You're Being Too Quiet in the Elk Woods

You're Being Too Quiet in the Elk Woods

Jason Phelps’ father initially held dim prospects for his son’s hunting career.

“He told me I wasn't quiet enough to be a rifle elk hunter,” Jason said. “So, basically, I was born to be an archery elk hunter because I was allowed to get away with making noise. Those guys put on their white New Balance shoes so they can sneak up on these bulls on the timber, whether they're rifle or muzzleloader hunting. I can remember being a young hunter hunting behind my dad and I would get that look multiple times, like, ‘You're making too much damn noise.’”

Jason clearly took that criticism to heart. He sunk himself into archery season elk calling, eventually started designing better elk calls than any others on the market, built a successful company around those calls, and became one of the most talented and respected archery elk hunters and callers in the game. Not bad for a big kid who stepped on sticks.

“Elk expect other elk to make noise. We're just using that to our advantage,” Jason said. “I mean, you can hear branches break from 500 yards away depending on elevation and wind and whatnot. And so if you're trying to be an elk, especially if you're calling, it only makes sense that there's a real elk there. They're also going to be kicking rocks and breaking branches as they walk through. It just adds to the whole realism of that situation.”

Get Loud Elk are noisy animals, perhaps the loudest of all ungulates. While even the most rutted-up whitetail may only whisper its way through the woods, a pissed-off bull can be audible for miles, and a true elk rut-fest can be downright cacophonous. Herds talk to each other constantly, and those quarter- to half-ton bodies are not especially dainty as they travel.

During the breeding season from early September to mid-October, bulls are almost singularly focused on displaying dominance in order to attract and defend cows. In the dense country where elk often reside, they demonstrate their size, vigor, and territory through auditory displays. Bugling is by far the most charismatic—and loudest—means of announcing themselves to the world. They also try to fill the sound space with glunking, grunting, raking, urinating, sparring, and generally smashing around.

The value of noise increases exponentially when you’re trying to get a bull to charge in for a duel. Standard practice for elk hunters is to first locate a vocal bull, then get within 100 yards and challenge him. Various hunters put on this performance with challenge bugles, lip bawls, screams, grunts, chuckles, and numerous combinations of the above. But many newer elk callers sneak around while doing this, meaning the only sounds are coming from the end of their bugle tube. Jason says that’s a mistake.

“The caller’s job is to find a 1-inch, 2-inch stick and beat the heck out of the tree that he's by while he's calling. We use it in almost every setup we can,” Jason said. “A lot of times these bulls will bugle and you can hear them go right into raking. A lot of times they'll [rake] for 45 seconds, a minute, two minutes, and then they come right out of that and bugle again. So, we'll try to mimic that.”

And they don’t stop there.

“We're also kicking the ground, just making noise, because a lot of times those bulls are getting pissed, pawing at the ground, stomping on it,” Jason said.

Every little bit of authenticity can help flip the switch to make a bull come completely unglued. When you engage that rage, there’s a very good chance the bull will run in close enough for you to send an arrow at him.

Speak Your Mind Jason says the biggest mistake new elk callers make is being too cautious.

“They're not confident enough to call when they should,” he said. “They get really hesitant. Like, ‘I don't know if I'm good enough. I don't want to screw this up. I'm so close right now.’”

Jason says timidness is a recipe for letting a bull drift off into the woods instead of coming in for a fight. He believes emotion is more important than tone.

“A bad call at the right time is way, way better than the right call at the bad time, you know?” he said. “It just makes a lot more sense if you did all that work to have the confidence to make the call when you need to make it.”

Anyone who has spent much time yelling at elk knows that individual animals are often the worst auditory representations of their species. Every bull bugles differently, especially after weeks of rutting has destroyed their vocal cords. It’s relatively rare to hear that classic rising and descending note cascade from real elk. Practice all you can so you aren’t afraid to let ‘er rip when it counts.

Be the Herd Running ridges and locator bugling to find elk is a 101 tactic and a great way to get into the action. But warm weather, high sun, full moon, hunting pressure, or a host of other factors may sometimes prevent bulls from giving away their location. Sometimes it’s better to create the action yourself and allow elk to come to you.

“If we know there's elk around, a lot of times we'll play just being an excited herd, like one of us will be the herd bull, one of us will be a smaller bull, and then multiple cow calls throughout,” Jason said. “It has been working amazingly well as of late, bulls just kind of showing up out of nowhere, whether it's during early morning or late morning snack or lunch break.”

Even when they’re not actively hunting, Jason and his buddies try to stay in the game. Time in the elk woods is too precious to waste.

“A lot of times on our hunts we end up chasing the bull forever,” he said. “He goes and beds down on a piece of timber, and you're kind of just stuck there eating your lunch. Well, we've said the heck with it, we’ll eat lunch but we'll sit there and call back and forth occasionally every five, 10 minutes. And we've killed a few bulls in the last couple of years just kind of being a big herd of elk making a ton of noise in the middle of the day.”

A lot of hunters call that move “The Elk Party.” Jason and his buddies call it “The Elk Orgy,” at least when they’re not on camera. Elk are both gregarious and curious, and often behave like college kids when they hear music blaring down the street. Make lots of noise in the woods this fall, and you might be surprised how many attendants show up to your kegger.