Making elk sounds properly while hunting will increase your chances of success, especially during the rut. On this page we will get down to the nitty gritty of doing elk talk with elk hunting calls.
Everyone is tempted to make bugle call sounds, including us, but the real temptation to bulls is cow elk calls. A bugling elk call is great for locating bulls early in the morning, but done too much will usually result in a bull elk moving away from you.
The calm elk sounds of a contented herd of cows and calves, or an estrus whine during the peak of the rut will attract a bull elk much more effectively.
Cows and calves, and even bulls, all make “mews” and “chirping” elk sounds. A mew sounds like a drawn out chirp.
Chirps: Chirps are short noises made by all elk. It’s a good assumption to assume they use this sound to stay in touch with each other. Elk herds are very sociable. They like to stay in touch (elk texting?). A chirp discussion very possibly means something like, “I’m OK over here. How about you?” Or, “This place is overgrazed. I’m heading this way.” “I’m right behind you!” (OK. Let’s not get carried away.)
To make a cow chirp on a call ( mouth diaphragm (audio) , hand held blow call (audio) , or squeeze bulb) figure out how to make a high pitched squeal “eee” and how to make a lower tone “uhh” with first more and then less pressure. The eee and uhh are both short in duration with no pause. “ee-uh”. The higher the pitch, the younger and smaller the animal (calf).
Mews: Mews are a little longer elk sound than a chirp and can become quite pleading. “eeeuuuuuh”, It might be reasonable to think it’s like saying, “I’m over here all alone. Where are you? Let’s stay close. OK?” Of course, mews can go from sounding quite relaxed, to an outright pleading attitude. “Attitude” is a very good word to use when describing tone changes in all elk talk. An older cow will have a more nasal sound at the end. Eee-uuuuh, with a sharp stop, not trailing off.
(Audio of mew on hand held reed call.)
Calf mews are a very high pitched, “eeuh”. They are often somewhat desperate sounding when they have been separated from their mother or the herd. (Actual lost calf audio) They will often keep it up until they get “found” again. If you duplicate a calf mew, you might find that a cow elk comes to you. The cow will know it’s not her calf, because they know their own calves’ voices. After all, most mothers will try to help a crying, lost child.
(Audio of calf mew on mouth diaphragm.)
If you really want to get the attention of a herd of cows (that might have a bull among them), a calf mew could be done repetitively for several minutes, while walking around rather noisily. When a calf is lost, he wanders around making desperate pleading mews. The risk, of course, is that you will get busted during all that movement.
Here is extended audio of a lost calf, with cows and bull sounds.
An elk bark (audio) is one elk sound you don’t normally want to replicate in the woods. Usually it is done in a stressful situation to indicate danger is present. The first time I heard a bark years ago was when a big cow had snuck up on me while I as cow talking. She saw me before I saw her. She barked and I looked around for some kind of dog. She was staring eye to eye with me.
It is very possible that a bark is kind of like a curse word, like when someone startles you or you hit your thumb. Sometimes a bull might use a bark to fuss at some cows that aren’t where he thinks they should be, or when another bull sneaks in too close to his territory without warning.
It might be something worth trying to duplicate when trying to call elk and nothing else is working, but generally, “don’t cuss at the elk”. Unless you get barked at, then you might find yourself reverting to cussing in English as the herd runs over the ridge.
The estrus whine (actual recording) is an excited vocal expression that cows make when they are ready to be bred, right now. Bulls are highly motivated and aroused when they hear that “love talk”, but they probably have a good idea when that sound should be heard. If you do it too soon before the peak of the rut, the bulls might get suspicious. Overusing the estrus whine can be counter-productive.
Some elk calling experts separate a “hyper hot” cow elk sound from standard “estrus” sounds and some will use the two terms interchangeably. It does seem that some cows get extra pumped up with the gyrating, wavy calls they make when they are ready to be bred. I think it’s a good assumption that an elk making this sound is saying, “I am sooo ready! Get over here you big hunk!”
It sounds something like this, "EEuuuh, eeEEeeuh”, with wavy pleading high pitch variations, not just two tones as with the mew. There is no exact cadence because all elk are different. The biggest problem is doing it too much or outside the rut peak. Sometimes it works toward the end of the rut.
(Audio of estrus sound on mouth diaphragm.)
(Audio of estrus sound on hand held reed.)
It is also possible that cows in estrus get desperate toward the end of their estrus cycle and start pleading their case with more “emotion”. A cow’s estrus cycle only lasts about 24 hours. A hyper hot estrus whine might be something she does in the last hours of the cycle.
Reproduction is a very high priority and the Lord created these effective communication methods, along with smell and smell receptors, and all the rutting rituals in order to sustain strong herds through competitive bulls.
If you make an estrus whine at the right time and a bull buys it, he can suddenly get stupid real fast. Use the estrus call judiciously, though. Find out when the peak of the rut is and make this sound when nothing else is bringing the bulls in (generally around the end of September).
