Elk Calling by TR Michels
As I sat quietly in the pre-dawn darkness a scream of a bull elk split the silence. I knew the bull was close because I could hear it coming through the trees. I waited a few minutes, and then a cow called softly. The elk screamed again and stepped out of the pines 75 yards away. The big 6×6 bull took a few steps, stopped, and grunted, ugh. At first I thought the bull had sensed something wrong and had barked an alarm. But, when it took a few more steps, looked around and grunted again, I realized it was trying to find the cow it thought it had heard. Since I was scouting I didn’t want the bull to know I was there, and I didn’t want it to come any closer.
I waited patiently for the next ten minutes while the bull walked around me, looking for the cow it was convinced was there. When the bull finally gave up looking, I quietly left. The next morning I sent one of the guides and a bow hunter back to the same area. Within fifteen minutes of setting up they heard a bull bugle. Ten minutes later the bull responded to the sound of a cow call and the hunter put an arrow into it at 15 yards.
In the fall of 2001 I began researching 9 different herds of penned elk, to find out how many calls they used and what they used the calls for. I also wanted to know when bugling and breeding began, peaked and ended. During the peak of the rut I regularly heard as many as 100 bugles every 5 minutes, from over 150 different bulls. I also heard as many as 30 cow/calf calls every five minutes, from over 200 cows and calves.
Common Elk Calls
Cow elk use a variety of mews to communicate with their calves and other members of the herd. Cow/calf sounds range from the Maternal Mew (meuw) of a cow trying to locate its calf, to the higher pitched Calf Mew (eeeuw) of a calf trying to locate its mother, to the whining Submissive Mew (meeuw or mee-eee-uw) of a cow being herded or chased by a bull or another cow. Bull elk sometimes use a deeper version of the Submissive Mew when another bull chases them. Both cows and calves use a loud Contact Mew when they’ve been separated from the herd. When cows fight, they often use a Fighting Squeal (mee-eee-eee-eee-eee-euu) as they stand up and flail at each other with their front legs. Bulls often use this same call when they are sparring with each other. All of these calls are easily reproduced with a single or double reed mouth diaphragm or an outside the mouth call.
Bull Elk Rut Calls
The most familiar elk vocalization is the bugle of a bull elk, which may be made up of one or more different calls. The Full Bugle Sequence of a mature bull elk consists of three calls; the Roar, the Bugle and a series of grunts referred to as the Chuckle. These calls may be used by themselves, or in combinations. When they are used in combinations the Roar is generally used before the Bugle and the Bugle is generally used before the Chuckle. The Full Bugle Sequence of a mature bull starts with a loud, low-pitched roar (rrrr), changes to a high-pitched scream (eeee), and ends with a series of grunts (ugh-ugh-ugh-ugh). Older bulls may also use a quieter version of the Roar that I call the Growl, which can be reproduced by saying rrrrrr, or growling in your throat. The Roar can be reproduced by doing the same thing, but doing it as loudly as you can through a grunt tube. The Bugle can be reproduced by using a double reed mouth diaphragm or an outside the mouth call, with or without a grunt tube. The Chuckle can be reproduced by using a grunt tube and saying ugh-ugh-ugh-ugh as deeply as you can in your throat.
After listening to over 125 bulls per day, and hearing over 600 bugles per hour, as close as ten feet away, I realized that it’s almost impossible to make a mistake when you’re blowing an elk bugle. While some bulls perform perfect Full Bugle Sequences, others perform only the Growl, the Roar, the Bugle or the Chuckle. Some bulls have clear high-pitched bugles, which sound like the screaming of a woman, others sound as if they are being strangled.
When bulls chase cows they inhale and exhale loudly, and they often end a charge at an uncooperative cow with a loud exhale or Cough. When they are herding cow’s bulls perform the Gulp or Glug. This call usually consists of a series of two note glugs, but it may have as many as six notes. It can be reproduce by saying glug-glug in your throat, as if you were gulping water. When I used this call the bulls often stopped what they were doing and came closer. Bulls also use a quiet, low-pitched Threat Rumble when they approach a smaller bull. I have not been able to reproduce this sound yet.
Bull elk rarely bugle outside of the rut (early September to early November), or before they shed their velvet. Bulls over the age of three may shed their velvet and begin bugling as early as mid-August. Most bulls over the age of three shed their velvet and begin bugling by the first week of September, and they regularly growl, roar, bugle, chuckle and perform the full bugle sequence. Two-year-old bulls may not shed their velvet and begin bugling until early to mid-September, and they usually perform high-pitched bugles, and occasionally roars and chuckles. Yearling bulls may still be in velvet in late October, and they rarely bugle; I have not heard them perform a roar or a chuckle.
