Always Ask 'Why' When Bowhunting Elk

Always Ask 'Why' When Bowhunting Elk

The huge bull majestically trailed his harem through a narrow canyon that gave way to an open, lush valley floor. With this fix on their travel habits, the following day I was situated in a suitable ambush point with a steady breeze in my face.

I watched as 30 to 40 cows, calves and spike bulls ambled by. The monarch of the group screamed defiantly as a subordinate satellite bull wandered guardedly in and out of the herd.


When the last cow drifted past, the herd bull looked back at the trailing inferior bull and gave an aggressive warning bugle. Alone and frustrated, the satellite bull strolled into a nearby wallow, placing me directly in between him and the herd bull.

I quickly pleaded out a half-dozen lost cow calls and both elk came unglued. Immediately the race was on for the satellite bull to capture the lost cow before she could comply with the demanding calls of the herd bull and head his direction. The satellite bull won, and I arrowed him at 16 yards.

At the postmortem, I realized this particular herd bull did not feel leaving his established harem of cows to come back for one more was worth it.

I did hope the close proximity of an irritating satellite bull might be enough to draw him briefly back into a shootable location. Alas, that didn't work. On the other hand, the satellite bull had everything to gain and wanted to be where I was calling from so he charged forward to try to corral the unseen cow.

In the herd bull's defense, his dominating bugles were enough to hold his harem together and bring any stray cows to him without having to go out after them. He had no reason to risk leaving his girls to find one more.


Illumination is a high state of intellectual enlightenment and the gain of subject wisdom by removing obstacles to our understanding. My elk illumination has come through years of trials, mishaps, and errors, and has led to one inescapable conclusion: What we as humans see as "odd" or "stealthy" behavior when pursuing elk, can usually be traced back to the basics of survival. From this I have postulated three hard and fast rules every elk hunter should follow.

The first, as illustrated in the opening, is that elk will not come to where they don't want to be, and if thought about logically, we can usually determine the reason why. Second, try as we might, we can't defy the laws of thermodynamics — hot air rises, cold air falls. I watch hunters every year try to set up on elk with little to no acknowledgement of what the wind currents are or what they will be in an hour.


An elk's olfactory skills are its number-one defense. Lastly, elk are relatively social animals, so calling DOES work. You just need to become proficient and understand what the basic elk sounds are, and why and when elk use them.

A deluge of opening day hunters amassed on David Holder's Wyoming elk unit. Since he'd intensely pre-scouted the unit, he knew the two primary areas where all of the human intrusion would be coming from. Counting on the early morning thermals to carry the interloper's scent into the elk's core area, David moved to a suitable ambush.

An hour after sunrise he heard the unmistakable pounding of elk hooves. As the bull tried to escape the opening day onslaught, David gave a soft cow call from 17 yards, causing the bull to pause long enough for a perfect broadside shot.

The post-hunt report revealed all the reasons for David's success. As a result of intense preseason reconnaissance, David knew exactly where to position himself to capitalize on elk movement once the opening day's gentle "elk push" occurred. True to his prediction, the early morning thermals carried other hunters' scent into the valley below, and as a result moved elk in his direction.

Since they were disturbed, David, who is an extremely accomplished caller, recognized they wouldn't be responsive to calling, so he opted to remain silent until the very last seconds of the bull's life.

Bowhunting elk is tough. Hunters who consistently get elk within bow range know you must pay attention to the details and understand the basics of elk survival. Calling elk is extremely effective, but you can be the best caller in the woods and a bull won't come to you if you're trying to call him somewhere he doesn't want to be.

Remember, the next time you set up to call, ask yourself, "Why does an elk want to come to this location?" If you can't answer your own question logically, back out and relocate.

"When bowhunting and calling elk on your own, make sure you always ask "why."

When choosing an area to set up, be sure the elk have to come looking for you and the wind is in your favor. Since elk rely on their nose 100 percent of their life, they will typically circle to the downwind side of your setup.

Playing the wind accordingly is crucial. Are you in a location where the wind will stay steady for a period of time? As the valley heats or cools, will you still have the wind in your favor?

The Right Way

Use realistic calling. By this, I don't mean are you making the perfect bugle or cow call. Elk sound different, just like humans, but instead are you making the RIGHT call given the location and situation? For example, should you be using a lost cow call, cow herd talk, calf talk, or an agitated cow call?

If bugling, are you going to use a location bugle, a herd bull bugle, or an aggressive challenge bugle? It's important to understand the "why" or "why not" for each elk sound you use.

It was the sixth day of Renee Ladeau's central Montana elk hunt and the last day of archery season — a buzzer beater for sure! She'd hiked 3½ miles before daybreak to an area where some hot action occurred earlier in the hunt.


In the predawn darkness she was rewarded with a few dominant bugles and some dark shapes in the distance. As light blanketed the landscape, she spotted a lone bull moving through a few hundred yards out.

Soft cow herd talk started the bull in her direction. Upon seeing the location from which the calling initiated, the bull hung up and refused to come closer. When he moved off, she noted his direction of travel and decided to investigate the area the bull wandered into later in the morning.

By then the midday thermals provided a steady wind, allowing her to ease into the area undetected and deliver some low-pitched cow squeals. Moments later she glimpsed antler tips swaying through the timber, headed in her direction. He came quickly and quietly, but unfortunately stopped behind a tree as Renee came to full draw.

When he turned to leave, she stopped the bull with a cow mew and watched as her arrow precisely hit its mark. With a short tracking job and a long but satisfying pack out, Renee admits she was truly blessed to be able to shoot such a phenomenal animal so late in the season.

Details Matter

When all was said and done, the reasons for Renee's success are clear. On her first encounter with the bull, she set up for the best calling scenario available. The bull didn't come in because given the terrain, he could see where the calling was coming from.

Without seeing live elk, the bull lost interest. Renee immediately recognized how the bull was interpreting the situation, and instead of making an unfavorable setup even worse by continuing to call, she immediately ceased calling and let the bull wander off undisturbed.


Kudos to her for making a mental note of the bull's direction of travel once he left. She then allowed adequate time for the midday thermals to switch in her favor before she made her way to the area believed to be holding the bull and got set up with plenty of cover and the wind in her favor. The pleading of a lost cow from the diaphragm call was the final act that brought the climax to her hunt.

It's an ambitious endeavor to consistently get elk within bow range. The mesmerizing effect of September's bugles force you to stay focused and apply reason and understanding of an elk's basic survival habits to each encounter. Recognizing "the why" that dictates an elk's ability to survive will certainly illuminate your path to success.

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