Jason Phelps is quick to admit that you don’t need to sound like a verbatim elk to get one inside arrow range. He’s spent a lot of his life building tools for us to speak with the big tan-and-chocolate creatures, but he says a simple mastery of truck-cab bugling won’t prepare you well for actually putting a broadhead in the boiler room. He’s a lot more focused on the strategy and ecology behind those noises. But, above all else, he says the real key is simple, dogged persistence.
“One thing I think is very important to state from some of us so-called ‘elk call experts,’ is that 80% of the time, maybe eight out of 10 bulls I try to call, something screws up or it doesn't go right,” Jason said. “This might sound pretentious as hell, but even being a guy who’s been fairly successful at calling elk, we still have a lot of failures.”
Trusting in the plan and trusting in the process, he says, will eventually lead to success. You can see that unfold in MeatEater Season 10, Part 2 on Netflix as Jason and Steve Rinella argue with a series of New Mexican bulls. But before you get too worked up about being an auditory dead-ringer, spend some time learning about the habits and habitats of your quarry.
Elk-call-ology “First of all, before you try to be aggressive, you need just a general understanding of the day in the life of an elk,” Jason said. “What would they want to do regardless, if you weren't in the situation?"
It’s exceedingly rare for a hunter to simply walk into the woods, bugle, and have a bull trot in like a puppy to a whistle. You need to find the elk first (rarely a simple task) then apply an understanding of their ecology to cut the distance. They need to drink water, they need to graze, and they need a good place to lie down and sleep it off. And, in the rut, they need to breed.
“If you can get into a position where you have to disrupt all that the least amount, the better everything's going to get,” Jason said. “Whether you're a good elk caller or not, you just basically need to get in the way of where that elk wanted to go and make a couple calls.”
Situational and ecological awareness, Jason says, is often the difference between hearing elk and seeing elk.
“Try to remember what an elk wants to do and be involved in that versus like trying to call him 200 yards backwards from the way he wants to feed,” he said.
Adding elements of spot-and-stalk and still-hunting, he says, doesn’t make the call-in any less pure. It just makes you a good hunter. “You can call it whatever you want; my goal is to go out there and kill an elk.”
Location, Location “My strategy is, number one: locate the bull, whether that's through glassing or through location bugles,” Jason said. “Ideally, I'd rather glass them up so I don't have to say, ‘Hey, I'm over here’ and get them looking my direction or even thinking about me at all. Number two is figure out what the wind is doing right now, what the wind's going to be doing in an hour, and what the wind's going to be doing when I get there. Number three, it's just get to that location.”
However, Jason says that a common mistake is that hunters often make is to go where the elk were, not where they’re headed. This is highly important in the context of his previous comment about not trying to call elk backwards. You want to get in front of them if at all possible.
Locating a bull without him locating you provides an element of surprise that can increase your chances of calling a bull in close.
Read the Room One day of the elk rut is not necessarily like the one before it or the one after. These animals are notorious for going crazy for a few days then silently vanishing into the timber for the next few.
“Notice the way they're acting. If I see a single herd bull with four or five cows versus if I see a herd bull with six satellite bulls and a couple cows and they're having a little party, it completely changes my approach and what I think I can get away with,” Jason said. “The bull pushing six cows by himself, we're going to have to get in front of him because he has no reason to lose them. However, if I see a little rut party and bulls posturing and whatnot for the chance to be with those cows, I want to go in and get in the mix.”
Jason often talks about an imaginary decision tree that helps him sort the visual and auditory data and make a choice. Does the bull seem fired up, or sleepy, or something in between? Is he with a small band of cows or a big herd? How many satellite bulls are there and are any of them are contenders? Are the elk holed up or moving? How much time do you have? All of that information can be aggregated to make a plan of attack.
“I'm a very heavy bugler, but I also like to like figure out the situation, throw the least intrusive call at him, because sometimes a bugle will mess him up,” Jason said. “So, as I approach, maybe I will hit 'em with a cow call. But, if he's just hammering the whole way, I'm gonna get in there and probably start bugling versus if he's quiet the whole way.”
Every seasoned elk hunter will develop their own strategies based on information from others and personal experiences in the woods. It’s smart to build your own understanding while taking note of other hunters’ successes.
“There's the ‘Chuck Adams approach’ where if you want to kill a giant bull, you don't ever make a peep, you just spot and stalk. I agree that can work great; we've done it before,” Jason said. “There's the guys that don't want to scare off a bull so they just cow call. There's the guys who don't want to sound like a big bull and they're looking for a raghorn diaphragm.”
Long story short, elk calling is not as simple as just making a bugle racket or cow calling discretely. Bugling activity varies widely from day to day, week to week, and location to location based on some crazy cocktail of weather, temperature, hunting pressure, population dynamics, moon phase, and photoperiod. Read the room and respond accordingly. But, when the time is right, don’t be afraid to give that tube everything you’ve got.
“I think one of the reasons we like to bugle a lot is in those situations where it does work, it works very, very well,” Jason concluded. “I would say the reason I call like I do is, and there's a lot of different ways to do it, but to see that bull with his eyes rolled back in his head, mad at the world—I do it for that.”