By Drew Dockstader, September 2014
When I was 11 years old I was with my dad overlooking a large aspen patch in the Manti mountain range in Utah. We were actually looking for my brother-in-law who had drawn a coveted elk tag and had gone up a couple days ahead of us. It was getting close to dark when I heard that shrill melodic sound for the first time. I asked my dad what it was, and he told me it was a bull elk. From that day on the sound of a bugle from a bull or a mew from a cow elk has stopped me in my tracks so I can listen and try to imagine what is going on. I have always had a fascination with elk and trying to imitate the sounds they make. When I was younger there were not many manufactured calls on the market, so we improvised. Some of my earlier calls were made from copper tubing or a flex connector used in gas line hookups. Since there were not that many elk tags available in those days in Utah, there were not many hunters and the elk responded to just about anything that made a shrill whistle, but as elk and tag numbers grew more people started to call elk, and as a result the elk became more wary of bad calling.
In the early 80’s a guy by the name of Wayne Carlton came out West from Florida to Colorado. He had been playing around with a latex turkey mouth call and had started to make some pretty impressive elk sounds with it. Of course Wayne could make all kinds of sounds, from a raccoon and dog fight to the wailing sounds of an ambulance. He launched a company called Carlton’s Calls, and I got ahold of one of his cassettes on elk calling and purchased some of his mouth reeds. I was pretty hard to be around or travel with for a while when I was practicing my calling techniques. The main point of all this is that I believe that Wayne launched an entire industry that was dedicated to calling wildlife and made calling not only elk and moose but also predators like coyotes and bear a fun option to spot and stalk.
Since that time I have had many opportunities to be around elk while hunting, guiding, or just getting close to a herd that I can watch to listen and learn. Doing the latter will give you a wealth of knowledge as to what vocalizations elk make. You can tell a lot about what a single elk or herd is doing just by interpreting the vocalizations of the bulls, cows, and calves. By learning when and why they make different vocalizations, you can become a better elk hunter by interpreting the sounds either to help you make your stalk or to call them to you with various elk sounds and calls.
Another very important lesson I have learned over the years is when not to call. If you are hunting where there has been a lot of hunting or scouting pressure, either from the existing or past hunts, elk will be more wary for sure and an ill-advised call can send them running. Many times this happens when there are not many elk herds in an area and the elk know it, so any call from you or another elk puts them on alert or causes them to use their best defense, which is to flee. Sometimes you are better off to just listen for the calls and move in. Let’s talk about some of the calling techniques and where, when, and why you would use them.
First, let’s talk about the bugle. Even if you are the best elk bugler in the land and have won countless elk bugling contests, if you use it at the wrong time, the hunt can be over, at least for the time being. Bull elk bugle for many reasons. From my experience, I have learned that one of the main reasons they bugle is to communicate with other bulls or cows. Before they started to rut, most of these elk were buddies and hung out together. Then, like us human males, when the women get involved things can change, but they still recognize each other’s bugle and like to stay in touch, sometimes just to say that I am over here, so you stay over there.
An example of this bull communication that I have observed is when a bull is going to a wallow oftentimes he will bugle from the trees before he proceeds to the wallow. If there is already a bull at the wallow, most of the time he will bugle back. This usually stops the incoming bull from proceeding until the bull at the wallow bugles when he is leaving. They really try to avoid contact with another bull that might kick their butt! I have used this knowledge when guiding an archery hunter to answer an incoming bull and then leave my hunter at the wallow while I retreat away from it, bugling a couple times. The bull came on in, and the hunter was able to get the shot.
I have had many hunters and other guides tell me that you can never call in a herd bull with a bugle or a cow call and that it is a waste of time. I will admit that it is hard to do, but it can be done on some occasions, with the example above being one of them. If it is hot and the herd bull is busy chasing satellite bulls away and constantly having to gather his harem, he is going to get hot and thirsty and will seek water, sometimes several times during the day. This provides several options to choose from, depending on the situation. If the bull has been patterned and hits the same water source each time, then all you have to do is sit the water or the trail going to the water and calling may not be needed, except maybe to stop the bull for a shot. If you just observed the bull leaving his cows and you cannot intercept him, this may give you a chance to get close to his cows and make him think another bull has moved in on his harem. Cows make a certain whiny call when they are being harassed by a bull, and by imitating this along with a young bull bugle you can sometimes cause the herd bull to come in to run you off.
One mistake I have learned not to make anytime I have a bull coming to me is to get really quiet. If the bull cannot hear you anymore, he is either going to leave or stay in cover and try and circle you to pick up your scent. If he is coming in screaming at you, scream back, but sound a little less aggressive than he does. If you are hunting with someone, have them stay put while you retreat a little ways from the bull, all the time raking the brush and making some noise while staying out of sight and smell of the bull. This technique works very well, especially if you have two people, but this can also be productive for a single hunter.
The cow call is still the most used and most versatile call you can carry. Like bugle calls, there are many manufacturers with all kinds of cow calls, some are good and some are just a gimmick. Personally, I like a latex mouth call, but there are various plastic reed models that sound pretty good as well. I like the latex reed because I can leave it in my mouth, allowing hands-free operation if I need to stop a bull for a shot, and it is always ready. Most of the time if I do not need to be hands-free, I will use it through my grunt tube to add distance and resonance. I use the reed for bugles as well as cow calls and an occasional dying dog call for amusement if I happen to call in another hunter. I use both double and triple latex reeds.
Cow calls can be used in many circumstances. They can be used to calm a spooked herd if you inadvertently bump them while walking through the woods and they have not winded you. They can also be used to mask the sounds of your movement. In areas with a lot of elk, the same whiny cow call described above can stir up the bulls after they have seemed to be going to bed in the morning, sometimes getting one to walk through a clearing for a shot. Oftentimes a bugling herd bull is letting the cows know where he is, and he expects the cows to come to him. With that in mind, making the right cow call while closing the distance on a herd bull will sometimes get you in range for a shot. There are many times imitating a lost cow or calf call can bring a cow to you from a harem and then, with some luck, the herd bull comes to gather the cow. I have used the lost cow or calf call many times with success. One thing to remember here is that the cow is going to circle you to get your scent the same way a bull does, so you need to be mindful of this on your setup.
On a previous hunt where I was guiding an archery hunter, I called a cow out to me and moved away from the hunter while I was calling the cow. All the time the cow was in sight of the herd bull. He was watching her very intently, and when she went out of his sight he bugled at her. At that time I did the whiny cow call followed by a young bull bugle, and that brought the herd bull running and screaming past my hunter.
There are many other circumstances when calling is warranted and preferred, especially when you are hunting thick cover like large aspen groves. Sometimes calling is the only chance you are going to have at harvesting a bull. One main tip to remember is to always do your homework and be where the elk want to be. It is almost impossible to call an elk to somewhere he is not comfortable. Position yourself in or near the path or destination of the herd, if possible, and you will have better luck. Pay attention to what the wind and thermals are doing throughout the day where you are hunting.
It is impossible in this short article to cover all of the techniques and situations associated with calling, but if you are not calling elk during the rut, you are missing out. If it wasn’t for the rut when the bulls become stupid, there would be far fewer of them on trophy room walls and in the record books. Good luck hunting and calling!