Nose to the ground, the buck grunted feverishly. Scouring the woods for a doe in estrus, he was on a mission! Easing the can call from my pocket I gently rolled it over. Emulating a doe bleat, I hoped to attract the giant buck and then halt him long enough for a bow shot. At first it looked like he'd skirt my stand outside of bow range. But then, at the sound of my call, his head snapped to attention and he plodded straight toward me!
Moments earlier I'd tried rattling, but my efforts seemed to be for naught. The call on the other hand, made the difference. The rut was on and he was looking for a doe. Drawing him in close enough for a shot, at 30 yards I put an arrow into him and he's now proudly displayed in my office. With a gross score of 165 inches, he's my best bow buck to date.
Increasingly vocal as the rut approaches and peaks, talk tends to drop off dramatically in the post rut. Over the last 25 years I've learned that different calls work for different species and at different times. Sometimes doe or cow calls work best, while at other times an aggressive buck or bull vocalization will be just the ticket. In the aforementioned encounter I managed to peak the buck's curiosity and brought him in on a string. Had I used a buck grunt instead, its hard to say, but chances are he may have ignored me altogether.
So what did I learn from this experience? Basically this; that given the right circumstance, the appropriate vocalizations, and the correct proactive measures, game can be brought into shooting range on a whim. In years previous, and since that day, I've had many encounters with lots of different big game species.
I've had the privilege of hunting with many proficient callers, and I've also known several who would do best to leave their calls at home. When properly used, calls can work incredibly well. Improperly used, they will sabotage your hunt. Investing time in the woods, learning when, where, and how to use a call is a skill well-worth mastering. Combine calls with other natural sounds like rattling antlers, raking branches, pawing the ground, urinating, and snapping branches, and you could be in for some fast-paced action.
Proactive Versus Reactive Hunting
Most of us hunt reactively. We sit a stand or still hunt then react when the game suddenly appears. Regardless of how we hunt, a game call is a tool that can be applied to prompt an animal to respond desirably. Given the right situation, it can often bring them in on the run. At other times, a call is used to simply get their attention. Regardless of intent, a call can be an invaluable tool in the hands of someone who knows how to use it.
Contrary to common thought, virtually all North American game species make distinct vocalizations throughout the year, not just during their breeding periods. Waterfowl hunters are well-known for using specific calls. By emulating feeding and confidence calls they entice peers to land in a spread of decoys. With big game, however, most of us are more familiar with sounds made during annual rut periods. Elk, moose, antelope, deer, and even wild sheep make very specific sounds; each used to communicate around the time of breeding.
Ungulates become more vocal and vulnerable during their annual rut. Their God-given instinct to procreate evokes this heightened communication. For hunters, the rut is a magical time; a time when we can enter the woods and not just hope for a chance encounter, but proactively probe the woods with a call. Whether it's bugling for elk in September, moaning for moose in early October, or grunting for whitetails in November, each call holds special meaning for both genders.
Why They Talk
Regardless of the species, when it comes to ungulates, rut sounds emitted by bucks and bulls do not necessarily insinuate a threat. Male vocalizations are often statements of dominance. A means used to communicate not only with other males to establish a pecking order, but they are also used to communicate with females. Along with covering more ground in search of breeding partners, males and females of each species have distinct vocalizations. These sounds bring the two together. That said, among the myriad of sounds made by each species, those most advantageous to the hunter express one of two things; either dominance or a desire to breed. Aggressive males hearing the call of another male, may respond to confront the intruder. Conversely, a male may respond favorably to the call of a female anticipating an opportunity to breed. Both are typical scenarios that hunters can capitalize on.
Here's an example; one that I've seen time and again at the height of the elk rut. During the short few days that most cows are in estrus, the bulls are going crazy. Throwing caution to the wind, they will often blast in without a second thought. Use the bugle to locate and declare stature, then switch to the alluring sounds of a lovesick cow, along with imitating the snapping of branches underfoot and bulls will often come in on the run! This is not to say that you'll always get a shot mind you, but you will invariably demand their attention with this routine.
The truth is peak rut periods can be dynamite for talking to most big game animals. In my experience, most species peak within similar timeframes each year. Many of us speculate whether ruts occur early or late from year to year, but most biologists tend to reject this notion. While daytime highs can certainly influence visible movement and even vocalizations, biologically speaking breeding periods take place in accordance with a preordained schedule. For elk in the northern states and Canada, I believe this timeframe is roughly the latter two weeks of September, for moose - the first week of October, for whitetails - the middle of November, for mule deer - the last week of November and first of December, and bighorn sheep - smack dab in the middle of November. Comparatively for bird game, wild turkeys come to mind as another largely dependent upon peak breeding times, with the last two weeks of April and even the early part of May being prime time for calling.
Patience is a Virtue
Calling success comes with experience. Most often this requires time and patience. Learning what sounds to make and when can make or break your hunt. Certain intonations can literally present the difference between an attractive sound and an alarm sound. If you're in a hurry, believe me, the animal you're calling will pick up on that. In our fast-paced world of gratification on demand, we're socialized to anticipate immediate results regardless of what we're doing. When dealing with wild animals, time is in their favor; they've got lots of it, and they respond if, and only if the mood strikes.
