When it comes to elk hunting, I’m a beginner. Actually, it would be more accurate to say, I’m beginning. There is a lot I don’t know, and a bit that I think I know, but probably don’t. One of the things that I used to think I knew something about was calling elk. After all, it is pretty simple – you have the sound of a bull, and the sound of a cow – two sounds, two calls.
But I knew it wasn’t that simple, so I began to do some more research. What I discovered is that there is a lot that one can learn about calling elk. In Whitetail hunting you may throw out a grunt at a buck, hoping to get his attention; but when hunting elk you need to do more than just throw bugles out trying to get a bull to respond. Elk are very social with one another – they “talk” to one another, and they have a lot to say. The most effective elk callers understand a bit about what elk “say”, and they know what to say back, or just as importantly – when to not respond at all.
For example, bull elk will bugle with various types of bugles for various reasons. At times an appropriate response may be to bugle back, but how so? Should you respond with dominance and force, hoping to challenge this bull? If the bull was aggressive and ready for a fight to defend his cows that may work, but if it wasn’t an aggressive bugle of a herd bull, you may have sent the wrong type of invitation (said the wrong thing!) and the bull may turn and flee away from you.
Another thing that I’ve learned hunters tend to get hung up on, is measuring the success of their calling by the response of other elk. So if you call, and an elk calls back, then you are saying the right thing. But remember that…
A “successful” call isn’t about getting a vocal response; it is about getting closer to elk.
You can have a bull bugling his head off at you, but if he isn’t coming in to your position, what good is his response if you are just sitting there and waiting? Anytime you call, you need to be ready for anything! A bull can quickly and silently respond to your calls, and will easily catch you off-guard if you aren’t looking for him to come in because you didn’t hear him respond. On the other hand, when you do get a response you need to analyze it… Are response calls coming from the same location? Are they getting closer or further? Are they getting more or less aggressive?
When we talk about “saying” the right thing to elk, we are trying so send the right message at the right time. These messages can include…
Locate – As I mentioned previously, elk are very social. Sometimes the reason that elk call is simply to locate other elk. A lone bull may bugle to get a response, just as the hunter hopes to do the same. Cows will also make social location calls if they are trying to relocate the herd.
Challenge – This is the bugle that we all hope to hear. Bull elk will challenge one another, or just hope to avoid a challenge by showing the dominance of their bugle, followed by grunts and/or chuckles.
Seduce – Making the right type of cow sounds can get a bull fired up for love, but making just any old cow sound may leave him uninterested. Knowing the difference can be vital for hunting the rut.
Collect/Rescue – More than just a location sound, the panic and urgency of a lost cow can trigger amazing responses from elk that are looking to collect or rescue the lost elk.
Calm – This isn’t necessarily a message that an elk sends, but it is a tactic that we need to be prepared to use. There are times when an elk will catch our movement, noise or just a bit of abnormal scent, and if they aren’t totally spooked, may send an alerted/inquisitive call. Our proper response here is critical in trying to tell the alarmed elk that we are just one of them.
This is just an example of the different reasons that elk use calls, and I hope it helps you see that there is more to calling elk than just a bull sound and a cow sound. That said, I also feel the tension when talking about advanced topics like this – it can be easy to over-complicate hunting. But when it comes to elk hunting, I think that making a conscious effort to understand an elk’s calls is one of the greatest tactics that you can take into the field. Calling is an integral part of elk behavior, so I believe it should be an integral part of our understanding as elk hunters.
When it comes to understanding why elk make certain vocalizations, and what a hunter’s appropriate response should be, I highly recommend the resources of ElkNut Outdoor Productions. The resources are the product of Paul Medel, aka the “ElkNut”. Paul is an elk hunter with decades of experience, and more than a hunter – he is a student of elk. I have had the pleasure of talking with Paul on a couple of occasions and his passion for elk, and desire to help elk hunters is second to none.
I hope that this article has begun to help you realize why elk calling is such an important part of elk hunting, and why it is important to learn what to say to elk, and now just how to make an elk sound with a call. Be sure to check back for more articles on this topic!