Hoping to connect with a trophy elk? The key to a successful hunt is learning his lingo and getting the conversation started
I’ll never forget that crisp September morning. My bowhunting partner and I had stopped for a quick snack on the edge of a wet meadow when a bull elk bugled. He was answering our call from a few moments earlier, and his big, brash reply made our calling efforts seem pathetic. Still, we bugled back and finished the sequence with a bull chuckle, as if to say, “Bring it on, big fella!”
When the bull bugled again, he sounded even more agitated. Then we could hear branches shattering from within the shadows of the forest as he raked his antlers up and down a slender spruce. And the guttural chuckling that followed almost sounded as if he were hyperventilating. Psyched and ready to fight, the bull strode into the meadow.
Hoping for a shot, we had already tiptoed around the edge of the meadow, but that was a big mistake—we should have stayed put and kept calling. Elk can pinpoint sound with ease, so when the bull couldn’t see or hear another bull, he got nervous. Standing broadside out of arrow range for a few seconds, he barked once, then ran back into the timber.
Though we didn’t get that bull, it was still a thrilling moment, as it was one of my first interactions using the language of elk. Since then, every elk encounter has taught me something new about how these animals communicate. As with any wild game, coaxing a big bull elk to come to you is part art, part science and part luck. Here’s what I’ve learned, and how you can get in on the conversation.
Lowell StraussMake the calls
To imitate the various elk vocalizations, there are four basic call types that hunters can use.
Popular among turkey hunters, diaphragm-style calls (above) are also effective for calling elk. And because they’re mouth calls, they allow you to keep calling while freeing up your hands to prepare to shoot. All the varied elk calls can be made with diaphragms, and they’re easier to use than you might think. Simply hold the D-shaped call against your palate with your tongue. The round frame of the call should extend to the back of your mouth, with the little patch of membrane pointing toward your front teeth. To hold the call in place, position your tongue to say the letter L. At first, experiment making sounds by saying sssss and exhaling from deep in your belly. Blowing softly makes deeper sounds, while blowing harder makes the pitch rise. Also change your mouth shape from making the eeee sound to creating an oooo—which can drastically change the call. Keep experimenting until you can imitate the real deal.
Bugle tubes (above) are the easiest calls for beginners to use, and they sound authentic with minimal practice. These calls come in two styles: an open-ended flexible tube intended to be used with a diaphragm call, and a tube with a reed or diaphragm as its mouthpiece. Some calls let you change reeds or diaphragms to make different sounds (for young and mature bulls, for example). You can also create different tones by changing your mouth position on the reed or by varying the pressure on the latex diaphragm. And to boost the volume, you simply blow harder.
Open-reed & bite-reed calls
These two call styles are easy to use, and they work in a similar fashion. With the open-reed call (above), you create different tones by adjusting the pressure on the reed with your lips; with the bite-reed (below), you bite down on the mouthpiece, as the name implies. The best reed calls make very realistic sounds. One downside, however, is that they can get fouled with saliva and stop working until they’re dried out.
Using a rubber bulb or bellows, squeeze calls (below) force air across a reed to produce a cow elk sound. They are very dependable, but limited in the range of sounds they can produce.
THE LANGUAGE OF ELK
To effectively call in a big bull, you first need to learn what elk sound like, then practise imitating those sounds (see “Make the call” for the various calls you can use). And don’t worry—you don’t need to be a world champion caller to be effective. More than once, in fact, I’ve been duped by a bull that I ignored, thinking instead it was a novice hunter because the call sounded so terrible. Still, the better your call, the better your odds of drawing in a bull.
Bugling is the most recognizable of all the elk sounds. A normal bugle sequence starts with a roar, immediately followed by a series of notes sliding from low to high in pitch. The call increases in speed toward the highest note, which is held the longest, then released with a short, low grunt. To create a roar, make a growling rrrr sound deep in your chest. The full bugle sequence sounds like rrrr-eeee-EEEEE-uh. Bugles may also end with a chuckle (see below). Bull elk bugle before, during and even after the rut. The exact sound of the bugle differs depending on the bull, his level of dominance, the timing of the rut and whether he’s with cows. Hunters can use bugling to locate a bull, assess his level of dominance and determine his willingness to respond.
The chuckle is a series of panting grunts that may follow a bugle. You can also hear them on their own. Established herd bulls chuckle as a sign of dominance, and any bull that’s vying for cows will chuckle when challenging another bull.
Also known as a “glug,” this interesting call comes from deep within the lungs, and it sounds as though the elk is gulping water. Bulls create this sound when herding cows or checking them for signs of estrous. It’s a difficult, but not crucial, call for hunters to reproduce.
