Getting within bow range of a bull elk is no easy task. Old bulls in particular can be call shy; they often hang up just out of range, and their cows come in first and bust the bowhunter long before the bull arrives.
When you add all of this together, putting an arrow in the side of a bull can be a tall task.
However, each year bowhunters from across the country harvest bulls with stick and string. Many bowhunters are successful because they know when to say what to a bull. They know when to chirp like a cow, bugle like a young bull and growl like an old bull.
In this article, you’ll hear from two of America’s most experienced, successful elk hunters on how you too can use calling to lure wary bulls into bow range.
Al Morris is a bowhunter who has called in literally hundreds of bull elk for himself and clients he has guided. Morris, a member of the Foxpro pro staff, is also a decorated elk-calling competitor with a world championship under his belt. So, suffice it to say he knows how to sweet talk bulls.
Step one for elk-calling success, Morris said, is to master basic calling techniques so you can produce realistic elk sounds. “The biggest mistake many hunters make is not being able to call very well,” he said. “Bulls become call shy because they quickly learn the difference between a horrible call being made by a hunter and the call of a real elk. The more a hunter sounds like an elk, the better chance he has of calling a bull within bow range. Hunters should spend hours practicing their calling. They should listen to audio recordings and try to mimic what real elk sound like. To win calling contests, I have practiced thousands of hours and listed to countless recordings of elk. The best teachers are real elk.”
Morris said hunters should be familiar with all the sounds an elk makes and know when to use each vocalization. From mature bull bugles and young bull bugles to cow chirps and whines, knowing the complete vocabulary is necessary. “Hunters should know a variety of calls and know when to use each call, largely based on the phase of the rut the hunter is hunting in,” he said.
Let’s take a look at Morris’ key tactics for each stage of the rut.
“During the early season, I try to sound like a small bull that has a cow with him that is in estrous,” Morris said. “A small percentage of cows come into estrous in late August and early September. Often, a smaller bull will latch onto this cow when the bigger bulls aren’t cranked up yet. I call like a mature cow in estrous by letting out some long mews and excited chirps, followed by some spike bugles or squeals. The goal is to pique the interest of a nearby mature bull that wants to come and push the small bull away. Knowing when to sound like a small bull is important, and knowing how to bugle like a small bull is the key to success in this situation,” Morris added.
According to Morris, big mature bulls often have a deep growl and bugle. A young bull, on the other hand, squeals like an immature teenager. When bugling at a big bull, it is often best to sound like a smaller bull. Most hunters,like Morris, do this by using single- or double-reed mouth calls that have a higher pitch. When you want to sound like a more mature bull, you can use a mouth call designed to produce deeper bugles or use your throat when bugling in a tube to produce a gravel-like growl that will imitate a mature bull.
As the rut comes into full swing from Sept. 10-20, Morris gets more aggressive with his calling. “Research shows that up to 75 percent of cows come into estrous during the middle of September. This is when I like to sound like a mature bull,” Morris said.
“Some hunters are afraid to sound like a big bull, but this is the time of the rut when big bulls are out screaming their brains out and chasing off other bulls. Many of the big bulls already have their cows and are not going to tolerate another bull near them. At this point, I will do deep growls, a lot of bugling and chuckles. I want to agitate the bull I am going after. Over the years, I have learned how to read a bull. I can tell if he is bugling at me to say hello or if he is challenging me. If a bull is raking the brush, growling at me and getting excited, this tells me to pour it on and start a fight by bugling and sounding like several cows. If he lets out the occasional, half-hearted bugle, I know to either back away and find another bull or try to entice him with a different calling approach. When I know there is a big bull around, my main goal is to get aggressive and try to get him to come screaming in to kick my butt.”
The last phase of the rut is typically the last week of September through the first week of October. Young cows that have never been in heat before come into their first estrous cycle. During this period, Morris focuses on sounding like a young cow in estrous. “When I imitate older cows, it is more of a low-pitched mew that is drawn out to sound like an excited, mature cow in estrus. Young cows that have never come into heat before aren’t sure what is happening to their bodies. They often make high-pitched squeals and chirps that are short in duration. I have witnessed young cows coming into heat several times. They run around like crazy animals. They often have a fever and dive into wallows and ponds. They are a sight to see. A mature bull that knows a young cow is coming into heat often charges right in. He knows the breeding season is ending and he wants to breed as many cows as possible. Imitating a young cow is a great late-season tactic,” Morris suggested.