Bull elk bugle to express dominance and attract herds of cows; and the gathering cow/calf herds attract other bulls. As the cows come in to estrus in early September more bulls gather around the herd and try to out-bugle each other for breeding rights. By mid-September a majority of the cows over the age of 2 are in estrus, and this is when peak breeding and bugling generally occurs. Yearling cows usually come into estrus two to three weeks later, in late September/early October. Cows that did not get bred during their first estrous generally cycle again 21 days later, which often results in a second breeding and bugling peak during the first and second weeks of October.
Since older bulls start to rut earlier than younger bulls, they are the ones most likely to be bugling during late August and early September. Because these bulls are trying to establish dominance they often answer and come in to the calls of another bull. Most bulls over the age of two will respond to cow calls during this stage of the rut.
During peak bugling the older bulls are actively breeding and protecting the herd. Although herd bulls may answer the calls of another bull during peak breeding, they generally pursue other bulls only when they see them getting too close to the herd. However, satellite bulls may come in to the calls of another bull to protect their breeding rights. Herd bulls may respond to cow calls at this time, to get the cow back to the herd. The bulls most likely to respond to cow calls during peak breeding/bugling are the satellite bulls, and any bulls that are not associated with a herd.
Breeding and bugling drops off in late September, after most of the older cows have been bred. This is when the yearling cows come into estrus, and when the satellite bulls and the bulls that did not participate in breeding become most aggressive. It is also when bulls of all ages are likely to respond to both bull and cow calls, because they want to establish or protect their breeding rights.
Breeding and bugling may begin to peak again in early October as the cows that didn’t get bred earlier come in to estrus. Bulls may not respond to bull calls at this time because their testosterone levels have dropped and they aren’t as aggressive. But, bulls of all ages may still respond to cow calls during this second breeding/bugling peak, and during the post rut.
Which Calls To Use
If you’re not sure where the bulls are you can locate them by using a high pitched bugle, without the roar or chuckle. The best place to use this call is high on a mountain, where it can be heard by any bull within hearing. Which bugle you use depends on the size of the bull you are calling. The bulls most likely to respond to the bugle of a big bull, or to the Full Bugle Sequence, are older bulls, generally the herd bulls or satellite bulls. A herd bull that hears the sound of another big bull may respond by bugling back and then coming in to investigate, or it may push the herd away from the call, to avoid confrontation. But, a herd bull will often try to drive off a smaller bull. A satellite bull will rarely challenge a bigger bull. It may come in to a small bull bugle, because it wants to protect its social status within the herd.
The best bugle to use when you are not sure of the size/age of the bulls in the area is the bugle of a young bull, because it won’t intimidate most bulls. If a bull is willing to respond to your bugles, and come to your call, it may also respond to the roar or chuckle. These calls can be very effective in heavily hunted areas, especially where other hunters have been bugling a lot.
Mews are the best calls to use to get a bull to come into range, because they don’t threaten bulls; they calm them down and arouse their breeding interest. You can also use a cow mew to stop a bull long enough for a shot. After watching several cows get bred I have never heard a cow-in-estrus call, and neither have any of the biologists I have talked to. The loud mew referred to as an “estrus cow call” may be the Contact Mew of a cow trying to locate the herd. Because this call is louder than other mews it will attract the attention of any elk within hearing distance. I have used it to get bulls into range on several occasions. I have also had bulls respond to a whining Submissive Mew, probably because they thought another bull was after one of their cows.
I’ve had herds of up to 50 cows and calves stop what they were doing, turn around, and trot toward me when I used a Fighting Squeal. I usually have to blow it two or three times before the cows come toward me, if they don’t I keep calling. They usually stop within 10 to 20 yards of where I am standing, and I quit calling. If they don’t detect anything wrong they generally stay around long enough that the herd bull comes in to push them in the other direction. And the bull often walks within 15 yards of me as it herds the nearest cows, providing me with a shot. I’ve also used this call to bring in a 400-class 7×8 bull from 300 yards away.
What Not To Do
Don’t setup where there isn’t any cover, especially on the downwind side. Bulls often approach a call from downwind, and they stay in cover if they can; setup where the bull can use cover to come in crosswind of your position. Don’t make any noise when a bull is coming in. If a bull smells, sees or hears you as it comes in, the hunt is probably over. Don’t stop checking the area around you, and don’t abruptly leave your setup sight, more than one bull may come in, they may come in silently, and they may come in long after you stop calling.
Don’t stop trying, give each location at least a half an hour; you and the bull may not be able to hear each other because of the terrain. If you don’t get an answer move a mile away and try again. Don’t sound bigger than the bull you’re calling; bulls rarely challenge bigger bulls. Don’t call too often; especially if a bull is close, it gives your position away. Although it’s difficult to make a mistake when you’re calling, don’t try to cover the mistake by cutting the call off short; elk don’t stop in mid-call unless they’re alarmed.