Elk are movers. Be it from hunting pressure or weather, great numbers of them will cover great distances with mind boggling speed. But an elk’s toughness goes beyond its ability to climb thousand-feet inclines in times measured in seconds rather than minutes.

When hunters hear these massive animals coming through a forest of lodgepole pine, they often draw comparisons to the sound of trains. And there’s no other animal, save perhaps moose, that can withstand a poorly placed arrow or bullet as hardily as an elk.  Even after absorbing a well-placed shot, elk have been known to just stand there as they try to determine the source of the loud booms.

Long walks are the norm with elk hunting, and your legs and lungs are almost guaranteed to suffer the effects of massive and constant elevation change. One well-regarded outfitter likes to describe elk hunting as “Up the hill, down the hill.” You should be in peak physical shape before undertaking a Rocky Mountain elk hunt, though your discipline will be rewarded with amazing vistas and, if you’re lucky, a freezer full of the finest game meat in the world.

If there’s an easy way out for the elk hunter, it’s private land. Whether you pay for access or are lucky to have friends or family with a Western ranch, elk hunting on private ground generally requires a lot less perseverance on the part of the hunter. Vehicles can be used to access ranch land, and dead elk can be retrieved with a lot less hassle and sore muscles. Plus, limited access usually equates to limited pressure, meaning that the elk can be much more forgiving if you screw up during a stalk.

By no means is this meant to discredit the private land elk hunter, for many of them work incredibly hard, but if there weren’t significant advantages to hunting private land then it wouldn’t cost so much money to do so. But one thing that can’t be bought is the immense sense of satisfaction that comes from bagging an elk on publicly owned ground.

A Highly Vocal Animal
Elk are highly vocal, which makes them the most exciting big game animal to hunt using calling strategies. Most first-time elk hunters are simply blown away by how vocal and loud a group of elk can be.  While the animals will talk year round, it’s the rut, or fall breeding season, typically early September to mid October, that turns a herd of elk into a beehive-like mass of vocal energy as the cows try to maintain herd cohesion while the bulls engage in a game of bugling one-upmanship. Since the rut typically coincides with archery season in most Western states, calling strategies are best suited for bow hunters. By no means do they not work for rifle hunters in places with firearm rut seasons; it’s just that tags for such seasons are very limited.

To become a competent elk caller, you must study the language of elk. It’s very helpful to get into the woods and listen to the elk themselves. But if you happen to live in an area that doesn’t have any elk within easy driving distance, which is true for most Americans, there are CDs and digital downloads on the market that feature audio recordings of every elk sound imaginable. Once you learn the language of elk and how it is used, you must commit to hours and hours of practice as you develop the necessary skills required to mimic them through the use of game calls.

Perhaps the most easily distinguished game call that you’ll hear in the mountains is the high-pitched bugle of a bull elk. Bulls will bugle for a variety of reasons. Early in the rut, they bugle to other bulls as they struggle to determine a hierarchy among themselves. This can save them from the trouble of serious fighting, which can lead to exhaustion and death. Later on, bulls will bugle directly at cows as they attempt to collect and maintain harems and then protect those harems against the incursions of other bulls. This leaves very little time for feeding, and a mature bull can lose 20% of his body weight during this period of constant action.

Bulls often follow their high-pitched bugles with a series of grunts known as “chuckling.”  This sound is often heard on its own as well.  Among cows, they will also emit a more guttural tending sound known as glunking. When you’re watching a glunking bull, you’ll actually see its belly bounce up and down in a very dramatic way as it emits a deep glunk, glunk, glunk.  During sparring, bulls will also make a whiny squeak that is easily mistaken for an excited cow call.

Finally, bulls, as well as cows, will make an alarm bark when something is amiss and they can’t quite make sense of it. It sounds like a loud, wheezy, high pitched bark-grunt.  It’s a raspy and piercing ark! Very rarely are multiple barks made in a row.  It’s one note and then silence as the elk continues to assess the danger.  If you hear this bark while hunting, you can be sure that you’ve been had or something else has buggered the elk.  In any case, the elk you were hunting are now in an alert state and it’s best to back out.

Mimicking Elk Sounds
The primary reason to mimic the bugle of a bull elk is to locate distant animals. Hunters create bugles by using commercially produced reed-type calls fitted onto the end of a tube for amplification, and also by blowing diaphragm calls into a tube. A locator bugle is usually loud and long, and done from a high point where the sound will travel and, equally important, where you will be able to hear a response and pinpoint its direction.