Call In the Ladies
Another calling tactic Morris enjoys using is mewing to tick off the lead cow. This is similar to a tactic many turkey hunters use when calling in a hen to get a boss gobbler into bow range.
“Sometimes I will call aggressively to try to pick a fight with a cow that is with the bull I am after,” Morris said. “If a cow starts responding to my mews and chirps, I will call a lot, trying to out call her. Just like bulls, cows can be aggressive and don’t like competition. If I can agitate a lead cow, she might come to me in an attempt to fight or run me off. Of course if she comes in, she will likely bring the entire herd with her, including the bull I am after.”
Morris says the one problem with this tactic is if you call in a group of cows, you increase the odds of getting busted. “Many cows live 10 or 15 years and are much smarter than a bull. If I call a few of them in, I have to be on guard not to move at the wrong time or they will blow my cover. That said, if the situation is right, calling in a herd of elk can be a great way to get within bow range of a bull,” Morris explained.
Morris believes calling too softly, or not calling at all, causes more hunters to go home empty-handed than aggressive calling does.
“In the last decade or so, more hunters are calling very little or not at all in an attempt to not spook call-shy bulls. I think this is a big mistake,” Morris said. “I am sure sometimes I call too much or too loudly, but being aggressive with my calling allows me to locate and find that bull that wants to come in. I strike out sometimes, but I call many bulls in close by being aggressive.”
Steve Fernandez from Southern Colorado is an elk-hunting guide who specializes in bowhunting. In fact, a few years ago he called in a 400-inch bull for a client at Vermejo Park Ranch. Although Vermejo Park is a large, private ranch, Fernandez said calling huge bulls in close is a challenge no matter where you are hunting. He says the key to success is getting in close. “Many hunters talk to a bull when he is on a ridge or mountain top away,” Fernandez said.
“If the bull is interested, he cuts the distance in half and then hangs up, looking for the challenger. The reason we were able to tag the 400-inch bull is because we got up close and personal. I like getting inside 100 yards, and sometimes even closer, before I get aggressive with my calling. When I am really close, I will rake branches, glunk and chuckle. I am trying to force the bull’s hand. When he thinks I am right next to him, he often will come in to investigate, which is what happened with the 400-inch bull. He thought I was coming for his cows and was ticked off. He had no choice but to come and fight.”
Another tactic Fernandez enjoys is placing his hunter right on the top of a ridge while he is calling down on the other side.
“One reason many bulls hang up is because they come in close and can’t see the bull they can hear,” Fernandez said. “By placing the hunter on a knob and calling from the other side, the bull thinks he has to come down over the top to see me. When he reaches the ridge top, the hunter can take a shot. Many hunters call when there isn’t much cover, so a bull comes in and hangs up when they look around and don’t see the bull or cow they are hearing. If I can’t place my hunter on a ridge top, I like to have a lot of cover so the bull has to come close to find me.”
Fernandez isn’t afraid to move either. “Many hunters don’t get close enough to a bull before they start calling. Once they start calling, they stay in one spot. A real bull is always moving, always making noise and in many cases, he rushes in for the challenge. That is what I want to imitate,” he said. “I like to get close, make lots of noise, and then move to the left and right, bugling and raking branches. I will then move back and forth and mew from several different cow calls so I sound like a couple different cows.
“Hunters shouldn’t be afraid to move in on a bull, especially if they have good cover between them and the bull. Elk never stand around; they are noisy and constantly on the go. Hunters should do the same thing. When I move in and get close, most bulls are convinced I am the real thing and charge in.”
Both of these individuals know how to talk elk. They know when to say what and neither of them are afraid to say it. Sure, some bulls are call shy, but being aggressive, being willing to move and being willing to take a chance — much like when playing poker or chess—can pay off.