October 28, 2010
By Jay Strangis
"You've Got To Call A Lot And Often Because Elk Call A Lot And Often."--Big Al Morris
By Jay Strangis
It's not the bulls that control the herd, but the lead cow, according to top elk caller Big Al Morris, who watches the cow's reaction to his first calls. "Once she puts her head back down and starts feeding, they're in real trouble," he claims.
Some guys just have a knack for certain things. "Big" Al Morris found his knack when he was 15 years old, the year he called in his first bull elk. Over the years I've written a lot of stories about well-known people, mini-biographies, if you will, documenting their talents, their knowledge, their skill, sometimes even their travails. Some of those people were truly outstanding individuals, real heroes to be admired. Ed Bilderback who guided Fred Bear was one such person. However, I also have to admit there were other subjects I had no more contact with than a telephone-call interview, no more knowledge of their lives than what I'd read from other writers and heard from the subjects themselves. To be honest, some turned out to be little more than wannabes in their proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
Big Al Morris, 35, is the real deal; I know because I've hunted with him. He's an elk caller, not a contest caller, though he's won his share. Big Al doesn't just call elk, he manages them with his call. I wouldn't have believed his talents if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes.
We first hunted together in 1997, 15 years after he had called in that first bull, and what I saw on the first morning of our hunt made me shake my head in wonder. The scene was northern Colorado. We were watching a herd of elk on the opposite side of a valley that lay before us. Big Al, myself and another bowhunter had bumped a small group of cows and a herd bull on the way in at first light, but Al had calmed the animals with a few careful calls. Nothing overly impressive there, but yeoman's work, to be sure.
As we watched the larger herd from a sparse stand of mature aspen, Al directed us to take positions at the front of the trees. He then proceeded to work his magic. Using a chorus of fighting cow calls, chirps and small bugles, the guide convinced those elk there was another herd on our side of the valley. At least 500 yards of open ground separated us from the large group of elk. Suddenly, a satellite bull broke away from the herd and headed our way.
He was coming straight across the entire valley on a dead walk. The 5x5 bull stood just outside the trees peering in when I launched a shot that sent him on a dead run downhill, doing a swan dive into a beaver pond. My hunt was over. But Al wasn't finished. He continued his calling, getting another satellite from the same herd to perform the same routine. Five hundred yards later, the bull stood 10 feet in front the other bowhunter, who in some kind of meltdown inexplicably missed the point-blank shot. I'd never seen anything like it, and I wouldn't again until I hunted with Big Al two years later and he performed the same magic for me.
Big Al isn't just a good elk hunter, he's an inimitable character. His size--6' 2" and about 275 pounds--western Utah drawl and large face topped with a big cowboy hat belie his gentle disposition and almost impish smile. The big man loves talking to, and about, elk, and he's eminently quotable. He's also not shy about telling you how good he is at his craft, but then, he is good. He's not a run-and-gun elk guide; his big frame doesn't allow it, and his talent with a cow doesn't warrant it. But he does credit his size with his success, saying he sounds more like a herd of elk coming through the timber than other hunters do.
Al's father, Charlie Morris, was an elk hunter. According to Al, one day many, many years ago, as his pop sat in his Lazy Boy reading an article about elk calling, he jumped up and said, "Bull crap!" The magazine piece claimed that Wayne Carlton could call elk within feet. It listed Carlton's telephone number at the end of the piece.
Al's dad got right on the phone, dialed the number and none other than Wayne himself answered the phone. Wayne offered to sell the man diaphragm calls and a bugle tube with a money-back guarantee. When the calls arrived, Charlie Morris slobbered and sweated for three hours trying to make a sound. He called Wayne back and told the call maker he couldn't get a peep out of the calls, but that his son could make a squeak. Wayne asked Charlie to put young Al on the telephone, and he proceeded to teach the boy how to make the sweet sounds of elk talk. Al was a natural.
Big Al Morris and the cow's-head decoy he has used to help take numerous bulls for his clients.
