Calling in a randy, 1,000-pound bull moose is one of the most exhilarating of all hunting experiences—the resulting adrenaline rush is among the main reasons hunters love to pursue these beasts during the rut. Every fall, professional outfitters and guides spend weeks afield, meaning most of them spend as much time calling moose in two years as most of us will throughout our entire lives. So, what are the best ways to lure in a bull? We asked 14 of Alberta’s finest and most experienced moose guides to share their secrets.
What makes a good calling location?
The most popular locations were landscape features allowing for maximum visibility, with 10 guides identifying hills overlooking valleys or similar locations as mission-critical. This reflects the notion that when moose are responding to a call, they can slip away undetected if they get the least bit suspicious. Seeing them before they see you—thanks to a higher vantage point—is a huge plus. Chad Lenz said one of his keys to success is putting hunters in treestands, which also ensures greater visibility.
The presence of water was equally important, with our pros saying they prefer to set up either near a waterbody or right along lakeshores, creek inlets, marshes, beaver ponds or other small wetlands. Mike Ukrainetz was specific in saying he prefers to set up on swampy willow flats next to poplar forests. The prevailing thought is that during autumn, cows move to areas with an abundance of diverse, quality forage—the edges of waterbodies are unsurpassed in this regard.
Several guides said they like to call near moose rut pits, even old ones, noting that bulls will typically use the same scrapes every year. Complimentary to this, a few guides said they set up only where they can find significant evidence of recent moose activity, especially tracks. Wind direction was also regularly mentioned as key to selecting a good calling site.
How long do you stay in one place if you don’t get a response?
The answers varied from as little as 20 minutes to as long as four hours, the length of time depending on their level of confidence that there’s a bull nearby. Clearly, the pros don’t believe in sitting in one spot all day long, though several said they’ll call from the same location for an hour or so at both first and last light. They advised it’s not unusual for a bull to respond early in the morning at a location where they’d called without success the previous evening.
Several outfitters observed that in landscapes where sound can travel considerable distances, it’s not unusual for a moose to take a couple of hours to get to their calling location, making patience is a virtue.
One guide recommended calling on the move when hunting new habitat, setting up for 15-minute sessions before moving on if you don’t receive a response.
How often should you call if there’s no response?
Responses ranged from as frequently as every five minutes to as much as 30 minutes, though the majority landed in the 10- to 20-minute range. Mike Ukrainetz said he calls every five to 10 minutes in situations where sound doesn’t carry well. When overlooking valleys or other areas where he knows the sound travels easily, however, Ukrainetz says he’ll call every 15 or 20 minutes.
Another pro revealed that his strategy is to call every minute or two for the first 10 minutes, then back off to calling every 15 to 20 minutes.
How long should you call before pausing?
Some outfitters responded with a time, while others answered by describing the calls they make. For those who indicated the length of time for any individual call, answers ranged from 20 seconds to five minutes, though the majority fell between 30 seconds and two minutes. Ryk Visscher said he calls for as long as two minutes at a time if he’s making cow calls, but only for 30 seconds when imitating a bull.
For those who answered in terms of the type of calls the make, most suggested three to five long bawls proved to be most effective before listening for a response. Alan Wardale said he prefers two long bawls followed by a short, whiny finishing call. If he’s been at the location for an hour or more, he opts for a series of shorter, whinier calls to mimic a young cow.
Do you use a cow or bull call, or both?
Most of the guides said they predominantly use cow calls, though nearly all offered a caveat. To a person, they said they generally begin with a cow call, and continue to cow call if they get a response. However, if they’ve had a bull respond and he won’t commit to the last few yards, or if he goes silent, they’ll switch to a bull call. The reason? It tells the bull he’d better hurry up because a competitor has found his cow.
In areas where he’s sure there’s a bull around but it won’t respond to his cow call, Greg Sutley said he’s had success by moving 100 yards and switching to a bull call. Another outfitter said he prefers to bull call at the start of the season, switching to cow calling as the rut progresses. When a bull needs some last-minute convincing, nothing gets his dander up like the belief he has a little competition for a cow’s affection.
How do you respond if a bull returns your call?
This is where it gets interesting for the hunter—you’ve had a bull answer back and presumably he’s on his way. The pros are divided over what you should do next. A couple of them suggest continuing with the calling sequence you’ve been using up to that point. Several suggest replying only with cow calls—if your bull continues to answer and is moving closer, keep it up.
Still others opt to go quiet when a bull responds, preferring to let him make the next moves, and only calling again if he hangs up. Glenn Brown recommends responding in a tone similar to that of the bull. If he’s aggressive in his grunts, for example, respond with aggressive cow calls. Likewise, if he’s lazy in his responses, reply in kind.
Another group of pros prefer to immediately respond to a bull’s grunts with a bull grunt of their own. They believe that introducing the risk of a competitor will hasten the bull’s approach. One pro even interrupts a bull’s grunts with one of his own in an attempt to further aggravate him.
Finally, several guides said they prefer to mix it up, responding with both cow and bull calls. The message conveyed to the bull in this scenario is that the cow is actively seeking companionship but has another suitor on site—if he wants to get in on the action, he’d better do it quickly.