Cow elk (above) call to their calves, other cows and bulls with a mew. It may relay different messages, but normally it’s a calming call that puts the herd at ease. It typically starts on a high note and ends with a shorter, lower note, sounding like a meeh-ew or a whiny eeeee-ow lasting one to three seconds. Calf elk sound like cows, but not quite as loud. Calves may also respond to an elk with a chirp, which is a short, choppy shee-yah. During the peak of the rut, making your cow call extra whiny can drive a bull crazy. Done right, it will seduce even the most steadfast herd bull into leaving his harem to look for love.
Sensing possible danger, elk use this short, shrill bark to warn other elk. If you’re hunting and you hear a bark—it sounds like ee-yuh—it means elk have seen, smelled or heard you and your cover is blown. A bark puts other elk in a hyper-alert state, and more than likely, they will leave the area.
Hear the author make all these sounds at www.outdoorcanada.ca/elkcalls.
INTERPRETING THE LANGUAGE
Once you’ve learned to recognize and mimic the various elk vocalizations, the next step is to determine when to use your new-found elk vocabulary. For that, you need to understand how bulls of different ages behave during the rut, and why they make the sounds that they do.
Also called spikes or raghorns, young bulls (below) make shorter, higher pitched bugles than bigger bulls. Full of testosterone, young bulls will search for cows to breed during the pre-rut. They’re also quick to come to another bugle if they’re not with cows. Since this is the time of year when a dominance hierarchy is established, a young bull that runs in to challenge a dominant bull will quickly learn who’s the boss.
After one or two such encounters, many young bulls (above) go quiet, so calling them—or other non-dominant bulls—takes a little more finesse. If your bugles sound too bold, most young bulls will run rather than stand and fight. To coax these elk into shooting range, then, it’s best to mimic young bull bugles or resort to cow calls. To sound younger, reduce your volume and increase the bugle’s pitch by switching to a different reed or, if possible, shortening the bugle tube. And be vigilant, as silent bulls can sneak in to check you out.
When trying to locate other bulls, mature bulls will issue a loud, drawn-out bugle. This includes both herd bulls (above) and so-called satellite bulls, those mature sub-dominant elk lurking near a herd, hoping to swoop in and steal a cow. On a clear morning, their calls carry long distances, especially from a high ridge.
When a bull bugles and a nearby bull (or hunter) responds, the bull will often challenge the aggressor with a second bugle, followed by a chuckle to state his dominance. During the rut, as much as a bull wants to breed cows, he also wants to avoid a fight. And for a herd elk, a bugle reply is all he needs to locate his competition and move his cows away.
Bulls will also bugle to call cows to join them. For competitive advantages, cows are looking to join the herd of a dominant bull, and the girls know a boss bull when they hear one.
The first step to calling in a mature bull is locating a herd. Start with a basic bugle, and try to vary the pitch from low to high as much as possible. There’s no need to get fancy until you hear a bull reply. Once you hear a bugle, try to pinpoint the direction and approximate distance it came from. Then you’ll need to close the gap and get inside the bull’s comfort zone.
Once you’re close, the bull will do one of two things—come toward your call or move off. It’s often wise to switch to cow calls (above) at this point, since they’re non-threatening to a bull. Plus, if he’s looking for cows, a mew may be all he needs to come over to investigate. If you hear a soft bugle from the bull, however, that’s a signal to the girls he’s already tending that it’s time move out.
For bulls, bugling takes a lot of energy, so you’ll seldom hear two bugles in quick succession. If you do, the chances are good there’s at least both a herd bull and a satellite bull nearby. This is good news—and bad. The good news is that it’s easier to pull a satellite bull away from the herd than it is to convince a herd bull to leave his cows. The bad news is that the odds of getting busted increase with all the extra eyes, ears and noses in the area.
Since the chuckle sound signals dominance, you need to assess the situation when you encounter a bull before adding one to your calling sequence. Bugle once, then listen to what the bull does. If he sounds mean and ready to defend his cows, and he’s chuckling, it’s safe to include a chuckle at the end of your call. A responsive bull may even start bugling again before you finish your chuckle, while a timid elk may take off without another reply. Most bulls are somewhere in between those two extremes.
On warm September afternoons, meanwhile, elk like to bed down in the cool shade of the timber, and herd bulls will occasionally give a soft bugle to communicate with their cows. You can follow these bugles to home in on the herd, and there’s no need to bugle back. And when you find the bedded elk, you can then either sneak into the timber after them or wait until they move out on their own.
Still, I think it’s far more exciting to actually call in a big bull. And now that you know what the elk are saying—and why—it’s time to head afield and strike up a conversation of your own.
Saskatchewan contributor Lowell Strauss can often be found chuckling and growling in a field.
Pop-up decoys add a visual component to calling, and they can help seal the deal when you’re trying to bring a bull into range. How? Elk are more likely to come to a call from across a meadow if they can see what they believe to be a receptive cow waiting to greet them.