Killer Elk Calling: Season-Long Strategies

Elk are the most-vocal members of the deer family in North America. They aren’t like a moose that will call and grunt during the rut, then revert back to a life of virtual silence.

by Mark Melotik

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

Big. Vocal. Social to a fault. The vast majority of the time you’ll hear a herd of elk well before you see its individual members. Here are tips to ensure that when you start ‘talking elk,’ you’ll be singing the right tune.

ElkCall9B 600_edited-1Elk are the most-vocal members of the deer family in North America. They aren’t like a moose that will call and grunt during the rut, then revert back to a life of virtual silence, as they look for solitude in large tracts of remote forest. No, elk are social creatures that interact daily within their herd structures; their gregarious nature also means they vocalize and communicate with each other on a regular basis. Elk may not always be looking for love, but what they do say can certainly be heard by others within their social community.

ElkCall2 600Hunters who learn to recognize and understand different elk calls have a huge advantage during the different phases of a hunting season. With some elk seasons opening as early as August, bulls are waiting to shed the velvet off their antlers and start sorting out the pecking order with their local peers.

ElkCall12B 600One of the earliest bulls I ever called in was duped on August 28, when my son and I were bowhunting a forested area intersected by cutlines growing high-protein grasses and clovers. We spotted the bull at a distance and stalked to within 200 yards before pulling out our cow calls. When finding yourself in this type of situation, a quick check of your smartphone and HuntStand app can confirm the wind direction, and tell you the best way to approach to keep your ScentCone in your favor.

ElkCall20 600_edited-1Conditions were ideal that day, and all I had to do was get within earshot of the bull and sound like a couple of lonely ladies that hadn’t been claimed by one of the area’s more-dominant bulls. We used two different cow calls to belt out high-pitched, excited chirps, and made it sound like a couple of cows were closing in on the cutline’s edge to feed, more or less mimicking the actions of the bull. The reaction I got from that bull will forever be embedded in my mind. After my first attention-drawing calls, I followed with more-excited, “longing” calls. Instantly, the bull turned sideways and ran down the line towards me, bucking his back legs in the air and trotting with an enthusiastic sideways gait. To say he was eager was an understatement. The bull ran to within 50 yards and my son, who had fallen back 60 yards, let out a chirp; the bull walked right to me and stopped broadside. A well-placed arrow put elk in the freezer early that year, and we watched the bull tip over just 50 yards from where we stood. An incredible hunt to be sure.

ElkCall18 600_edited-1During the rut it can be important to use both cow and bull calls. Both can be required to draw the local bulls into range, no matter how you are hunting. Locating elk is the first step, and cow calling loudly, aggressively, and somewhat annoyingly is sometimes the best way to get a response. If another cow doesn’t sound off back at you to let you know the location of the herd (or offer a response that instructs you in no uncertain terms to shut up), a bull will likely acknowledge your position. Cows coming into heat can act rather randy, and the bulls and other cows know it. Sounding annoying can be advantageous.

ElkCallAppGetting cows or bulls to respond is always a good thing. Last fall we bugled at a bull to pinpoint his location, but instead of rushing in on him we went back to our vehicle, drove for 10 minutes to get the wind in our face, and started our stalk through some dense alders, where we suspected the bull was held up. Again, smart use of the HuntStand app, with its detailed maps found in the “Satellite,” “Terrain,” and “Road” map overlays, can show you not only the lay of the land but also creeks, wetlands, access lines and obscure roads. Knowing about such obstacles, or maybe the existence of a clear pathway forward, is a huge advantage that can help you start off your stalk with the odds in your favor. We knew the bull was in dense cover and wasn’t likely to move, but our knowledge of elk, an overview of the area, and hunting smart eventually brought the bull right into our challenge and cow calls, which made him think part of his harem was being claimed by a rival. That’s the beauty of effective calling.

ElkCall17 600The September rut is always one of my favorite times to call elk, but to be honest, the entire month of October has been more productive for me over the years. When the rut is in full swing, bulls push their cows into the nastiest cover they can find, to hide and protect their female commodities. But this, undoubtedly, makes them hard to find. To make matters worse, a call-shy bull can up and move his herd without ever making a peep, if he can get away with it. After the main rut is over, bulls are more tolerant, and cows that didn’t get bred on their first cycle, or are late bloomers, can be the best drawing card a hunter can use.

ElkCall21 600_edited-1Cow calling anytime in October, which most hunters consider the post-rut, has filled 75 percent of my tags over the years. Make no mistake, bulls that are fresh off the rut remember the sounds of a lovesick cow, and can be quick to respond. October bulls often show up without even answering, no doubt trying to avoid drawing the attention of other bulls in the area.

ElkCall4 600During the post-rut elk tend to go back to their regular feeding habits and form larger herds, making them easier to find. Calling around the periphery of where elk live will almost always draw the attention of a bull. Use your HuntStand app to set waypoints where you find fresh sign; knowledge of good concentrations of fresh tracks, scat, game trails and beds can be like putting puzzle pieces together on your map to pinpoint where elk live. You can then use the terrain and environmental information in the app to make smart decisions on how to hunt the area.

ElkCall5 600Do bulls continue to bugle late into the season? You bet they do. If there are cows in the herd that haven’t been bred by November or even December, they will start fights between the herd’s bigger bulls. Two years ago I shot my biggest Alberta bull in late November. We heard him bugle and fight with another bull the night before, so we set up in the area the following morning only to have close to 70 elk walk right in front of us. This is a perfect example of how to use technology on your phone to sort out the pieces of an elk hunt, to put you in the right location to score.

ElkCall15 600_edited-1I never leave home without my elk calls, no matter what season I’m hunting. I took my son on a late-season cow hunt and with fresh snow, we tracked a herd of 13 animals to where they bedded. I always have a cow call in my mouth or a bulb-operated model in my pocket, to respond instantly when needed. We were headed into dense alders and willows when the herd of elk exploded from their beds just 40 yards from us. I immediately started calling like a cow that was coming to join the resting herd. The lead cow walked right back to us and my son filled his tag with a 30-yard shot.

ElkCall13 600My wife filled several cow tags in January by locating a herd through vocalization. Elk like to herd up in the winter and they will readily answer another cow looking to join the herd. Once you know where they are, and formulate a game plan to get within shooting distance, you will be off and running.

ElkCall10 600All elk hunters should possess at least a small arsenal of calls they know intimately and can use effectively. A well-made diaphragm call is quick and easy to access and allows you to call like a cow, calf or bull. The “squeeze-type” cow calls can be game changers when you need to use one fast and stop confused animals in their tracks. They have a range of volume, depending on how they are used, and are the easiest to master if you’re new to the game. A bugle is essential to challenge and help elicit a herd-locating response from rutted-up bulls; bugles can also be invaluable for instigating a vocal “fight” that can lure a bull to your own personal arena. Still working on your own call arsenal? Some of my personal favorite calls are available from Duel Game Calls, Carlton Game Calls/Hunter’s Specialties, and Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls.



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