This might be a good time to spray some of that nasty smelling “cow elk in estrus urine” into the air, particularly if the breeze suddenly switches in the direction of the bull and you can’t do anything to correct the situation.
Wayne Carlton's Hunters Specialties, was one of the first to promote a fighting cow call made with a hand held reed call. To sound like fighting cows the cadence of high squeals are made to sound like two cows standing up and “boxing” each other with their hooves. To reproduce the sound of the fighting action make short, wavy high pitched squeals ending with nasal sounds toward the end of each call.
Follow the instructions for these types of calls, or listen to a tape recorded by the manufacturers, if you want to try to attract a crowd of elk to watch a good fight (while you set up for a shot). Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Try different elk sounds until something works.
Remember that bulls all bugle differently, so many variations of bugles will be heard. There is no "right" way to do it. They mix up the different bugles. Elk haven't read the text book on bugling.
A Locater Bugle is a relaxed bugle made when bulls want to let other elk know where they are and find out where other elk are. It’s a good elk sound to make first thing in the early morning before or just after daylight to help you decide where to go in pursuit of elk. Locater bugles are not aggressive sounding. Sometimes they are just a single note long(actual audio) . Deep growls and grunts are usually not done at the end. Most elk bugles only last about three seconds. (Audio of locater bugle done with mouth diaphragm call.)
(Actual recording of live bull doing locater bugle.)
A Display Bugle sounds a little more aggressive, but is mainly a show off bugle for the cows in the area. A little more growl is added at the beginning and end of the bugle with some grunts and chuckles. To do the growl, simply add your growly voice while you use the call. Do some grunts and chuckles at the end by huffing in and out with gravely voice sounds. (See “Chuckles” below.)
(Audio of real bulls doing display bugles.)
(Audio of display bugle on mouth diaphragm call.)
A Challenge Bugle is what calling competition judges like to hear. It is a bugle made by a bull who wants to intimidate other bulls with an angry sounding growly, screaming bad boy bugle.
(Audio of actual challenge bugle.)
(Actual audio of several bulls challenging each other.)
If everything else has failed to call a responding bull in, you might see if you can get him mad enough to come in for a fight. By that time, you’ve probably followed him around against his warnings, only to have him move his cows away from you several times. Now it’s time to challenge him, especially if he is doing challenge bugles (imitate their attitude).
Get as close as you can and blow a challenge bugle at him. He’ll probably just move away, but every now and then, one gets excited enough to come in screaming mad.
(Audio of challenge bugle done on mouth diaphragm call.)
An aggressive growl starts the bugle sequence, quickly crescendos to a scream at the higher note with lots of vocal sounds during the scream, ending with growling and short screams during the grunting chuckling phase. To make the vocal sounds during the high pitch scream, “blow beets” with very tight lips (like you would get in trouble for in Sunday school as a kid) into the grunt tube while simultaneously making the high pitch sound through the reed.
(Audio demonstration of parts of challenge bugle with mouth diaphragm call.)
The challenge bugle is an elk sound with a big, bad attitude. It’s made by bulls to attempt to send other bulls running. Do you really want to make that kind of call while pursing bull elk? You decide, depending on the situation. It rarely pays off, but it’s fun to do, regardless!
Chuckles (grunts and chuckles) are short in and out sounds used sometimes after, or even without, a bugle sound. Making this bull elk sound using a latex diaphragm reed call in your mouth requires a quick in and out huffing action. Cough out sharply into the grunt tube while blowing over the reed and then immediately suck air back in. Do this repeatedly for a few seconds. Use your growly voice at the same time. Chuckles and grunts are important elk sounds to learn to make.
(Here's one way do grunts and chuckles on a call.)
(Actual audio of bull chuckling.)
Sometimes elk get quiet and all you might here is a subtle grunt and chuckle sequence, particularly once the day heats up and suspected human presence makes the bulls a little more cautious.
Glunks are weird noises made in the back of the throat by a bull. It’s hard to duplicate credibly. It sounds very close, however, to the noise you get by slapping the palm of your hand on the small, mouth end of your grunt tube. A bad glunk might sound too human manufactured. It’s probably not a real important thing to learn. I don’t know if anyone knows why they make this strange sound for sure.
It’s good to be familiar with all of these elk sounds, but not necessary to learn how to make them all. It can be counterproductive to make some of them, particularly challenge bugles or barks. Elk sounds are beautiful music to an elk hunter. It means you’re right there among them, or they’re just over the ridge.
At a minimum, learn to make cow elk sounds with hand held reed calls, or diaphragm in mouth calls. Add locater bugles, grunts and chuckles and you’ll be making elk sounds that will help you have “close encounters of the herd kind”.
Spend some time listening to tons of actual elk sounds by clicking over to the Elk Recordings page.
Please subscribe to or our Quick Elk Hunting Tips and Updatesnewsletter or to an RSS feed (see left column for both) to be alerted whenever new information is added to the site.
We'd appreciate it if you would "Like" us on Facebook, or share this site with others.