September elk: to call or not to call?

To call or not to call - September elk hunting

Photo credit: Chris Neville

It’s archery season and you are 150 yards from a large herd bull with multiple cows and they have no clue you are downwind. There is adequate cover between you and the 6 and the wind is just perfect. Do you cow call, bugle or don’t make a peep as you try your luck at the stalk? To call or not to call? That is the question that almost every DIY public land hunter struggles with on a daily basis in the elk woods. After all, our elk heroes from YouTube and The Outdoor Channel are out there calling in bull after bull and motivating us to call in an elk. You’ve tried to call in a bull before, but when you bugle, the bull turns and pulls his cows away from you. What is the difference between you and what you see on TV and the internet? Every situation is different, but here are some clues and cues that have helped to know whether I will call or not. Below are five differences that you should think about when deciding whether calling is the best strategy or not for your hunt. 

What week of hunting season is it?

September can be a magical time if you are in the elk woods chasing bulls. This is what draws a lot of hunters to the mountains from all over the continent and the world on a yearly basis. When hunting during archery season in a public land setting, I am usually only confident with calling in bulls during the first week or two of the season. The reason I stop trying to coax a bull my way after that is due to hunting pressure and call shy bulls. In my experience, by week two, a lot of hunters have broken out a cow call or bugle tube, not paying attention to the wind, where they are calling from, how close an elk is and other situational differences. By week two, most bulls within a few miles of a trail or road have heard “John” or “Karen” blowing a cow call or squeezing a Hoochie Momma walking the same trail day after day. Elk are smart animals and, after hearing and encountering hunters, will not only be unresponsive but often turn and pull their cows the opposite direction upon hearing calls. This is why I put my calls away after week two and try other strategies to fill my tag. Exception: When you are four to five miles deep or in a ridiculously hard to access basin where pressure is going to be less, hunting in a restricted hunting zone or on private land, calling any time of the season could work great. 

Cover type

Bull elk hoof

If I am hunting in an area that has openings to spot and glass from I usually choose to try and find elk that way first, then close the distance and decide what to do once I am closer. Often, each bull I see requires a different stalk, calling plan and strategy so I will need to make decisions on the fly. When you are hunting in thick and nasty cover where spot and stalk or bugle and sneak is not an option then calling may be your only option. One thing that will help is to pay attention to where you are calling from. Call from areas where the wind is in your favor, you are off the main trail, you have shooting lanes and you are close to where you think the elk are. Trust me, your success will increase. If you are hunting in thick timber, elk will be less reliant on their eyesight and more receptive to calling and using their nose upon their approach, so a correctly positioned hunting partner — if you have one — will be crucial.

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Understand that if you have a calling partner, then the chance of calling an elk in and making a shot is so much better than trying to call solo. When you call an elk, they will have you pinpointed and, if they come in, they will know exactly where you called from. Upon their approach, they will expect to see another elk and elk movement. If they do not see this, they will become wary and turn and get out of there before you can get a shot off. A correctly positioned hunting partner can mask your location by calling. This will help present you with a better shot if the bull comes in and, if he does not come in, you have the stalk option. If the bull hangs up or doesn't want to come, you can still continue your stalk and your partner can stay still and maintain the elk’s attention for a short while. If you have a partner, consider calling more frequently while still paying attention to wind, cover, elk location and other details. 

Can you get closer?

Calling elk

Photo credit: Brady Miller

If you are trying to close the distance on a bull, I would always suggest that you get as close as you can without calling. Plenty of time, a successful stalk within bow range will allow the elk to keep its normal routine. If the bull doesn’t know you are there, then he would have no reason to pull his cows from their normal pattern, which can sometimes happen if you bugle towards them. Always pay attention to the wind and thermal direction, the cover and terrain between you and the elk, the direction they are heading and how many animals are present in the area. The more elk equals more eyes, which equates to a higher chance you might get busted on your stalk. However, a well planned silent stalk is a very successful way to take a mature bull. 

Elk behavior

During the rut, elk can get really fired up bugling, showing signs of aggressiveness, jealousy and dominance. If the bull you are chasing is all sorts of fired up and bugling its head off then calling is definitely something that you can do more of in that situation. A bull that is trying to keep his cows together or fend off other bulls will be more vocal and give you the indication to be more vocal. Start with some cow calls and see how he reacts. If he bugles to your cow calls and looks or sounds mature, hit him back with an angry bugle and see what happens. Worse case scenario: He doesn’t behave the way you hope and you can plan an attack that evening or the next day. When elk are fired up, you really have to get busted good for them to get out of the area. 

In closing

Chris Neville's 2019 Wyoming bull elk

Chris Neville's 2019 Wyoming bull elk. You can watch the goHUNT Original film, OUT WEST here to see how this hunt went down.

Ultimately, to call or not to call is the question and every situation is different. Thinking about what you are doing and strategizing every situation is important in order to capitalize on every hunt. I want to be clear: calling bulls can work on public land and many people are successful this way. My thought is that, often, it is hard enough to find bulls on public land so just analyzing the situation before deciding what to do is very important. After you come up with a plan for the situation, execute the plan and either harvest the bull or not. The more important thing to do is to look back on what you did correct or wrong and learn from it. Every time we can be in the mountains is a learning opportunity that will make you a better elk hunter, able to strategize quickly with each subsequent elk encounter.

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