ELK BOW CLOSE
By Michael Waddell
We heard the bull bugle at first light and snuck into his core area. When I hit a lick on my bugle, the bull simply came unglued and stormed our position like a tank, crashing through brush and small lodgepole pines like they were matchsticks. Before we could react he was in our lap and we were pinned down, myself hiding behind a camera, too afraid to even touch the tripod for fear of my shaking hands would run the footage. All I could see of my partner wedged against a stunted pine was the tip of his undrawn arrow shaking uncontrollably on the rest. Before a shot presented itself, the bull smelled a rat and disappeared as quickly as he arrived. While this experience didn’t result in a dead elk, it did hopelessly addict me to calling them.
It seems that in all walks of life, be it the animal kingdom or humans, communication is a key ingredient for all social interaction. However not all living things communicate to the same degree. If you ask my wife, I am sure she will tell you I lack in the communication department, in fact I am sure she believes I don’t listen to her at all, but when it comes to communicating with animals I can barely shut up. Of all the animals I love to communicate with elk rate right at the top.
By nature elk are very vocal. The uninitiated often simply think of bulls bugling, but cows, calves and bulls make all sorts of noises year around. If you encounter a larger herd of elk while you might not hear a thing from a distance, if you get close you will hear lots of subtle vocalization. Most of the time these are sounds of contentment, but depending on what’s happening the vocalization reflects it. Elk can convey contentment, danger, curiosity, or a cow in heat. Bulls, for instance, only bugle primarily in the rut, but they also communicate to establish a pecking order. After spending a considerable amount of time chasing the mighty wapiti, I’m convinced every elk in the herd knows each other by sound alone. This happens with the cows as well as the bulls and based on my evaluation somewhere in this mix is the deadly secret to calling elk archery-close.
Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery
It seems that the more vocal a herd the better the odds are for success at calling them. Some cows call subtle, while others are loud-mouth ladies actively looking for a date. By listening it gives you a better opportunity to imitate the particular tones and intensity of the herd.
By calling we are automatically intruding into the social club without an invitation. The closer we can sound to a known elk, and match that intensity the better the odds are of filling a tag. Even though we may sound like an outsider to the herd, luckily for us, love crazed bulls are not looking to be intimate with just one or two cows they are looking for all the love of every cow in the world, so taking advantage of their sexual frustrations and promiscuity is what we aim to do.
It doesn’t take a world champion elk caller to trick bulls within range. By simply paying attention to the herd and understanding simple elk rhythm, tone and more important volume when calling, a hunter can depend on an elk call to be a valuable asset to dulling broadheads.
Public Versus Private Land
Since I started hunting elk 16 years ago, on private as well as public ground, I have realize that comparing these two different types of ground are like comparing night and day and it is all about the amount of pressure each receives. Generally speaking private ground bulls are way easier to call than public ground animals, but this is not always the case. Some private land does get a lot of pressure, which can make for some pretty tough calling duels with elk that can serve you up a humble pie every time you bust out a call. While conversely some public land either through sheer remoteness or hard-to-get tags is like calling the best private land in the nation.
Hunting un-touched land and cow calling to bulls that have never heard a Hoochie Mamma would obviously be nice and it wouldn’t take long working over these uneducated elk to start feeling like an elk calling pro only to be deflated the first time we went to the national forest and mixed it up with bulls so well-known by local hunters that they have knick names. However, regardless of where you hunt the basics of calling remain the same.
Start with mastering the cow call and all its various inflections. Your basic reed type calls are the easiest to learn as well as get proficient with. You will find two kinds; both are bite down reed-type of calls, one being enclosed and the other having an open reed or reeds. These calls make a very realistic sound and before your wife can run you out of the house you will master the basics.
I rely heavily on the cow call and think most of the time hunters are better off sticking with it over a bugle no matter where he is hunting. But learning how to make a basic bugle is important, especially for locating bulls at a distance before getting close and working him with your cow call. In addition, sometimes it is the bugle that finally provokes a dominant bull to commit, especially during the early season when bulls are still sorting out their peckin’ order.
