Elk Hunting: The Sounds of September
I sat on the porch of the shooting house at my local gun club; except for me the porch was empty. In front of me was a .22 range, a centerfire range and a pistol range - also empty. I had a gun for each range in the car in case the spirit over took me, but I was mostly looking for a conversation with a like mind.
To the left of the shooting house was the archery range. For a half-hour I'd watched as a young man shot arrow after arrow with intense focus. He shot standing, kneeling and sitting. Sometimes leaning forward, other times leaning backward. At one point he took three steps at full draw, stopped, then shot.
What I found most impressive about his shooting was the size of his groups. He shot five arrows at a time at a target about the size of a quarter and every group was about the size of a baseball and right on target. Not impressed yet? He was shooting from 70 yards.
When I couldn't take it anymore I walked up to the young man and asked, "What gives?"
"Sorry sir?" He asked a little confused.
"Well, I've been watching you for a while now and I can't figure out if you are some sort of trick shooter or if you just have too much time on your hands." I think he thought I was kidding; I wasn't.
"Last year on an elk hunt in Colorado I bugled two different bulls in to 70 yards. I couldn't get closer to either and I wasn't prepared to shoot that far. I'm headed back in two weeks and this time I'll be ready." He was dead serious.
"I'm pretty sure that if you don't get a bull it won't be because of your shooting. What are your plans to get closer?" He looked a little irritated at my suggestion that a broader strategy might be helpful.
"You've hunted elk before?" I could tell if I answered "no" that I was in for a lecture.
"I've killed one or two. Why don't you give your bow a rest and meet me on the porch. I'll buy you a pop and see if I can't offer some helpful tips." He obliged.
As I opened a bottle of pop I asked him to tell me the story of the two bulls that got away. "Same story happened twice. I was in the aspens trading bugles with a bull. He came in to about 70 yards, stopped bugling then just walked away."
I couldn't help but smile. I've been there. Heck, every person that has ever called to an elk has been there. When I suggested that he should stop hunting bugles and start hunting elk his face showed both curiosity and agitation; when he sat back in his chair instead of standing to leave I knew he really wanted a bull, and that I'd finally found the conversation for which I'd been looking.
Hunters new to chasing elk during the rut are immediately beguiled by the bugle. It's no surprise that the elk rut is often referred to as "bugle season." Anyone who has ever listened to a bugle rise from the bowels of dark timber and ascend toward the painful blue of a Rocky Mountain sky knows that there is no call on this earth more captivating than that of a bull elk.
So captivating is the bugle that inexperienced elk hunters can, and do, forget that the bugle is but one piece in the puzzle of hunting during the rut. Successfully calling elk requires a genuine understanding of the elk rut, knowledge of all the vocalizations made by elk during the rut and a comprehension of the "other sounds" that elk produce during the rut as a result of preparing to court and breed.
A bugle tube, various cow calls, a wind indicator (home made from a tube
of gun oil in this case) and a hefty stick are all the tools an elk hunter
needs to harvest a bull during the rut. Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.
The rut is triggered by a photo response in elk. Simply put, the length of day determines when the elk rut will begin. In most areas the rut starts sometime late in August and lasts through the beginning of October. A cow in estrus can be bred for 12 to 18 hours; if she is not bred during that time she'll come in to estrus again 21 days later. Up to three cycles can occur in a single season.
For most of the year elk vocalizations are mostly limited to mews and chirps. Elk are social animals and they provide reassurance and comfort to one another through these mild, pleasant calls.
As the rut approaches bulls will begin to bugle, rake their horns on trees and wallow. Eventually the bulls will battle one another to determine a pecking order within the bachelor groups. Ultimately a small percentage of bulls will establish themselves as herd bulls and build a harem of cows that they will court for breeding and defend vehemently from other bulls.
The author with a 300 point 6x6 harvested by getting between two bugling
bulls; the author didn't use a call of any form rather adjusted position
to stay between the bulls. Photo by Matt Gantt.
Every herd will be surrounded by satellite bulls who will gladly step in should something happen to the herd bull and who will try to breed any cow that strays too far from the herd. Satellite bulls will continue to bugle, rake and wallow through the rut and will constantly challenge the herd bull for cows.
