September 27, 2022
With the season’s end fast approaching, my good friend JD Gossage and I had decided to take a quick weekend trip to some public land not far from home. Earlier in the year, we had packed in and hunted up near timberline, but with this short weekend trip, we intended to stay lower in heavy timber. It was late September, and our plan was simple — get a rutting bull to answer our calls and kill him.
We started out early, diligently setting up each time we stopped to call, nocking an arrow, and then silently waiting several minutes before moving on. We covered several miles that morning, and as the day wore on, the monotony started to wear on us.
By that afternoon, our discipline started to wane. Without consciously thinking about it, we’d gradually stopped being as selective about where we stopped to call. The time we spent waiting after each sequence of calls became shorter and shorter, until eventually we were doing nothing more than throwing out a high-pitched squeal and a couple of cow calls — listening momentarily for a response, and then moving on.
By the time evening arrived, we were tired, a long way from camp, and frustrated by the lack of any response. I led the way with JD in tow; both of us were simply covering ground and not paying much attention. I stopped, put my grunt tube to my lips, let out a squeal, and then followed it with a few cow calls.
Without pausing for more than a few seconds, I looked at the ground just ahead of my boots and started to trudge forward, and then something exploded ahead of me. Startled by the sound, JD and I looked up to see a nice bull swapping ends at just over 20 yards, and without so much as an arrow on a string, we watched as butts and elbows disappeared through the timber.
The cursing that followed was both poetic and pathetic. The least these bulls could have done was give us a little courtesy bugle to let us know they were coming. Is that too much to ask? Unfortunately, it often is.
I can’t recall how many times this exact scenario has burned me, but it’s more times than I’d like to admit. In recent years, I’ve become more disciplined. For some, calling elk isn’t their preferred method of hunting. I’ve known some very successful elk hunters who prefer to spot and stalk the same way they hunt velvet muleys. For me, however, the calling aspect is what makes elk the most thrilling animal on the planet to hunt with a bow. Don’t get me wrong, if I have an opportunity to put the sneak on a big bull, I’m going to do it. But, that’s definitely not my favorite way to hunt them.
So how does an elk-calling nut handle it when the bulls aren’t talking? Here are some of the methods I’ve found to be most helpful.
Rule Number One
My first rule is to always assume your calls are going to work. While this might seem easy and obvious, I assure you it’s not — especially when you’ve been calling all week with no response. Have confidence and remain optimistic, so you‘ll be ready to capitalize when the opportunity finally presents itself.
Select Your Setups With Purpose
Don’t get caught in the trap of simply stopping wherever you happen to be standing and hitting a call. It’s an easy habit to get drawn into. Pick your calling spots purposefully.
The first question to ask yourself is, what kind of shooting lanes do I have? Choose positions that give you some visibility of an incoming bull. Next, ask yourself how far will a bull be able to hear me? Choose spots that aren’t boxed-in by terrain. It’s amazing how limiting a hill between you and a bull can be.
Wait After Each Calling Sequence
This is the one that has burned me most throughout my career. It’s very easy to get lazy as a hunt draws on and to stop giving bulls time to show up after you call. Both early season bulls that are just starting to think about gathering cows and late-season bulls that have been called to, can be very hesitant to respond.
Oftentimes, their reaction to hearing a call will be to sneak in quietly. Just because a bull didn’t respond doesn’t mean he’s not going to come and investigate, so follow my first rule and assume he’s on his way by giving him time to get there. Break this rule too often, and it’s only a matter of time before you’ll experience exactly what JD and I did earlier in this article.
Use Multiple Calls
Some successful elk hunters have a favorite call. Typically, it’s a go-to squeal that they swear will motivate a bull to answer.
While high-pitched squeals are generally good choices for generating responses, I’ve witnessed bulls that I swear have a favorite sound that fires them up, and nothing else seems to work. Sometimes that sound ends up being cow calls from a diaphragm; sometimes from a bite-and-blow-style call; sometimes a chuckle, or even a whistle through a grunt tube.
One year, I was guiding a client who had an old bite-and-blow call hanging around his neck. After several series of beautiful-sounding calls with my diaphragm, we got no response.
The client then asked if I’d mind if he gave it a try. When he did, it sounded like a cat got its tail slammed in a door. But seconds later, a bull hammered back at him.
I tried my distinguished calling again with no success, but every time my client would “slam the cat’s tail in the door,” the bull fired off. For whatever reason, the bull would only respond to that sound. I don’t know why, but I’ve found that it pays to have a variety of calls with which to experiment.
Learn Bedroom Talk
A few years back, a Colorado guide named Don Latham showed me the value of being able to call softly. While soft cow calls aren’t usually a problem, learning to make soft bull vocalizations was much more difficult.
At first, I didn’t understand the value of this skill, but Don was a master of it. Even call-shy bulls seldom stop calling all together. They still need to communicate with their cows, so they often just quiet their calling dramatically, making soft bugles that the cows in the immediate vicinity can hear but that you’d never hear from several hundred yards away.
What Don taught me was that call-shy bulls might not answer if you’re hammering at them from a distance, but if you slip into their bedroom and use soft bull vocalizations they’ll frequently come check you out. This is a great midday tactic. Just remember that you need to get within their comfort zone and that bugling softly takes practice. Mastering this skill, though, will produce results.
Dealing with call-shy bulls can be a challenge. It would be nice if they would just be courteous and give us a bugle to let us know they’re around, but sometimes bull elk are just plain rude. Keep these tactics in mind next time you’re seeing fresh elk sign but are getting no responses. Give special consideration to Rule Number One. If every time you call you truly assume it’s going to work, you’ll avoid many of the most common mistakes.