Hello Elk Fanatics! Summer is getting close and it is only just about 4 months until we are in the woods chasing bulls. As luck would have it, I got lucky again and drew my 2nd choice for archery elk in Arizona. It’s been an incredible year for moisture up to this point so I am pumped about the prospects for a good hunt and great antler growth! Who knows, maybe I’ll get one like Corey did in 2008!
Since big bulls are on my mind right now (as usual) I thought there would be no better topic to write about than bowhunting for big bulls- namely calling them in.
I’ve had great success over the years calling in lots of bulls, but one thing I’ll say is that it typically is not easy. Sure, I’ve had bulls come running from half a mile away to my calls, but more often than not, I’ve had to earn my call-ins by doing everything right. You can make calling as difficult and confounding as you’d like, but it really boils down to these 3 aspects:
1. Getting the wind right: You will simply never call bulls in from down wind of your position. It doesn’t matter how meticulous you are about your scent and wearing scent blocker clothing, etc. An elk’s nose is 1,000 times as sensitive as ours. If a bull is coming in from downwind, 99 times out of 100, he is going to wind you before he gets into bow range. I will admit that I have used elk urine (by spraying it into the air) to fool an elk’s nose a time or two, but I don’t make it a practice to ignore the wind. My wind checker is always a most important part of my gear!
2. Secondly, your distance and positioning/setup is extremely important in a calling scenario. Typically elk are moving into the wind and going somewhere with a purpose. A herd bull is especially hard to call in because he’s already got what he wants- COWS. For those of you that haven’t heard, a big bull’s motto is, “A cow in hand is better than two in the bush.” A herd bull’s whole efforts are focused on his cows and keeping them together and away from other bulls. To call him in you’ve got to get so close that you are on the edge of busting the herd and sometimes you will. If you don’t bust elk now and then by trying to get close before calling, you’re not being aggressive enough.
I’ve had my frustrations with calling herd bulls in as well but I’ve called many of them in by getting super close to the herd and making it very easy and convenient for the elk to come to me. Many times the cows will come to the calls and the bull will follow along. I’ve also had herd bulls break away and come over for a look. Bulls usually have a distance that they will travel away from their cows, and it’s usually not much over 100 yards, so keep that in mind.
With satellite bulls your distance and positioning are still important but not nearly as crucial as with herd bulls. Catch a satellite in a love sick mood, and many times he’ll practicly run over you coming to the call. What I love about satellite bulls is that they are eager for an encounter with a cow and will come readily to good calling. Realize that quite often the bull controlling the cows in the area doesn’t necessarily have the biggest antlers, but the most aggressive attitude. Here in Arizona, I’ve seen many 320-350 bulls controlling the cows while the monsters will hang off on the fringes waiting for cows to come into estrus before they make their move to control the harem.
3. Your Calling: Probably the two most common questions asked regarding calling are, “How much should I call at a bull?” And, “When should I cow call vs. bugle?”
My response to the first question is that I always let the bull dictate to me how much and how often I call to him. The scenario is usually this in Arizona; I’ll move in close to a bull that is already bugling on his own without making a call until I am somewhere between 100 to 200 yards depending on the terrain and vegetation density. Basically, I’ll get as close as I can without busting him. Is my heart pounding and my breath a little shorter at this point? You bet it is! But, I take just a moment to breath deeply, compose myself, and relax before blowing a call. It’s all a mind set that is the result of practicing and being comfortable on the calls.
I introduce myself to the unsuspecting bull by blowing a couple of cow calls not directly at him. Sometimes a bull will answer right away and sometimes I have to hit him again with a couple of calls in order for him to bugle at me. Typically, after a couple of sequences a bull is going to decide to come in or he may just bugle and hold his ground wanting you to come to him. Keep in mind that on public land, most bulls have been called at so not every one is going to come running, especially if they have had a bad recent encounter with a human.
If the bull bugles back to me, I’ll give him 1 to 3 cow calls in response but not jump all over him. Everytime he bugles on his approach I’ll respond to him and encourage him that I am a sexy cow that he needs to come see! Again, I am blowing just a couple of cow calls each time he bugles at me. I don’t get crazy on the call or the bull can get suspicious, but I also don’t call so shyly and infrequently that he loses interest and moves off. If the bull isn’t real aggressive and not bugling a bunch, I’ll tone down my calling to match. If he is tearing up every call I blow, then I’ll give it too him a little more. This seems to work like magic for me.
In order to get close and call bulls in like this, you’ve got to practice on your calls to where they are second nature to you. The key is blowing them soft, smooth, and mellow. I can’t stress enough how important this is. If you sneek in on a bull and blow a call like a foghorn you are going to spook him. Even if a bull is coming to you from a long ways off, as he gets inside of 100 yards the quality of your calling becomes more important. Loud, harsh calling will not sound natural to him and he’ll hang up on you. Practice a bunch on the calls and you’ll have much more success- I promise.
When to bugle vs. cow calling? I’ll be honest, I call in 9 out of 10 bulls by cow calling alone. Not saying that I am 100% right and bugling does not work- that’s just my style and what has worked well for me.
Bugling does have it’s place and here are a few of scenarios when I’ve used it successfully.
1. When I get in close to a bull that has bedded and has cows with him. Many times I will not blow full bugles to start with, but rather growl and rake. Then once I get his attention and he starts bugling I’ll start bugling at him and mixing in some cow calls.
2. I’ll sometimes use bugling in combination with cow calling to create excitement and the illusion of a herd of elk. Occasionally, bulls can be hesitant to come to cow calls alone because they may have been whipped recently and anticipate another bull being there. Once they hear you bugle they know where “the bull” is at and many times will come in for a look. I try to match the bulls sound and intensity when I do this. I don’t use this tactic often since cow calling is usually magic for me. Also, if a bull is coming to my cow calls I never, ever throw in a random bugle and risk potentially setting him on edge. By bugling you totally change the bull’s mental perception of what he’s commiting to. Free cows and the chance to breed vs. an angry bull and the chance for a fight and broken points or worse!
3. I’ve had bulls respond and come to bugling during the prerut before they are ready to join up with cows. This can occur anytime from late August to around the middle of September. At this time, the bulls are still sorting out the pecking order and bugling appeals to their curiousity and their drive to establish dominance. If a bull is bugling at me in this situation, I’ll again try to match his bugling. This really seems to agitate them!
Occasionally I’ve had herd bulls come in mad when I have bumped their cows and then started bugling aggressively. If you encounter an aggressive bull, he does not like another bull moving in on him and trying to cut away some of his cows! Remember that you’ve pretty much got to be in the middle of the herd in order for this to work.
If I had to give a hard and fast rule based on how I have succeeded calling in bulls, it would be this: Always try cow calling first. If the bull likes it and responds, stick with it. If cow calling doesn’t strike a bull’s fancy THEN you can try something different. Keep in mind that during the rut and peak rut your tactics and calls will vary greatly depending on whether you are calling to a herd bull or a satellite bull.
Finally, and very importantly, keep in mind that you’ll have way more success using calls that sound “elk-like.” Just because a call is new or has a catchy name does not always mean it’s a good one. Good sounding calls will work for you consistently, not just a couple of times. So put them to the test- do they sound realistic?
Have fun calling and good luck on your hunts this fall! God bless…