With all the bugling, raking, wallowing and fighting - elk make a lot of noise during the rut. In fact, of all the deer species elk are by far the most raucous member. It's true that the single most defining element of the elk rut is the bugle; but it is the other sounds of the rut that may ultimately help a hunter coax a bull into range.
The bugle will always play a key role when hunting during the rut. In fact, under the right conditions and with a little luck a bugle by itself can bring a bull in to legitimate range of a bow or muzzleloader. Bugling works best early in the season when bulls have not yet received heavy hunting pressure and are focused on establishing dominance over other bulls.
Bugling will always have a place in calling bulls during the rut, but knowing when
and how to supplement the bugle with other sounds is essential to consistently scoring
in September. Most importantly a hunter must know when to put the bugle in the
backpack and use other tactics to pursue a call shy bull. Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.
To successfully use a bugle as a call, hunters must first ensure that they are bugling correctly. Most new hunters spend hours perfecting the sound of their call and most of them take to the woods sounding great. Much less thought is given to how, when and where the call will be applied and when a bull doesn't come running after the first toot, the hunt is derailed before it ever really made it out of the station.
Just as when calling turkeys and deer, a hunter must not create suspicion while calling. The young man I spoke with at the archery range made a classic mistake; he hid behind a tree in an aspen forest and challenged a bugling bull. Aspen forests are very open and when the bull got to a point where he thought he should see his challenger and didn't; he simply got nervous and left.
Hunters must bugle from areas with enough cover to hide a real-life bull; this will keep the challenger moving forward. In addition, turning and bugling away from the approaching elk will give the impression that the would-be bull is further away and will also help keep the bull moving closer to the hunter's location.
There are times, however, when the perfect bugle and best laid plan won't bring a bull in to range. When a bugle by itself just won't work, hunters need to be prepared with a strategy that uses a broad spectrum of elk sounds to get a bull in close.
The easiest call to use as a supplement to bugling is tree raking. A baseball bat sized stick can be used to rake a spruce to imitate this sound. The more noise the better - feet stomping, intense raking and loud breathing will add realism to the effort. A tree that is 10 or 15 feet tall with branches that will allow access to the trunk is ideal. The tree will shake from the beating it receives and will add visual effect to the calling sequence. I've watched trees twice as tall shake from an elk raking without actually ever seeing the elk.
The noise and movement will likely convince the elk that the hunter is a bull. He will, however, know exactly where the noise is coming from and will be looking for his challenger. At the very least enough cover to not create suspicion will be needed and the hunter will need to stay dead still after raking the tree. If the set up will allow it, moving down wind 40 or 50 yards immediately after raking the tree will remove the hunter from the spot the bull will be looking and will prevent the hunter from being winded if he circles.
During the rut elk will also wallow. I've read volumes on wallowing and frankly I'm not sure anyone knows exactly why they do it. The fact is they do; and to hunters that's all that really matters. When searching for wallows look in areas where a stream crosses a bench and creates ground saturation before continuing down the mountain.
Elk will roll in these areas creating a depression in the mud the size of a large watering trough. An active wallow will have light brown elk hair ringing the edges, there will be countless tracks in the mud and heavy trails leading to and from the location. Most notably, they will stink. When searching for a wallow rely on your nose as much as your eyes. If you catch a barnyard odor in dark timber, work in to the wind and likely as not you'll find a wallow (or an elk).
Elk roll in wallows coating themselves with mud. Elk will urinate and defecate in a wallow, then roll some more. Multiple bulls will foul a wallow, each polluting it with excrement and each rolling in it to prepare for battle and breeding. A mature bull elk fresh from a wallow reminds me of a football player leaving the locker room at game time; angry in the eyes, dressed for war and completely overdosed on testosterone. A bugling bull emerging from a wallow is at once an awesome display of nature and just plain scary as hell to a hunter a few yards away.
As you can imagine, when elk wallow they make a fair amount of noise. When a hunter comes across a fresh wallow that does not have elk in it (assuming of course the hunter did not scare the elk out of it) there is an opportunity to use the wallow for calling. A baseball bat sized stick can be used to rake spruce around the wallow and splash in the wallow. Add bugles and cow mews and any elk within hearing distance will simply think the wallow is active and will likely come to investigate. A hunter should set up off the wallow a few yards down wind and behind good cover when the calling sequence is complete.