Once that’s accomplished, you can move toward the elk and then make your next move according to whatever situation you find when you get there. Once you get close to a bull, a bugle can be used to challenge the animal and potentially draw him closer, but this should be attempted only in dire situations when nothing else is working.

Bugles have been grossly overused by hunters, and now work better at repelling bulls than drawing them in. What’s more, even if your bugle dupes the bull, he may just gather up his cows and leave the area rather than risk losing them to a bigger, badder animal. But if a bull is keeping his distance and will not approach your cow calls, and there’s no way to get closer, a soft bugle might just give him the impression that another bull has joined the group.  And if you’re lucky, his sense of jealousy might bring him in a precious few yards closer, and right into shooting range.

Besides the alarm bark mentioned above, cows use a wide array of sounds to communicate with herd members. These range from short chirps of contentment, a half second long, ee-oh, to medium- length locating mews, one second long, eeee-oh, to the elongated, excited whines, one to two seconds long, sometimes two separate notes changing in pitch at the front of the call, eeeee-eeeee-oh, associated with estrus.

It is the caller’s personal preference to end the cow sound with oh, ah, or eh.  All three will work and will add variation to the caller’s elk dialect.  All of these calls can be produced using external reed calls as well as diaphragm mouth calls. Whatever type of call you prefer using, it’s best to stick to the chirps and soft mews of the cows once you’ve worked into close range of elk, especially in the first few moments.

Sometimes, these softer mews are just what a rutting bull wants to hear, he’s looking for cows, and there they are! Nearby elk might also be enticed to come your way for the simple reason that elk are gregarious and they want to engage with other elk that happen to be nearby.

Top: Bugle or grunt tube.  Bottom, left to right: Diaphragm pouch; diaphragms from Phelps Game Calls and Bugling Bull Game Calls; Primos internal reed call; external reed calls from Bugling Bull, Carlton’s, and Phelp’s game calls.

Under the right circumstances, louder cow mews can be used to say more than just “I’m over here.” This call has a direct, succinct nature.  A cow might mew because she’s gotten separated from her group and feels lonely, or a lead cow might mew to communicate that the herd should get moving or change direction. During the rut, cows that are nearing or in estrus (meaning breeding will happen soon) start to call very intently, almost pleading for attention.  These mews are louder, drawn out, very nasally sounding, and could be called whiny.

Some cows will sound raspy and have a sort of buzz to their mew when they make these calls. Such sounds can be very effective at bringing in bulls, but use them with restraint. You want to avoid making sounds that don’t correlate well with the real situation that’s happening on the ground. Remember, “bomb” is a frequently used word in the English language, but you don’t want to say it when you’re going through TSA security screening at the airport.

Calling Sequence
Obviously, there’s a lot more to calling elk than just making the proper noises. Let’s take a moment to walk through a typical morning of elk calling/hunting in order to see the sorts of real-time decisions that need to be made. Let’s say it’s early in the morning, and you have reason to think that elk are in the area but you don’t know exactly where they are. So you start with a locator call, either a bugle or hefty cow call.  If you don’t get an answer, you continue to cover country. Many elk hunters refer to this as “prospecting.” Basically, you’re walking and calling as you search for animals.

Once you do get a response from a bull, or you hear a bull that just happens to be bugling independent of your calling, you need to determine how far away the elk is and in what direction, if any, it’s traveling. You can do this by listening to the elk’s subsequent bugles, and you can prompt him to make more noise by repeating the same type of locator call that got him talking in the first place.

If he’s making noise, you want to take advantage of that by closing the distance as much as possible while you have a beacon of sorts to guide you. Elk will rarely come to a call 300 yards away, let alone a mile away, so closing the gap is your responsibility. Do it quickly but quietly.

As you move in, you’re more or less employing a spot-and-stalk strategy or rather, a listen-and-stalk strategy. You want to get get as close as possible without spooking the elk, because proximity is directly tied a bull’s willingness to investigate the source of your calling. You might have to shadow the herd from a downwind position for hours until you finally have an opportunity to slip in close enough to make an actual attempt on the elk.

A hundred yards or less is a great distance to call from, so long as the elk are unaware of your presence. At this distance, you’re in the bull’s comfort zone and you’ll be putting pressure on him to physically react to your call.  Either he comes to herd you back into the harem, thinking you’re a loose cow, or he comes to open a can of whoop ass, thinking you’re an accosting young bull.

