It isn’t just what you say, it’s how you say it
Stay with me here. I’m not suggestion you have a soft heart, and I’m not offering marriage advice. But when it comes to calling elk, it might be worth looking at the emotions that control an elk’s activities during the rut. More importantly, it might be worth looking at what we can do to trigger an emotional response in the elk to bring them in on a string.
A great deal of information can be found on the subject of elk hunting tactics. Spot and stalk, sitting waterholes, utilizing tree stands, light calling, aggressive calling…you name it, and someone, somewhere is using one of these tactics to successfully hunt elk each season. A wise hunter knows it is best to incorporate a good mix of these tactics in their hunting strategy. I’ll admit upfront though, if there is any chance that an elk call will work to get me close to an elk, I’m going to exhaust that option before trying something else.
The thrill of vocal interaction with a bugling bull is the driving force behind my elk hunting passion. The ability to convince a wild animal you are one of them, and then further convince them to come within bow range, is an experience that can never be adequately summarized by words. For me, it is an unrivaled thrill in hunting.
However, convincing a mature bull to walk into your setup and within bow range is not usually an easy chore. My progression as an elk hunter provides clear evidence to this fact.
Having grown up in the heart of elk country in Idaho, it would be natural to expect that elk hunting and elk calling came quite naturally for me. To the contrary, it could be argued that I was a very slow learner. It took me several years before I ever achieved elk hunting success, and many more years after that before I began to realize what I was actually doing to create the much-needed opportunities for success. Once I was able to identify what was working, it became much easier to fine-tune those tactics and replicate elk calling success on a more consistent basis.
Breaking the Language Barrier
I spent many years trying to understand what an elk was saying when it called, as well as trying to find a magic response I could provide that would convince him to come my direction. There is much that has been written, and much that can be said about the “language” an elk speaks, but with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, my simple “cause and effect” thought process was being continually challenged in the world of elk calling. There didn’t seem to be a specific call that would tell the elk to come in to my setup on a consistent or predictable basis.
Fortunately, what I found that worked for me was relatively simple, which made it easier for me to consistently replicate. Without overstating the obvious, I recognized that there were always two primary reasons why a bull elk would come in to my calling: to check out my cow calls or to fight the bull that was bugling back at him.
When I stepped back and looked at the simplified equation for what I was trying to accomplish, I found a simple answer: when an elk is coming to my calls, he is either coming in for love or for a fight. I quickly came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a language that was bringing the bulls in, but rather an emotional response.
Over the past 30 years of elk hunting, I’ve come to the conclusion that elk are pretty simple-minded animals. They eat, drink, sleep, and survive. During a magical month each fall, they also fight and breed. Knowing where they eat, drink, and sleep, as well as how they survive, is very important. If you want to consistently call in elk, recognizing and capitalizing on their emotional responses to breed and fight is critical. Bull elk are lovers and fighters during September, and taking advantage of that fact will often be the difference between success and failure.
Several years ago, my hunting partner and I had a bugling bull located across the canyon on a thick, north-facing bench. With the midday rain creating virtually silent stalking conditions, we decided to hike across the canyon and get as close to the bull as we could without announcing our approach.
The thick, tall fir trees on the north-facing slope swallowed up any landmarks we had identified to guide us close to the bull, and after nearly an hour of hiking, we weren’t sure of the bull’s exact location.
We stopped in a saddle on a finger ridge somewhere near where we thought the bull had bugled. I let out a soft cow call to warm up my diaphragm, and the bull responded immediately with a weak bugle, indicating that he was bedded just 100 yards uphill.
His response to my cow call didn’t make me feel like he was all that interested – it was more of a subtle “hello”. However, my response to him was more from instinct than plan, and the fact that I was out of breath and suddenly filled with adrenaline added a very detectible sense of emotion to the call.
The bull fired back a very different sounding bugle than his first one, and the sound of his roar echoing down the canyon was quickly replaced with the sound of branches crashing as he stormed down the mountain toward us. Less than a minute later, we were walking up on a nice 6×6 bull that had travelled less than 60 yards after my partner’s seven-yard broadside shot.
Something clicked in my mind as we spent the rest of the day packing heavy loads of elk meat back to the truck. A phrase that had usually followed closely on the heels of me getting in trouble as a youth suddenly had perfect meaning in calling elk: “It’s not necessarily what you say that gets you in trouble. It’s the way you say it.”
My response to the elk wasn’t intentional, but it was easy to identify the different reactions from the bull between my cow call and my bugle. My cow call hadn’t done anything more than gotten a response from the bull, but my short, shrill, out-of-breath bugle had turned him inside out! He came unglued, and without thinking, came storming in looking for a fight. It wasn’t what I said in my bugle that got him headed our way. It was the way I said it.
I had put emotion into my bugle, whether intentional or not, and the bull recognized it. My cow call wasn’t enough to convince him to get up from his bed, leave his cows, and come down the hill. But, when I surprised him with a very emotional, frustrated bugle, he knew exactly what I was saying, and he wasn’t about to let a challenger spew rage-filled insults at him.
It’s Okay to be Emotional
The way I trigger the natural, uncontrollable, emotional response in a bull elk is by putting undeniable emotion into my calling. If I’m trying to convince the bull that I’m a cow that really wants to find a bull elk, I need to give him more than a mechanical cow call. I need to express my desperation for his attention.
Similarly, if I’m using bugles to bring the bull in, it’s important to understand why he would want come in to the sound of another bull – to fight! If I want to start a fight, it’s not enough to just keep going up and down the octaves, bugling without emotion. I have to make sure he knows that I want to fight, and I express those intentions with the emotion that I put into my bugles. When I bugle at an elk, I call him every name I can think of, and I deliver it with every ounce of energy that I can cram into my bugle tube. It’s loud, aggressive, and I hit the highest note I can hit to make sure he knows I’m looking to start a fight.
Over the years, I’ve learned that giving a bull one of these emotional challenges doesn’t work 100% of the time, especially when initiated at longer distances. Inside 100-150 yards, however, it has become my go-to strategy and has proven to be fatal on multiple occasions.
The standard advice of keeping the wind in your favor, setting up with good shooting lanes, and hoping for a little luck still applies just as strongly as ever, but the emotion you put into your calling will very often be the factor that ultimately makes the difference!
This article originally appeared in Elk Hunter Spring 2016. To purchase the complete issue, click here!