Give it time after calling. This is one time a bull won't be suspicious if he doesn't see elk. He'll realize another bull could have wallowed and simply left. He's likely to come to wallow with intentions of covering another bull's scent.
As the season progresses and the herd bulls establish their harems they are less likely to come to bugling and other aggressive bull sounds and more likely to take their cows and move away from the threat. When imitating rutting bull sounds is not producing results, a hunter must move to more subtle tactics. Cows are vocal throughout the rut and simulating cow talk can bring a bull to investigate. If a hunter will be satisfied with a satellite bull (and lets be honest, most of us are) using a cow mew can be very effective.
The author's friend, Matt Gantt, called this 4x5 bull to less than 10 yards using only cow calls.
Satellite bulls spend the entire season trying to breed but suffer constant disappointment as they are run off by a herd bull. Cow mews will frequently bring one of these bulls in to range, especially if he's not heard bugling in the vicinity of the cow call. Again, don't create suspicion while calling; use cover and call volume to create curiosity and confusion about the cow's exact location.
Sometimes, despite a hunter's best effort, none of the calling strategies work. I've pondered why this might be to the point of driving myself mad and I can't figure it out. At times, calling to an elk feels completely natural and brings perfect results; other times it feels like you are talking too loud in church. Alas, during those times when nothing works I shut my mouth all together and let the elk do the calling for me.
Elk are crepuscular (active mostly at dawn and dusk). Though I've killed elk early in the morning, right at lunch and just before dark and though I make a point to hunt as many hours of the day as I can while elk hunting; I'm on full red-alert at dawn and dusk…especially when bulls aren't responding to calls.
During the rut bulls will likely bugle early in the morning and as dark approaches. A hunter who is not finding success with calling can position in an area where bulls are bugling, high on a ridge to gain as much of a birds-eye view as possible, and allow a bull's natural instinct to give away his location. While the bulls bugle to each other on their own the hunter can move down wind and toward a specific bull.
The author's brother, Brian, harvested this 340 point 6x6 by working toward a
bugle from the down wind side. Brian got to within 20 yards and never called once.
A hunter will need to approach this strategy with urgency. Bulls will typically stop bugling as morning progresses and darkness will end the chase in the evening. Hunters should move with purpose toward the bugle. As long as a hunter is downwind, any noise made during the stalk will go unnoticed as elk constantly make plenty of noise themselves. Depending on the lay of the land, the hunter is will want to slow down and still hunt once he's within two hundred yards. I've spoken to many new elk hunters who were surprised both with how close they were able to get using this tactic and with how effective this strategy is in general.
If two bulls are obviously challenging one another, a hunter can move to a location between the bulls and adjust position as required to attempt intercepting them at a likely meeting point. Using this strategy during a Colorado hunt I found myself in a very open aspen meadow and horribly exposed; but because I'd kept quiet a large framed 5x5 looked right "through me" as he searched for his challenger. He actually made it to about 10 yards before winding me and plain old back luck kept me from getting the shot.
As I watched the spooked bull running toward the county line his challenger bugled behind me. I turned in time to watch an even bigger 6x6 emerge from the dark timber. At 60 yards he gave me a perfect muzzleloader shot and I took it. I had spooked one bull, but the other kept coming. On that particular morning I missed a legal non-typical 3x3, spooked two 5x5's that were well within range and shot the biggest bull I've ever killed - all without ever making a call.
Once again I sat on the shooting house porch looking for a conversation; once again failing to find one. It was a cool, drizzly, late September morning. Though conversation was lacking, with the quiet and calm of the early hour and the promise of fall heavy in the air - it wasn't the worst place to enjoy a cup of coffee.
A little red pick-up parked next to the porch and I was inspired with the promise of conversation. When my young trick shooter hopped out of the truck with a toothy grin, I had a feeling I knew what the topic would be.
He pulled an elk rack out of the back of the truck and placed it on the porch. I handed him a cup of coffee and asked, "So how far was your shot?"
"Seventeen yards." I didn't think it was possible, but his grin got bigger.
"How'd you do it?" I asked with genuine curiosity.
He paused as he thought for a moment and then answered, "I decided to hunt more than bugles. I hunted all the sounds of September."
Doug Humphreys lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia with his wife Aundrea, his son Oren and daughter Amelia. Doug hunts as often as he can in as many places as he can get to and enjoys freelancing for hunting publications.