Elk Hunting Basics - A Guide to Hunting and Calling Elk

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Truly one of the most sporting species, from their guttural bugles to their aggressive rutting behaviors, elk are simply an awesome animal to hunt. If you've ever interacted with a dominant bull, you know what I'm talking about. When a bull screams within earshot, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up! But not every individual will come in on a string. Finesse and strategy are the name of the game with elk. Know when to speak, when to keep quiet, and which call to use when and you're on your way to a close encounter. Call too much and you may as well head back to camp.

The essence of elk hunting can best be summed up as follows. Guiding a bowhunter from out east, we experienced what most would consider the epitome of elk hunting. In the heart of some of the finest old-growth mixed timber habitat around, we had our pick of several resident herds.

Things really got hot right at first light. Within a few minutes of leaving the truck our hike was abruptly interrupted by a shrill bugle. The bull was obviously worked up, so we took advantage. Setting up with the shooter 20 yards downwind, I began to cow call softly at first and then more aggressively. Moments later, a massive 6x6 crashed through the brush only to stop 18 yards away. Unfortunately there was no archery shot opportunity as the vitals were completely obscured by a tangle of leaves and branches. Long story short, the bull quickly realized his mistake and broke away to safer cover. Later on we called in a smaller bull with a dozen cows, but the real action took place the following day.

The next morning, I bugled at first light. While some elk hunters might employ a different strategy, I prefer to use a bugle only as a locator call. After my second bugle, we were greeted with an immediate response. Grinning and looking at my hunter, I wasted no time. Few words were required. We knew the game was on.

"There's your bull!" I declared with confidence. "You ready? We're gonna run at him as fast as possible, close the gap and set up when we think we've got him coming in on a string!"

Setting my bugle aside, I began to cow call every 30 seconds and we ran. As quickly as possible, we moved in. Intentionally snapping the odd branch, our intention was to sound like several cows eager to greet a potential suitor. After covering maybe 300 yards, we stopped and gave one last cow call to relocate the bull. To our surprise, the bull bugled not 100 yards away and sounded like he was moving in fast!

"Tuck yourself in under that spruce tree, nock an arrow and go to full draw as fast as you can", I instructed. "He's coming in fast and should step through those trees right there - he's in the mood, so get ready quick!"

No sooner had I crouched down, when I heard the unmistakable snap of a twig underfoot. There he was as big as life! A magnificent 6x6 that would likely score in the 300 inch B&C range was standing 12 yards from my hunter. Displaying a full lip curl, the bull was totally worked up. Seemingly oblivious to our presence, there was just one problem - he was quartering toward my hunter. If you're a bowhunter, you know that's not good. Again, long story short, the bull soon realized he was somewhere he shouldn't be and exploded out of there as quickly as he'd arrived.

For most elk hunters, this scenario is a familiar one. Elk are vocal during the rut and can in fact be heard making various sounds throughout the year. Once I even had a bull chuckle back and forth in response to my call during a bear hunt in May. Particularly vocal during the pre-, peak and just post-rut in September and October elk are an awesome animal to hunt. Knowing a bit about them will serve you well as you plan your hunt.

About Elk
Four main sub-species of elk exist in North America today; these include the Rocky Mountain Elk, Roosevelt, Tule and Manitoban Elk. Most common are the Rocky Mountain Elk (Wapiti) - these are found throughout most of the Rocky Mountain range through British Columbia and Alberta, through to the southern states of Arizona and New Mexico. Less common are the Roosevelt Elk, which are found only on the west coast from British Columbia south to the northern tip of California. Tule Elk are found only in California. And finally, Manitoban Elk are found mostly in the central Canadian province of Manitoba.

On average, Bull elk weigh in at around 700 pounds. Cows will average slightly smaller at around 500 pounds. A larger target than deer, make no mistake, they are smart. Make your presence known as a hunter and you're likely to never see the elk again.

Elk, much like whitetails can be found in a range of habitats. From alpine meadow environments to coastal rainforest, and foothills to boreal forest habitats, elk can take up residence virtually anywhere that provide good protective cover, food and water.

When we think of elk, many of us conjure images of the eastern slopes of Wyoming and Colorado. When we talk about world-class bulls, the arid ranges of New Mexico and Arizona often enter the equation. Regardless of where you hunt elk, timing your trip, the logistics of calling and how you approach them are all very similar.

Timing Your Hunt
Like other big game species, there is a prime time to chase elk. The rut occurs from mid-September through early October. Although the estrus may vary by as much as a couple weeks from north to south, in the northern states and western Canada, it typically peaks around the third week of September. Most cows will go into estrus some time between the 15th and 25th of the month.

