Of the many varied species that constitute North American big game, few are as iconic as elk. Their pursuit draws thousands of hunters to the forest each year, many of whom venture forth with the modest hopes of catching even a distant glimpse at a pair of bobbing antlers. Elk are challenging to hunt, and most who pursue them realize their chances of success are low enough to make any elk encounter a victory in itself. That said, you can improve your chances of drawing one in with some strategic calling.
Calling in a bull elk stands in stark contrast to any other form of big-game hunting. Unlike most other game we hunt, where the shot comes after hours of patient silence and a sudden glimpse of our quarry, with elk, the screaming bugle of a bull just beyond a distant tree in answer to our call is the moment we know we’ve done things right. This calling back and forth can sometimes last for hours, leaving a hunter breathless with anticipation as the bull draws closer, often moving loudly into view. Once this happens, the hunter has only to stay calm and make their shot—a different challenge entirely.
This moment can only be achieved through understanding and accurately translating the elk’s language, which is as varied and nuanced as any other language on earth. The key to success is learning an elk’s entire language, not simply how to blast out a single bugle call. Learn how to chirp like a cow, to squeak and squeal like a young bull, and the differences in aggressive and location bugles. Each elk you call in will have to be handled differently. You have to listen to what each bull is trying to say.
Most hunters start out elk calling in a rather similar fashion to when they start calling turkeys. They inevitably begin calling aggressively at first light, sending out belligerent bugles, hoping to hear an immediate response that will help them pinpoint their quarry and give them a place to start. It is also similar to turkey hunting in that these hunters quickly learn this is a mistake. Unless they are hunting on under-pressured private land, in the absolute extremes of the backcountry, or get tremendously lucky (fat chance), most bull elk are not going to respond to just any call.
Instead, they must be treated like an old, roosting gobbler who has heard it all before. A bull elk is not apt to start a conversation with just anybody. They need to be felt out, reasoned with, and experimented on. Their responses will tell the hunter how to proceed. When first starting out, the hunter’s best chance to call in an elk is with silence. Enter the area quietly and in a good location, then let the elk start the conversation.
Early in the morning, often just after shooting light, bull elk will often sound off with a bugle or two. They are either gathering their harem of cows together or simply letting other elk know they’re around. This is a key moment for figuring out how to proceed. Begin by aiming yourself in the bugling bull’s direction and responding to these early calls with some of your own. See how the bull reacts. Offer a few soft squeaks from a young bull or a few subtle cow chirps. If the bull reacts immediately to either, you’ve got a place to start. Try a plaintive bugle or two and see if he answers. Respond to his bugles accordingly with a mix of sounds. If he suddenly sounds closer, like he’s moving in to investigate, or suddenly goes silent, change your calling accordingly. You have to take the bull’s temperature, test his aggression, and see what he’s in the mood to do.
The response that most elk hunters get to their first calling sessions are typically meek-sounding, halfhearted bugles that don’t give much of an indication of commitment. A sort of “oh, if I must,” submissive sound that doesn’t get your heart pumping like the throaty blast of a proud, dominant bull. Although this may seem disappointing, this is not a sound to be ignored. Bull elk will often make this humble-sounding bugle simply because they’re curious as to what exactly is going on in your direction, which means that your calling was realistic enough to warrant a response. This is an elk that you should start moving toward instead of waiting for him to come to you.
While moving in the bull’s direction, begin to make additional subtle calls, such as gentle cow chirps and even calf calls. Convince the bull that you are simply a small group of elk moving in his direction. In turn he will generally move toward you as well, looking to link up with a cow, or simply to get in range for a look. Keep in mind, though, that bulls like this are on high alert. While moving toward them, be mindful of the wind and keep to cover as long as possible, stopping frequently so you can see the bull before he sees you.
The most crucial elements of successful elk calling include keeping the bull talking, keeping him moving toward you, and not getting too aggressive until he gives you reason to do so. If he is a lone bull looking for a cow, he may respond well and move in quickly to more aggressive calls coming from a cow ostensibly looking to breed. If he already has a harem, he may ignore cow calls but respond well to a sudden aggressive bugle, thinking another bull is moving in on his ladies. These are the best elk to find, as they will often come charging in looking for a fight before you’ve even set down your call.
However, often bulls with cows will be reluctant to leave what they already have to go looking for a fight. Play to his greed. If he responds to a challenge bugle but won’t commit to a fight, try adding in a few cow calls to the mix. Get aggressive with other sounds as well. Rake the brush with tree limbs, break sticks, mix in a few spike bull squeals. This can convince the bull to leave his cows because now there is something worth fighting for.
Hearing the trumpeting bugle of a bull elk, so close that the sound shakes the very ground you stand on as you wait patiently with your bowstring tight or your rifle level, is perhaps the pinnacle of one’s hunting career. But it takes a great deal of trial and error before a hunter can finally start speaking the right language.