to snipe a few away from a herd bull, a young bull that’s happy with a few cows in hand, a bull that’s recently come out on the losing end of a fight or doesn’t yet have the heft to throw his weight against larger competitors … suffice to say there are lots of reasons an elk might stay tight-lipped upon hearing aggressive-sounding calls. Does this mean you should only cow-call? Not at all. Just leave your bad-to-the-bone attitude at home.

My buddy Jim Van Norman, who’s guided elk hunters for much of his life, once had a client who was a contest elk caller and insisted on doing the calling. Apparently the guy was phenomenal. Jim would instinctively look around for a bull every time he called. And more than a few bulls took notice. Trouble was, nothing came closer than 100 yards. Despite Jim’s pleas to call less aggressively, the client persisted—and ended up empty-handed for the week.

Starting Off Right
Since appealing to the greatest number of bulls is your prime goal when you head out each morning (which in turn increases your odds of working one within bow range), don’t handicap yourself by bugling loudly right off the bat. While a vast drainage full of elk might lie before you, being heard by every one of them isn’t necessarily going to increase your odds of calling in one. Like effective glassing, detecting game a mile away is counterproductive if you end up bypassing or spooking nearby prey. These days I’ll almost always try soft, drawn-out cow calls first for locating elk. They may not be heard across great distances, but at the very least they won’t spook or intimidate any bulls in the immediate vicinity. Moreover, if I do get a response, the bull usually won’t hesitate to come in—it is the rut, after all.

If sparse cow-calling doesn’t trigger a response, try stepping up the tempo by imitating a cow and calf talking back and forth, getting louder and more excited over time. You’d be surprised how far those sounds travel on a calm morning. Just make sure you’re well hidden and in a position to shoot should a bull come in quietly. Younger bulls, being less confident, often approach silently. If the area looks promising but nothing’s responded, wait at least five to 10 minutes before switching to bull sounds.

If you’ve ever heard a moan in response to bugling (I hear it quite frequently), understand a bull is making his presence known but is basically saying, “I’m here, but I’m not looking for trouble.” Similarly, an unsolicited moan is merely a bull wanting to know if other bulls are in the vicinity. It has no aggressive connotation, and it’s an excellent call for locating bulls that might otherwise not respond to excited calling. On par with the moan is the almost flute-like call of a spike, which might get bulls to bugle while intimidating no one. Sometimes I’ve got responses by just lightly raking a tree with a good-sized stick.

Still no luck? Then bugle like a small bull—high-pitched, with a little resonance but no growl. Try again three to five minutes later, this time with a little more excitement.

Your first bugle might get a bull’s attention, but only with subsequent bugles will he feel compelled to answer. It sometimes takes three or four bugles to goad a bull into action, but when an area looks promising and the wind is right, staying put and calling sparingly for 30 to 45 minutes makes more sense than moving on and possibly bumping bulls that were already sneaking in. And not just young, timid bulls, mind you: I’ve had plenty of nice 6-points come in silently, evidently to check out an unfamiliar-sounding bull in the neighborhood. That’s why being patient, giving curious bulls plenty of time to reach you, will produce more shot opportunities than calling for shorter durations and covering twice the number of miles.

Closing the Distance
Whether a bull comes to you or you go to him, if you’re hunting timber you’ll rarely get a glimpse of him until he’s within 30 to 80 yards. That means you’ll have to intuit how he’s reacting to your calls by sound alone. Obviously, if he’s still coming whatever you’re doing is working. Just remember that bulls will become more apprehensive the closer they get. If they’re coming to cow calls, they know another bull might be there and take exception; if they’re coming to bugles, they’re going to try to size up the competition before getting close enough for a scrap. Either way, less calling (and in different directions) will keep him guessing where you are and from hanging up.

You’ll also want to tone down your calling, particularly in the event you’re working a younger bull. If you’ve been bugling, get progressively squeakier and more passive; you’ll represent less of a threat and more of a curiosity. Or stop calling and lightly rake a tree trunk with a stick. If that doesn’t bring him in, throw in a few soft cow and calf sounds. Creating a non-threatening environment will give even young bulls the confidence to come closer.

What about when a vocal bull suddenly shuts up? While your first inclination is to think he’s seen or smelled you, don’t give up yet. If the wind is right he didn’t smell you, and chances are he’s sneaking in. In early September bulls will cover great distances to check out an unfamiliar-sounding bull. And immature bulls often sneak in silently no matter what time of the season.

Many hunters will locate bulls with bugles, then close the distance and switch to cow calls. This is an excellent tactic, as more bulls are apt to check out cow sounds than bull sounds. But it’s hardly foolproof. Where it fails repeatedly is in the early-season when young bulls have a few pre-estrus cows to themselves. They’ll respond to distant bugling, but show no apparent interest in nearby cows. Perhaps it’s the old adage, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Whenever these bulls have clammed up, I’ve had great success backtracking, circling in from another direction then squealing like a raghorn with a diaphragm call and no grunt tube. Usually they’ll come right in, I suspect because they’re confident they can prevail over a smaller interloper. That’s actually a good rule of thumb for any bull that goes cold: If what you’re doing isn’t working, try different calls from a different direction.

Herd bulls can be exceedingly hard to approach but can provide excellent opportunities for all sorts of satellite bulls. If you hear numerous bulls bugling back and forth, one after the other and cutting off each other, chances are a cow’s in heat and the herd bull is under siege. Even if they’re a mile away, waste no time getting there, because every bull within hearing range will be following suit.

Instead of trying to get close to the herd bull, which risks spooking everything, set up on the fringe of activity where the wind’s in your favor, then cow-call or bugle like a small bull. Or do both and imitate a small bull that’s picked up a few strays. Here’s where there’ll be fewer noses and eyes to detect you, but where all the frenetic activity will attract lots of bulls. Be sure to watch the woods away from the main ruckus; most of the times I’ve set up near a cow in heat I’ve earned shot opportunities from bulls entering the fray, not already in it.

The neat thing about hunting this scenario is you never know what you’ll see. I’ve had everything from raghorns to 300-inch 6-points walk right by me. Having a big bull suddenly materialize out of nowhere certainly gets my heart pumping fast.

Then again, so does any legal bull standing broadside at 15 to 30 yards.

The last elk I killed came to sparse cow-calling and expired not 10 yards from where my friend Bob was standing. The bull was a decent 6-point, and when late the next afternoon we finally got him 9 miles down to the trailhead, we met a group of hunters getting ready to pack in. One of the hunters smiled at the rack resting on one of our horses. “Sure glad you fellas got rid of one of the small ones for us!” he said. “We’re looking for that bull’s grandpa.”

“Anytime,” I responded. “It was my pleasure.” And it was.

Arrowing a trophy bull must be a heady experience, but I’m still perfectly happy downing bulls a trophy hunter wouldn’t look at twice. I bet you are, too. 


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