Earning Your Public Ground PhD
Lets face it, unless you have deep pockets much of the private ground in the West is pretty much off limits, so you have to learn to hunt public land. This is not a bad thing as public ground comprises millions upon millions of acres across the West and happens to have some of the biggest bulls found anywhere. While it can be tougher than private, once you learn how to hunt it you won’t be disappointed. Over the years, one of my favorite places to hunt is the Gila National Forest, in New Mexico, and even though this is a trophy area tags are fairly obtainable through application.
In the Gila, the trophy potential is off the chart, sporting some of the biggest bulls in the country, but just because the big ones live there doesn’t mean that you automatically make one call and they come running to get in the back of your truck. These mature jokers have a PhD in avoiding hunters.
Over the last six years I have hunted this area religiously and have had the opportunity to shoot some nice bulls all by using elk calls as an aid to close the coffin.
Notice I said, “as an aid”, meaning the call was just one thing in a bag of tricks to help smoke these monarchs. My biggest bull that came out of the Gila was a 378 P&Y bull that had earned the name Professor because he always seemed to take you to school when you applied too much pressure. However, this bull was vocal and would bugle his butt off. He also seemed to be fairly easy to find, not only by his gnarly, raspy bugle that set him apart, but frequently he could be found early in the morning in a large meadow just south of a particular water hole that always attracted a large herd.
The Professor was not the only bull in the area that had large headgear, but it was The Professor that seemed to call the shots. I had caught this bull in the open several times, but calling seemed to really make him uneasy when you were in close. The Professor however would bugle hard to distant cow calls and seem to be whole heartedly interested, but had a sixth sense when you moved in for the attack.
Finally we decided to have a caller stay behind as we worked him coming off the meadow at daybreak. By doing this we could keep him interested and bugling as we stalked in closer. The caller always was no closer than 80 yards behind me. While the caller kept him occupied, I slid within 50 yards and gave him a G5 Tekan right behind the shoulder. This hunt was really a stalk, but the call and caller had a big part to do with his demise. Once we started quartering the bull up, we found a piece of an old arrow lodged just below the backstraps, so obviously someone had him in close before and gave the Prof and education, which explained why he was so wary.
The Double Team
As this old bull showed, hunting with a partner can work extremely well. It not only puts the hunter out in front of the call, but it gives the hunter a chance to move and adjust the angle based on where the bull might be approaching. Likewise, the caller has the flexibility to move as well and apply a lot of different calling techniques.
The double team plan worked again on another hunt. It had been hot and the bulls were only bugling early and late. As soon as the sun would rise the elk woods would turn in to a ghost town.
Just after daybreak on the fourth day of our hunt we heard this bull bugle. He hit it only two times, both very weak and he sounded like the littlest rag horn in the land but with no other game in town we went after him. Getting as close as possible to where we thought the bugle came from I eased up and sat down by a pine stump while my buddy moved back and to my right about 40 yards. Neither of us were very optimistic about our chances. My buddy made one or maybe two very soft cow calls on a two reed diaphragm then he started raking a tree and rolled a few rocks. We sat there for possibly 10 minutes in silence, then out of nowhere appeared a wide 340 inch 6 x 6 coming directly to us, at 25 yards the bull let out a soft chuckle, looked over his surrounding and kept walking in the direction of where the last rock had been rolled, which led him 16 steps from my pine stump. By now I was at full draw waiting for a broadside shot. When the arrow left my bow, I knew we had killed a call shy monster by keeping it low key and staying patient. Needless to say, I was never convinced by the two times he had bugled earlier that he was a shooter. This was a lesson in itself. Never judge a bugle until you can see what is making the sound.
The most exciting way to bag a bull elk is to get him in close, and the best way to do that is with a call. Confidence in your call is critical, because if you’re insecure about using your call there is a good chance you will spook elk. Have confidence in your calling ability and become just another elk in the herd where you are hunting. Find a call that works for you and not what works for some else. Think like an elk and do as elk do. Realism, rhythm, and volume control can make the difference between bringin’ them in or running them over the next ridge. And remember its not always about calling, it can be just patiently listening to the sounds around you and applying minimal calls, while practicing good woodsmenship, and stalking skills that could help you put that monster on the back of the truck.
Copyright 2009 by Michael Waddell. All rights reserved.