What do you do if a responding bull goes silent?
You’ve been calling back and forth and your bull is on the way when suddenly he goes quiet, refusing to reply to your calls. Few situations make a hunter more nervous, or frustrated. But don’t panic, the pros have solutions.
There are several reasons why a bull might go silent. He may have winded you, or possibly even seen or heard something that alarmed him. Or maybe he’s worried a larger bull is attending the cow, or that predators have moved into the area.
If the wind has shifted a little on you, our pros suggest quickly and quietly moving to a place where you can spot the bull if he tries to circle downwind. On the other hand, if you think your scent has totally betrayed your presence, back out quietly and return another day. Forcing your hand at this point can only do more harm than good.
If you don’t believe it’s a wind problem, the advice is to call more quietly, with extended periods between calls. Some outfitters recommend sticking with cow calls only, while others advise you use a mix of soft bull grunts and cow calls. In either case, you’ll need to be patient and vigilant.
Two outfitters suggest backing downwind 50 to 75 metres; once repositioned, they say, start calling again with a few soft cow bawls. By doing this, they’ve had success in convincing approaching bulls that the target of their affection may be slipping away and is worthy of chasing.
Do you use a birchbark or synthetic call, or your own voice?
Most of the pros prefer to call with their voices only. “It’s always with you and easy to carry,” noted Bryan Radke. That said, several outfitters indicated they prefer the addition of a birchbark call, citing better sound amplification.
“I’m 180 pounds with 16 inches between my diaphragm and mouth, trying to imitate something that’s 1,000 pounds with a windpipe like a fire hose,” observed Alan Wardale. “A birchbark funnel definitely helps my sound resonate like a larger animal.”
Not that Wardale doesn’t sometimes call without a funnel. “Once a bull’s inside 300 yards, I put the birchbark down and used my cupped hands only,” he said. “Inside 200 yards, I call into my coat. The trick is to make the bull think you’re farther away than you are.”
Only one of the pros uses an artificial call as his go-to. After 25 years of guiding moose hunters, he said he still prefers a coffee can and cotton bootlace for his call.
Do you also imitatie other moose behaviours?
The pros definitely saw the advantage of strategically thrashing brush to imitate the sound of moose antlers, but said other ploys have little effect. “Waving fake antlers and paddles makes for great TV,” said one guide, “but it doesn’t work in the real world.” A second guide agreed, saying it might work on uneducated moose, but that’s about it.
While none of the guides said they use antlers as part of their regular calling tactics, Greg Sutley did say he wears a black jacket and tan gloves when calling—if he gets spotted by an approaching bull, he waves the gloves to imitate small antlers.
Most of the guides also said they don’t pour water to imitate the sound of a urinating cow moose. Just one pro said he occasionally uses the tactic, but only if a bull is hung up and won’t finish.
As for brush raking, the pros said the tactic is largely dictated by the behaviour of the bull coming in to the call. When it’s aggressive and thrashing trees or brush, our pros respond in kind. When the bull approaches in a more gentlemanly manner, however, the pros seldom rake the brush. “Fight fire with fire,” said one guide.
Several guides did note one exception if an approaching bull gets held up, and refuses to commit. Under these circumstances, the guides will rake the willows with a dry stick, while making some bull grunts. This is often the ticket to spurring the bull forward.
Interestingly, two respondents said they only thrash brush in the early stages of the rut, while two others said they prefer the tactic after the peak of rut.
Finally, two outfitters revealed that they’ve had great success using cow decoys. They suggested that decoys preoccupy approaching bulls, allowing the hunter a little more leeway to manoeuvre for a shot without being detected.
How else can the average hunter become a more successful caller?
The overwhelming reply from the pro guides was for average hunters to be patient and persevere. As Ryk Visscher put it, “Moose have nothing but time on their hands.” Clearly, the call for patience reflects the challenges these outfitters commonly find with paying clients.
The importance of scouting was also noted by a handful of respondents, with two suggesting hunters should call periodically as they scout. “Many bulls just happen to be where they are, so regular calling as you move can pay dividends,” said one. Similarly, another pro suggested hunters should be constantly experimenting with their calling tactics and locations. “Don’t fall into a rut,” he said.
Still others said to pay attention to the conditions at hand. One outfitter advised that hunters need to be more cognizant of the wind, noting that human scent blows more opportunities than any other single variable. And Dan Wettlauffer cautioned hunters to call only from land, never from the water, as a bull can always tell the difference.
Finally, one prominent outfitter maintained that hunters only need to identify one or two prime calling locations, then put up treestands nearby and call loudly and repeatedly. If the location is a good one, he said, a bull will eventually respond. Plus, treestands serve to keep a hunter stationary, and the less you move, the less likely you are to give yourself away.
And the more likely you are to finally bring down your bull.
Hunting editor Ken Bailey has called for bull moose across much of Canada. The 14 outfitters who spoke with us have been guiding moose hunters for, on average, almost 20 years. They’ve hunted across Alberta’s diverse geography, from the boreal forest, boreal transition zone and aspen parkland to foothill and mountain habitats. Beyond Alberta, some have also guided in the Yukon, B.C. and Newfoundland.