That fall, Charlie and his hunting partner shot bulls behind the youngster's calls. Nobody was more impressed than the trio itself, and the three kept young Al's abilities a secret for the next 10 years, killing elk all the while. "The fun part was when someone would draw a special tag," Big Al told me. "And we started buying landowner tags in the Book Cliff's area of eastern Utah." The culmination of Charlie Morris' elk-hunting career was a 350-scoring 6x6 bull taken in the Book Cliff's behind Al's call.
Big Al became a licensed plumber to support himself, but it appeared his elk-calling career was predestined. When a friend introduced him to a Colorado outfitter in 1993, Big Al went to work in the mountains. "By then, my dad and his friends all had nice bulls hanging on the walls," Al recalls. Today he helps manage Three Fork Ranch near Slater, Colorado, with ranch manager Jay Linderman, controlling 200,000 acres of prime elk and antelope ground, coursed with trout streams and beaver ponds, where Al and his crew guide about 65 bull elk hunters each fall.
What draws Big Al to elk hunting, besides the fact that he is a master caller? The same things that draw you and me. "Dad hunted elk before I started calling," Big Al told me, "but it seemed like we were always chasing or waiting for them to come to us. But once we had that first day of serious calling, that was it.
"I get a kick out of knowing what an elk is going to do before the elk does. That's when it gets fun to be hunting. Last year I told a guy I was guiding, 'that bull is going to come in.' The bull was a mile away. 'I'll eat my hat,' the hunter said. (The bull) came all the way down off public land, off the top of a mountain, and we killed him. I asked the hunter if he wanted his hat boiled or baked."
Big Al also gets a kick out of experimenting and learning new tricks to sharpen his skills. When hunting buddy Boris Popov and I rendezvoused Al in elk camp a co
uple of years ago, we showed up with an elk head on a stick. Outlaw Decoys, the makers of a full-bodied silhouette elk decoy, created the prop at our request. We wanted something more portable, thus the cow's head on a stick. Big Al didn't laugh, but he did keep forgetting the prop in his truck. When he finally did bring it afield, he tried showing it to a bull at about 90 yards and the animal spotted it and moved on.
Undaunted, Al carried the head through the mountains like a kid carrying a Popsicle. When the bowhunter Al was guiding got caught crouching in the open by an oncoming bull, Al flashed the bull that head. Tensed up and ready to bolt, the bull let down when he saw the cow's head, relaxing and turning his attention to the other elk and allowing the bowhunter to draw his bow. "The guy shot completely through that bull," Al told me. "The bull leaned over, smelled the arrow, stood there and then keeled over. He was totally relaxed until the end.
"There's a lot of hunters who owe their success to that decoy," Al exclaimed. "Where we used to have about 40 to 45 percent success on bulls that have come in close, we now have about 80 to 85 percent success. And the average shot distance dropped from 30-35 yards to about 22 yards. Those bulls come in and they're looking for a reason to leave. They're looking for a booger man. They've already heard what they need to hear. They see that cow head and they just see what they need to see."
THE HARDEST PART
I asked Al what was hardest about elk hunting. "For most public-land elk hunters, the hardest part is finding an elk to hunt," he explained. "The way to circumvent that is to pay the money and hunt on a private ranch. But that research, that homework (locating elk), is more important than what kind of call you carry or what kind of bow you carry.
"Cows are a big problem. I noticed I was making great calls and had bulls coming, but these old cows would throw up their heads and start runnin', so I started worrying about the cows. Cows decide everything--where, when and how the herd goes. What I started doing with my diaphragm was try to make that lead cow think we're another elk herd. Once she puts her head down and starts feeding, they're in real trouble and I can start working on the bull.
Big Al with his best archery elk, a 320 bull taken in western Utah.
"Cows are a problem because they live longer and are more experienced than most bulls. We're killing bulls in Colorado that are three-and-a half to four-and-a-half years old, but we're killing cows that are more than 12 years old.
"After the big bulls set in with their cows, anybody can call in a satellite bull. But the big bulls are tough. Once I get the lead cows coming my way, I do a small bull bugle and the herd bull won't take it; he's going to clear the way."
Al and his talented crew of guides have also started rattling for bull elk. Guide Paul Brown showed up in camp last fall with a big set of whitetail antlers, and then Al, Paul and guide Wes Payton began experimenting. "We rattled in eight bulls between September 7 and 15. With the fighting cow call, the decoy and rattling, we're really building a reputation for getting guys in close," Big Al told me.