Although I've never experienced great success in the earliest stages of the pre-rut, I know folks who have. One friend in particular, consistently gets himself face to face with big bulls as early as the season opener on August 25th in Alberta. Hunting with bow and arrow, he's employed the same aggressive "call and run" strategy as I do. He invariably closes the gap and often gets a close range shot. During the pre-rut, bulls are beginning to test their lungs. It is common to hear lots of squealing from younger bulls and the odd mature bull bugling as well.

As the days progress on into September, bulls of all ages get into the groove. The frequency of calling increases and by mid-month bugles can be heard throughout the day, particularly in areas where the bull to cow density is high. But remember, vocalizations are often correlated with temperature. Warm mid-day temperatures can often keep bulls quiet. Experienced elk hunters anxiously anticipate the first day of frost. As soon as the nighttime temperature drops below freezing, the elk generally become more vocal. In turn, most elk hunters know that the first few hours of daylight and the last couple hours just before dark can produce well.

With the introduction of commercial diaphragm and tube calls, it seems every hunter in the woods has a bugle. Few would argue that the sound a bugling bull makes is simply awesome. Bottom line - we like to bugle and that is often our downfall. The romantic notion that bugling bulls will come running into our call is generally too tempting for most hunters to ignore. As a result, too many hunters bugle too frequently. In most instances, the opposite is true. Yes, sometimes a bull will come rushing in to challenge the call, but in most instances, he'll simply sneak in quietly from a downwind position.

Those with experience tend to use bugling most frequently as a locator call and that's it. With the accessibility of calls these days, every hunter has a bugle in hand and, unless you are extremely well versed in elk language, bugling can do more harm than good. Simple math equates to too many hunters making artificial sounds; and this in turn educates the bulls. As a result, particularly in areas that get a lot of pressure, bulls tend to talk less. While a bugle can sometimes be used as a challenge call, especially in areas with a high bull to cow ratio, this is becoming more the exception. As a rule, savvy elk hunters retire their bugle shortly after a bull responds giving away his location.

A stereotypical call might involve a long drawn out bugle followed by three of four chuckles. With a wide range of commercial calls on the market, with a little practice, hunters can emulate a plethora of vocalizations. The Barry Thunder Bugle for instance is a good all around call that is easy to use. It has an internal diaphragm that is used by simply blowing into the end of the tube. Consistently producing a realistic bugle, I've called in many bulls with this particular call. Alternatively, other manufacturers such as Primos make a range of mouth diaphragm calls and tube calls that produce even a wider range of sounds. For instance single, double and triple reed diaphragms can be used to make higher or lower pitched bugles. As far as tube calls go, one that I recommend is the Primos Terminator Elk System.

If you're calling bigger, more mature bulls, it can often work best to use a deeper sounding bugle. Likewise, when calling younger bulls, a higher pitched bugle can be less threatening and hence more attractive to a smaller bull. But when it comes to the call itself, bull elk literally make scores of different sounds. Some make the stereotypical flute-like bugle covering every musical note in the spectrum while others tend to chuckle much more. Some begin calling relatively soft and build to an unbelievable crescendo; others bellow from beginning to end while still others call surprisingly softly. Bottom line - experienced elk hunters tend to experiment and interpret the kinds of calls that will work based on circumstance and perceived mood of the bulls they are hunting. Timid bulls will require sporadic finesse calling. Aggressive bulls are often receptive to frequent and aggressive calling.

Cow Talk
As with most big game species, female vocalizations are really what the male is looking for during the rut. Cow calls can be used as locator calls as well. In fact, I'll often emit soft calls every minute or so as I wander through the woods. Probing new areas or experimenting in spots that you know can be done very effectively with a cow call particularly if you know the herd is sensitive to calling pressure. Once a bull is located, cow calls can be used as a confidence vocalization as you move in on the bull. Cow elk tend to be very vocal. And because they are herd animals, they are commonly seen and heard in large groups. Throughout the various stages of the rut, and periodically throughout the year it's common to encounter herds chirping away infinitum.

Commercial cow calls are also available in a myriad of makes and models. Each is designed to emulate a different tone or pitch. Most common are the diaphragm, reed and even push calls. Many are designed with an adjustable setting allowing the caller to make different tones to emulate more than one cow. A lead cow will often approach the caller first in an effort to show her role in the herd hierarchy. In turn, this often prompts the herd bull to approach the cow call as well. For this reason, using a range of quality cow calls is invaluable. In my opinion, calls like the Primos Hoochie Mama, Lead Cow & Calf or their relatively new Hot Lips calls are very realistic sounding and very effective in the field.

