Elk calling in competition is an art, but you don’t have to be a hunting call artist to be successful at using elk hunting calls. Elk call to each other all the time to communicate many things which we don’t fully understand. Most elk talk can be easily reproduced using elk hunting calls on the market today.
In my early years of elk hunting I have heard bugle's and thought, “That’s awful. Must be a hunter.” Then found out it really was a bull elk, of course. Some elk just sound terrible, like they aren't "doing it right". They are defintely communicating something specific, but hoarseness does occur during the rut.
This bull is making a funny sounding bugle, He is calling a cow or cows to him. He is saying something specific to a cow or cows, but it's not a sound we recognize as a "normal" three note bugle.
Now when I hear a perfectly executed elk bugle I wonder if it could be another hunter, because most hunters aren't familiar with the many different sounds a bull makes to communicate different things.
Many years ago I took a friend to one of my favorite spots near Trout Creek, Montana. We were on national forest land far behind locked gates on a logging road. We heard a clear “moooo”. Randy said it was cattle. I whispered, “There aren’t any cattle in here.”
We heard the moo sound several times and I kept insisting, “There are no cattle in here!” Randy said, “Well, there are now.” As we moved in that direction the mooing got louder. At one point we heard another moo, without pause it progressed right into a full out bull bugle. It was a herd bull growling, then throwing in a challenge bugle to another bull.
Even if you aren't that good yet at replicating bull elk sounds, elk calls on the market today make it easy to fool (some) elk into letting you find them and get close to them. To fool more takes listening and practice. Consider the many varied types of calls available on the market by clicking here for our discussion and review.
If you make sounds with your call that are nowhere close to elk sounds, you can push elk away from you. So, some practice is in order as well as understanding what the acceptable parameters are for doing elk talk.
The best place to start is spending time listening to elk sounds, live or recorded. Hearing them first hand is certainly a thrill and the best option, but sometimes we just can’t be where they are. (More audio links below.)
We have a separate page with links to lots of actual recorded elk talk that you can listen to. We also have a step by step description of how to make basic elk sounds on the external reeds, or diaphragm calls that go in your mouth on How to Make Elk Sounds page.
There are outside the mouth reed calls that are much easier to use. Simply follow the directions that come with them, after listening to the real thing to know what you think the end result should be. In the mouth diaphragm calls are more difficult to use, but give you more control of the various “attitudes” that you want to convey, as well as freeing up your hands.
If you really want to learn how to understand what elk are saying, how to react to it and how to influence elk with calls, the best resource is Paul Medel's instructional ElkNut's Playbook and Sounds by the Elk CD. Those elk talk tutorials are available with free shipping at the link above. Learn what the elk are saying, then practice talking to them along with the CD.
Calves, cows and bulls all have ways of calling to other elk that can be categorized somewhat. Elk talk year round and bulls often make the same sounds cows do. The bull bugle (audio) and pleading cow call (audio) , as well as the calf mew (audio) are easily identified. However, recognizing the nuances of the vocal tones and elements of the elk sounds takes practice and knowledge that ElkNut has mastered and teaches.
The use of elk calls by hunters has the greatest potential for success during archery season, because the rut coincides with the bow hunting period. During the rut, bulls are completely focused on cows and do a lot of talking to the cows and to each other. They want to know where cows are for mating potential. They keep tabs on the movement and attitude of rival bulls, as well.
During the rifle season elk talk will subside some because the rut is over. They also shut up because of the stress of human presence and their loud activities, including rifle fire, machines, etc. Bulls they might still bugle on rare occasion during rifle season, especially in remote areas that hunters have not been detected. Cows and calves talk to each other year round, but the “estrus scream” will not be heard outside the rut period.
The tools used most often in your elk calling arsenal should be mews and chirps. If you learn no other elk calls, learn these two. In fact, these two cow talk calls will serve you well without any other elk talk reproduction attempts. Many times a bull will give away his location when he hears a cow chirp or mew (audio). A quiet mew of a hunter who has been spotted might even provide him an opportunity to walk around close to the elk, even though a cow or two in the herd suspects his presence.
A bugle will often get a bull to sound off, but it might cause him to move in the opposite direction, especially if he’s young or has a harem of cows under his own influence. Saying the wrong thing with a bull sound might get you the exact wrong result. Spend some time learning what elk are saying and how to talk "intelligently" to them with ElkNut's elk communication instructional resources. As ElkNut teaches, all elk sounds are timing sounds; the right time and the right communication.
During bull elk calling attempts, if you throw a challenge bugle into the mix, he might avoid a situation that he perceives might not be worth the effort. He might decide not to risk facing another bull or losing some cows while he's away. In some situations an aggressive challenge bugle can call a big bull in, if it's done at the right time and circumstances, like when you get in real close to a herd bull.
A "calling cows" demand bugle with chuckles (which is always talking to cows) might just bring a herd bull storming in, because you're demanding his cows to come to you! Most of the time, you have to be right in with the herd bull's cows to make this work, and you better be ready!
If you get a response from your locator bugle from a distance, stop calling and start walking. Knock off about a third of the perceived distance and listen for the bull. Do some soft cow chirps and mews and see if you can get him to speak up again. If he does, be patient. He might be coming to you. (See the Stalking Elk page here.)
Sometimes a juvenile bull sound (audio), with a higher pitch and no growl, will get elk to give up their location and tell you "who's" around.
If you and a partner(s) can sound like a contented herd of cows and calves (audio) , a nearby bull might just be convinced to join the party. Don’t be afraid to make some ground sounds with your “hooves”. When elk are unstressed, they aren’t in quiet mode. A bull likes the idea of joining a stress-free herd of cows and calves.
When calling elk, no matter what sound you are duplicating, don’t over do it. When you make any noise, you are giving away your exact location at that moment. Use your hands to deflect your elk calling sounds away from you. Have a caller separated from the shooter.
Elk are good at pinpointing sounds. One trick to use when hunting and calling elk by yourself is to do some cow talk, then quietly move a little. If you know which direction a bull is, make a cow elk sound and, if he responds, quietly cut off some of the distance between and stop.
Often a bull coming into an elk calling hunter will “hang up” when he doesn’t see the cow (or bull) talking to him. If you have already relocated near the point where he will hang up, you can be ready for a shot. They often will sneak in quietly from your downwind side, so keep your eyes, ears and nose open. Use a wind directional powder to keep aware of that element. A decoy can make him think he sees the cow he thought he heard, directing his eyes away from the shooter.
If you are elk calling with a partner, the shooter should be silent and set up fifty to seventy yards ahead of the caller and toward the located bull for a shot opportunity. The caller’s job is to pull the bull past the shooter. The caller should be over a rise or very still behind some brush, because the bull will be eyeballing his exact location. The caller can call while walking away (in cover) to make the bull follow past the shooter.
If the shooter hits a bull with an arrow, he should immediately bugle or cow talk to stop the bull from a panicked run. You'd be surprised how often that works, despite being stuck with an arrow.
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Audio provided by JR Lear.