Before delivering your call, identify the most likely routes that the animal will use in getting to you, and make sure you’ve got shooting lanes. A rangefinder is helpful in determining distances to likely shooting lanes, and doing this now will save you from doing it under pressure when a bull comes charging in with all of his senses on high alert.

When you start calling, try using short, sweet sounds before you progress to louder and more intense sounds. If you find something that the bull likes, stick to it. And if you’re hearing cows calling around you as well, listen to what they sound like and mimic their tone and length of call.

If a bull keeps pushing his cows away from your setups, try making a sweeping loop and get out in front of the moving herd. As with any calling, the animals being called to are more apt to come to the call if it is in the general direction of their travel. Remember, it’s easiest to call animals in a direction that they naturally want to go.

Since the moving elk are making plenty of their own noises, don’t be afraid to hustle and neglect stealth for a minute as you make a move.  Even after several failed attempts, do not get lax about your strategy. Treat each attempt the same way you treated the first. Stay ready, stay focused.  When it all gels and that snorting, eye-bulging, 800-pound monster finally decides to come, it happens fast and often when you least expect it.  Be prepared with your arrow nocked or your rifle ready – and your head clear!

A Bunch of Things to Keep in Mind When Calling Elk

  • By adding an elk decoy to a calling set-up, your realism factor soars.  If you can fool the elk’s eyes as well as its ears, you’re going to be getting some action.  But try to get out ahead of your decoy, so you’re between it and the approaching elk. The elk is likely to hang up at a safe distance even after it sees the decoy; if you’re out front, you might be in range when it does.
  • Hunters often progress too quickly to cow calls that are too long and too whiny. Elk make chirps and mews more than other sounds. So should you.
  • If the woods are quiet, but you know elk are in the vicinity, try blind calling.  This is often done at the edge of a patch of evergreens that might be a bedding area.  Set up as if there are elk within 200 yards and start with a couple chirps.  Escalate your calling through a sequence of sounds as you try to kindle interest from the animals.On some occasions you’ll move on, but often you’ll receive a response of one kind or another and find yourself “in elk.”  It’s good to remember that bulls are often trailing cows, so communicating with the lead cow and calling her in can result in the bull being in range as well.
  • Calling works for more than just bringing elk to you. Loud cow calls can bring a whole herd to a stop, offering an opportunity for a shot. This works at close range for a bow shot and at long distances for rifles. And don’t stop calling after the shot.Even with loud, startling rifle shots, both wounded and healthy elk can be calmed down and stopped.  Commanding cow calls can even bring the herd back to you. This tactic can afford not only second opportunities but can shorten tracking on wounded animals.
  • When hunting with a partner, the caller should usually stay around 50 to 100 yards behind the shooter. Think of it as calling the elk past the shooter as it approaches the call. The caller should stay mobile, as their position dictates where the oncoming elk goes.  If a bugling bull gets hung up and absolutely refuses to come closer, the caller should try walking away from the action while calling.  The thought of the cow leaving is often enough to entice a few more steps.
  • Call companies are trying to sell calls.  Instead of buying the latest and greatest “Sexy Seducer” elk calling gimmick, spend a few more hours on your diaphragm and external reed calls and learn to mew consistently like an elk. Most serious elk hunters will head into the mountains with just a diaphragm or two, an external reed call, and perhaps a grunt tube for making bugles.
  • A bull elk who’s busy destroying a sapling with his antlers is often blind to his surroundings.  If you’re fortunate enough to encounter one, with weapon in hand, abort previous plans and walk quickly toward the bull, approaching from downwind and from his backside, if possible. Often, you can get into range without being noticed.
  • While listening to elk vocalizations, take notice of the non-vocal noises that elk produce.  Elk are big animals, and as they go about their daily business they snap sticks, run through brush or bushes, pull leaves off of trees, clunk hooves on logs and rocks, splash water, and thrash trees, grass and mud with their antlers.  Elk hear these sounds daily, and if you can learn to mimic them effectively and integrate them with your bugles and mews, your calling will gain authenticity.
  • In general, calling in open spaces has poor success on elk. You need to make sure that your calling setup is realistic and that refers both to what is there and what isn’t there. When choosing your location, be sure that there is vegetation around you or behind you that could be hiding the elk that you are supposed to be.  When an elk is coming to a call, it knows exactly where the source of the call is.  When it does not see the supposed elk, it gets suspicious.  Give oncoming elk plenty of places to expect the supposed elk to be.
  • Always pay absolute attention to the wind. Elk will often circle downwind of the caller to confirm the presence of a real elk.  The hunter should be set up to cut off such an attempt by the elk.