The most frequent sins committed by hunters using calls can be traced to impatience. Overzealous calling can sound unnatural. Remember, most animals call infrequently and seldom make the exact same sound twice. Skilled hunters vary their calls and keep in mind that one of the most important reasons animals call is to locate their peers. Although there are exceptions, by overcalling hunters may present an unnatural situation, raising a caution flag for wary game. Equally important is exercising patience after beginning to call from one location. Again, most of us are inclined to move and try elsewhere if we don't get an immediate response. The fastest response I've had is about two seconds. The slowest is likely a half-hour. Both extremes reinforce the fact that animals respond in their own time. One fact remains however, if you call they will come; maybe not right away, and certainly not every time, but all else being equal, their inquisitive nature eventually urges them to move in for a closer look.
Timing and Application
Every game call has its time and place. As a rule, if the animal I'm communicating with is approaching, I stop calling. If and only if it hesitates for more than a brief pause, do I continue calling. Even still, keen perception to your surroundings is imperative to reading each situation. Factors I note include the presence of other animals and whether they are male or female, body posturing, frequency of vocalizations, and of course the type of sounds they're making. The sounds you make should instill confidence that the coast is clear and it's safe to approach.
Another common occurrence is when an animal is either shot, or simply spooked and breaking for cover. In these instances, a call can be used to stop the animal. Often animals shot with an arrow for example, don't realize what has just happened. Hearing the familiar sound, they've been known to hit the brakes, turn and look back. Similarly, a scenario most of us are all too familiar with is when a whitetail buck blows and flags his tail good-bye as he heads for cover. Blowing a grunt call or doe bleat, can at times be an effective strategy for stopping that deer, perhaps long enough for a shot opportunity.
The type of call you use can also make a big difference. Take for example the grunt tube most commonly used for deer. Some emit a loud sound, some a soft. Knowing when and how to use each is a valuable skill that can pay huge dividends. While several manufacturers make great calls, I'm a firm believer in Primos and Lohman products; they've brought in more game for me personally than any other manufacturer's calls.
While I own a variety of different brands, my favorite is the Primos Hands Free Buck & Doe call. Designed with variable settings, it can be adjusted to make louder grunts for when deer are far off, or soft sounds for when they're in close proximity.
Having tried numerous brands, my ultimate choice for elk is a Primos Lead Cow and Calf call. I've been literally surrounded by elk herds with cows talking all around me, and this call blends in perfectly. While I find diaphragm calls to be most versatile, lip calls with a fixed diaphragm can work very well.
For moose I prefer using my voice. That said it's important to supplement your call with something like a birch bark cone to enhance and carry the call to greater distances. While there are good commercial calls on the market, it's easy to learn how to mimic bull grunts and cow moans. Further, moose more than most other big game species, demand a finesse approach; and this requires adaptability and modification of our calls to give them the sounds they want to hear.
Antelope are one of my favorite big game animals to call. Not too many years ago, Lohman introduced their Antelope Challenge call. This alone, or in concert with a silhouette decoy has revolutionized my pronghorn hunting. Particularly useful during the rut, it's distinct succession of buzz-like blows send chills up and down my spine whenever I hear it. So productive is this call that I've had numerous bucks approach to 20 yards or closer.
In the early season, during the pre-rut, I may use a variety of doe and fawn bleats and cow calls to attract game. Although not considered as effective, they too have their time and place. Does will often approach in curiosity when presented with a lonely fawn call, as will a cow elk or moose to a calf call.
The single biggest challenge when calling game is using the wind to your favor. Big game animals take advantage of thermals to detect your scent. As long as air currents are moving from them to you, the odds are in your favor. Despite the wind however, some animals will come running, others may sneak in, and still others will ignore your beckoning call. Regardless of response or lack thereof, I can tell you that each species has a comfort zone.
When coming in to a call, elk and moose are notorious for hanging up either just outside of our shooting range, or just inside cover. For this reason, I prefer to call from a position of moderate concealment, one that allows reasonable visibility, but enough cover to instill confidence. I find moose are the worst. Sometimes they'll run right in, but that's more the exception than the rule. Almost always willing to talk back, they'll commonly approach to about 40 yards. Coaxing them closer is the real challenge. Elk too prove hesitant from time to time, but on the whole I've found them to be a little more cooperative than moose. Whitetail and mule deer almost always approach to point-blank range. Antelope like to hang up around the 30-yard mark and sheep are largely variable. The most proven method I know to counter this problem is team-calling. By this I mean putting a shooter 20 to 30 yards downwind of the caller in hopes of attracting game close enough for a shot.
Regardless of your skill level, calling can add a unique twist to your hunting adventures. If you've not yet taken advantage of this strategy, I highly recommend it. Visit your local hunting supply store and peruse their selection of calls. Some come with instructional audio, video or DVD manuals to help you get started.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.