The same rules apply to cow calling although perhaps not to the same degree. Even though they are herd animals often found in groups of three to 20 individuals, each cow is different. Some will call frequently while others will remain relatively quiet. Regardless of how much they talk under relaxed natural circumstances, even cow elk will "dummy up" given enough pressure. Hunters calling too much and giving up their identity will inevitably educate resident herds and, in turn, cause them to become less vocal.

Calling into Action
Whether you're using a gun or a bow, hunt strategies are similar. Mountain areas afford hunters the opportunity to get up high, glass and call. Bugles and cow calls can often be heard at great distances. In more flat topography, sounds travel less, but bugles and cow calls still have a unique ability to travel. Forest density and cloud cover combined with warmer temperatures and wind can dampen these sounds and, in turn, make it much more difficult for hunters to pick up on elk vocalizations.

In a textbook situation, there is a shooter and a caller. Once a bull is located, the hunt unfolds much like the aforementioned. Don't worry so much about sneaking in quietly. While it will always serve you well to get within shooting range undetected, remember that if you're calling, the bull already knows something is there. They expect to hear branches and leaves snapping or rustling underfoot.

Keeping out of sight, well that's another issue altogether. Do your best to move quickly. During your approach, you'll have to use your judgment. Try to determine whether the bull is timid or aggressive. If he's timid, you may need to get as close as possible. If he's aggressive, he may be moving fast and you'll have to set up quickly as well. Regardless, when you feel you're close enough to coax him in the rest of the way, set up. The shooter should always set up in the shadows or behind some type of structure, i.e., a fallen tree or in amongst several trees that will serve to break up his silhouette. The caller typically stays upwind approximately 20 - 30 yards. The idea is to put the shooter closest to the bull's travel path.

Aside from overtly aggressive bulls that sometimes charge in without a second thought, most will ghost in and move downwind in an effort to catch scent. This is done to confirm the presence of a cow and avoid potential danger. When done correctly, the shooter is often put right in front of the duped bull. With a little luck and a well-placed shot, you and your partner will soon be standing over your trophy of a lifetime.

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.


All great tips!  Here in SW

All great tips!  Here in SW CO bugling is not too effective early in the season (archery, late Aug-Sept).  Not to say it isn't worth it, bulls will come in, but it doesn't locate them well because they just don't answer.  I use a cow call almost exclusively now and have great success.  I also find that hunting the shaded sides of hills is more effective, and works throughout the day.  In fact, my last 2 bulls were taken between 10 am and 1 pm.  Unlike the bugle, a cow call is not only a call to do that wild thing, but also calms bulls down who may be a little suspicious.  Last year I put an arrow a foot over a bull's back at 30 yds (no comment) and he bolted down the hill, but came right back up with some cow calling.  This time I put the 20 yd pin on him (he was steep down hill of me) and he came home with me.  Hunting cows (I get a cow only tag as well as either sex), I use the same cow call (Carlton) and choke up on it to make a calf call and any momma elk comes in without much caution.  Making it a bit distressed sort of jazzes them up more, but down here a coyote, lion, or bear may come in too. 

Retired2hunt's picture

  An older article but


An older article but definitely some great information.  I never had thought of running towards the bull purposely making the snap of a twig while using your cow call... but it makes good sense.  I was aware about not calling too much using the cow calls.  Pretty neat story tucked into the article.  Good read and thanks for providing it!


Its so good to see people share their experiences, as I am new!

I can use all the Info about hunting I can get, I'm like a spong! I'm wondering if anyone can tell me about the hunting in the S.E blue MTS. of Washington? I'm going to scout this area as the other areas in Washington seem to have alot of pressure. I hunt alone so any advise you can give me would be wonderful.


Great Article!

I'm hunting Bull in 4th Rifle season in Colorado. It's my first big game hunt and I got a Primos Imaka Da Bullcrazy Long Range Open Reed Cow call. I plan on using it to locate and attract my bull as a damsel in distress situation

jim boyd's picture

what a great, great read this

what a great, great read

this answers some of the questions I just asked in a post over in the forums!

i can see that I have a lot of homework in front of me if I ever want to harvest one of these majestic animals

after hunting eastern deer that seldom exceed 200 pounds, the thought of a 500 to 700 pound beast is staggering!

this article is very welll written and easily understood even by a "wanna be elk hunter" like me


AjoOldTimer's picture

A good read every new hunter

A good read every new hunter should check out or a good reminder for the veterans to refresh their memory

jaybe's picture


What an excellent article, Kevin!

It covers the basics, but also many of the finer points of calling and getting set up for elk.

I liked the stories of the close encouters of the elk-hunting kind.

Those leave you with your heart pumping and the adreneline flowing.

Thanks for these really good tips.


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