For success on modern elk, forget the Mr. Nice Guy routine. Try picking a fight instead.
A: In early season, Ralph Ramos listens and calls from high ridges to locate elk. When he hears a bull on the move, he hustles to get between the bull and his bedding area, and that's where he begins to call and rattle aggressively. His rattling antlers are heavy and cumbersome but, in Ramos' judgment, they are well worth the effort required to wield them.
Gone are the days when you could just step off a two-track, chirp a few times on a cow call, bugle a time or two, and expect a curious bull to come running. To kill a bull elk these days, you often must spend more time in the backcountry, walk more miles, and, above all, try new tactics.
For many hunters today, "new tactics" means leaving the calls in camp and hunting silently for call-shy bulls. In other words, modern hunters are adapting to hunting pressure by calling less.
Not Ralph Ramos. By vocation, this New Mexico native is a middle school principal, but by avocation he is an elk hunter and guide -- and a very successful one. Even though his job allows him to guide only on weekends, his clients enjoy an incredible 90-percent success rate.
How does he do it? By calling more aggressively than ever. While other hunters have become more passive and sneaky, Ramos has escalated his aggression -- and his success -- primarily by adding rattling to his calling arsenal.
"Many hunters don't bugle or call much anymore, but I believe you have to be aggressive to get bulls fired-up. Rattling has worked for me because it's an aggressive tactic that other hunters rarely use. With more and more hunters in the woods these days, the more tricks you have up your sleeve, the better your chances for bagging a bull. Rattling has been the trick that works for me when nothing else does," Ramos concluded.
"The rut is obviously the best time to rattle-in a big bull, but I rattle during the early season, too," Ramos said. "Rattling works best when used in conjunction with excited cow talk and bugles."
During the early season, Ramos believes you have to create excitement. "In late August or early September, bulls are just starting to get cranked up. I like to get up on a ridge at first light and listen. When I hear a bull, I try to figure out where he is and where he's going. My goal is to cut him off on his way to bed.
"Once I think I am between a bull and his bedding area, I cow-call and then bugle a few times, switching from one call to another to sound like two bulls.
"Then I begin to rattle. Since it is still the early season, bulls aren't always receptive to cow talk or lone bugles. By imitating two bulls fighting, I create excitement, and usually a bull will come to see what is going on," Ramos explained.
Ralph Ramos rattled-in this big bull for PSE Archery's Pete Shepley.
"This works best with two hunters. One can do it but two sound better. One hunter can rattle and make a few cow sounds while the other bugles. More callers make it sound more realistic," Ramos said.
When creating a fight, Ramos holds nothing back. "If you have ever seen a real elk battle, you know it's not nice. Two bulls are trying to kill each other. After bugling a few times, I slap the antlers together and then break brush and smash into trees.
"Then I drop an antler on the ground and pound it with the other antler, like swinging a baseball bat. All the while my partner growls and bugles to create authenticity. My goal is to be so loud and obnoxious a bull just has to check me out," Ramos added. "Elk are like kids at my middle school -- the moment they hear a fight, they come running. Normal bugling and cow talk can take hours to bring a bull in, but once I start rattling, bulls usually sneak in quickly, inside of five or 10 minutes.
"They often approach silently, and they generally come within bow range. Mature bulls are notorious for hanging up 70 or 80 yards from a caller and refusing to come closer.
That isn't the case when I create a bull fight. Over the years, I have seen some big bulls come to rattling that wouldn't come to conventional calling," Ramos said.
Ramos hunts primarily in what he calls "call-shy areas" on public lands, and he has the most success hunting bedded bulls. That runs contrary to conventional wisdom, because bedded bulls, especially herd bulls, are difficult to call in.
"Rattling seems to work most of the time on bedded bulls," Ramos said. "Usually in the afternoon during the rut, bulls occasionally moan from their beds. When I hear a bull moaning regularly from the same location, I figure he's bedded.
"To hunt him, I first slip within 200 yards and do a little cow talk and a few bugles.
Occasionally middle school principal Ralph Ramos gets time to hunt on his own, and the results are usually rewarding.
"Then the fight begins. In most cases, a bedded bull that hears those antlers will come running because he can't stand the thought of a couple satellite bulls fighting in his backyard and trying to take his cows," Ramos explained. "So he's forced to investigate. I have called-in several bulls over 350 inches using this method."
"Rattling doesn't always bring a bull within bow range. On occasion, bulls will hang up and not come closer. If I try to move in and a bull responds but moves away, I stay in one place and let my hunter try to stalk the bull.
"Usually if I stay in one place, the bull will hang around, and while he focuses on my calling and rattling, the hunter can slip into range. This method works well on large bulls that are curious but too cautious to come in," Ramos said.
Ralph Ramos first got the idea of rattling-in bulls when he wa
s in high school. Frequently he visited a large forest where hunting was not allowed, and for hours on end he listened to elk communicate.
"Elk are noisy and talkative. When I call, I try to imitate them and be just as noisy. Some elk are call shy and don't talk as much as they used to, especially in areas with wolves. However, I hunted in a wolf area last season, and these rattling techniques worked great," Ramos said.
Rattling-in bulls may sound like fun, but it can be a lot of work, too. Ramos carries large 5x5 sheds with him on every hunt. They are heavy and difficult to maneuver in the woods, and rattling with them borders on hard labor.
"I really work up a sweat when I am dragging those sheds with me in the woods and rattling, but they're worth the effort. I don't leave the truck anymore without my shed antlers," Ramos said.
As a weekend warrior, Ramos has only a few days to bring a bull within bow range of himself or a client. Over the years, most of his hunters have tagged out within two or three days. When you consider that most of us hunt for two weeks or more -- and still come home empty handed -- you can see he is doing something right. Last season, Ramos guided PSE President Pete Shepley and NBA superstar and coach Reggie Theus, and both killed bulls within their first couple of days of hunting. To count yourself in that company, get aggressive and try rattling for bulls.
The author is an outdoor writer from Muskegon, Michigan.
AUTHORS NOTES: To learn more about Ralph Ramos and his instructional elk calling videos, visit www.hotspotelk.com.