What are the most common elk hunting mistakes? According to Al, believing outdoor writers who say "leave your calls at home." "I get really frustrated with writers because they don't do this every day," he says. "I'm calling more today than I did 10 years ago. Most hunters aren't calling enough.
"Sure, the first bull of the year picks up his head and runs into the next drainage, but you've got to keep calling to find that bull that will come in to your call. If you're playing the interception game between feeding and bedding areas, you're going to lose that game. An elk can walk and feed faster than you can run.
"'Course, on public lands you've got to get away from the roads--you've got to get at least five miles from a road--and that's hard to do." He says that hunters who call from the door of their truck, then drive away are educating many elk near roads.
"Elk are social animals. They're constantly calling, talking and jabbering to each other. You've got to convince those elk that you are another group of elk." The big man who calls in up to 70 bulls a year says, "I stay on the calls. You have to call a lot and often because elk call a lot and often. Guys aren't paying me to run their ass up the hill and intercept elk; they're paying me to call elk in. "A lot of guys go in timid. There are times to be subtle, but you have to let the elk tell you. Seven out of 10 times, if you call more than less you'll be successful.
"And you've got to manage the wind. Once you're hunting elk, it doesn't matter if you're a world champion caller or not. If they smell you--you know the deal--it's over. They'll hear you three times, see you twice, but only smell you once--then it's over. Guys say they can't call big bulls,
but with scent-elimination systems, some of these really serious elk hunters are getting away with a lot by managing their scent. I keep scent eliminator with me in the truck and carry estrus urine in the field. I use that a lot."
TOP TRICK CALL
"Bar none, my number-one call is that fighting-cow call by Wayne Carlton. There are other estrus calls out there, but this one reproduces that estrus whine. I expel a lot of air at the end. I get that big expulsion of air--smooth, smooth, then drop it off the table. You can also get that high-pitched spike, or whine, in the middle. You can get clean, whining or raspy, but the thing that really gets 'em to come in is to see the elk that's in this tremendous heat. Sometimes, cows come over just to shut up the bulls. The Squeeze Me call by Hunter's Specialties produces a really good cow call. Bulls want a cow around."
"I've had my knife in more than 450 elk," Big Al reports. But his most exciting hunt, he says, was his dad's biggest bull, the 350-score six-point.
They'd been hunting the Book Cliffs area, had left the horses and started hiking in what Big Al describes as a 300-yard walk that turned into a six-mile hike. "We didn't have a canteen and were dying of thirst," not wanting to drink from a creek for fear of girardia bacteria, is the way Al describes it, . "Dad says, 'It bubbles up right up here,'" indicating a spot where they could get a drink.
"We go two miles up and what do we find but a fresh, fresh wallow, so I decide to call, but I can't make a sound because my mouth's so dry. I keep running back and forth to the creek to wet my mouth to call. That bull finally came in to 22 yards, and dad shot him with a 7mm Weatherby."
Al lost his father three years ago. He recalled the time they had watched a herd of cows in the head of a canyon in the Book Cliffs. It was a peaceful scene, and Charlie turned to Al and said, "Son, when I die, I'd like my ashes spread here." They later shot a bull from that herd. "Another bull was with those cows soon after," Big Al recalled. "They never missed a beat." Eventually returning to the precise spot where those cows grazed, Al spread his dad's ashes.
THE EASIEST PART
What does Big Al feel is the easiest part of elk hunting? "The calling, for me. This will be my 20th year with a diaphragm call in my mouth. Now it's second nature. I think I've forgotten more than most people have ever learned. Early in the season I make the same mistake every year--like when a bull comes in quiet in the first week of September. I don't wait long enough, then there's a bull standing there looking at me. I have to tell myself, Don't do that again. "But I'm really confident. I know what to say, when to say it and how to say it."
You sure do, Big Al.
For more information on hunting Three Forks Ranch, contact Jay Linderman, Ranch Manager or Al Morris, Recreation Manager, Three Forks Ranch, P.O. Box 69, Savery, WY 82332; (970) 583-7396; www.threeforksranch.com