The 2021 Western Hunting Summit featured a variety of presenters focused on elk hunting. Each had a unique and effective approach which proves the fact that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to elk hunting. Whether you’re looking for any legal bull or the biggest bull on the mountain, there’s a tactic that will be effective for you. Cody Miller was one of the presenters and provided an elk calling demonstration. As an exceptionally experienced and successful elk hunter, he shared some of his tips and tactics with the attendees and addressed many scenario-based questions. Cody’s presentation covered the topic of elk calling and vocalizations in depth. He ran through scenarios of why to use certain sounds and when to utilize them. This article features three of the biggest mistakes Cody pointed out that many elk hunters make when trying to coax a bull into bow range. They may just be the difference between you punching your tag… or eating tag soup.
Utilizing Phelps Game Calls, Cody’s demonstration began by teaching the group the five most commonly used sounds: the challenge bugle, locator bugle, grunt, chuckle, and cow “mew” sequences.
Knowing HOW to make “elk like sounds” (as my uncle says) and knowing WHEN, are two completely different things. Being able to call is a prerequisite; knowing the latter is where the skill comes into play.
Mistake 1: Trying to call in a bull that is too far away
This is probably the number one mistake made by novice elk hunters. Once you have located a bull, you must close the distance. Especially for herd bulls, you must get inside their comfort zone before attempting to call them in. You need to be in the game. A mile away is NOT in the game. You must put the bull in a position where he needs to act in a fashion that’s going to bring him into bow range. Many people try to call bulls in from wayyyyyy too far away, without realizing that even some of the best callers would be unable to persuade the bull from that distance. The #1 reaction herd bulls in particular have to aggressive calling from a long distance is to gather the herd and take them over the ridge. That response bugle that you herd, may have just been a round up bugle from the bull saying to his cows “time to go!”
Once you’ve located a bull, you need to take your best guess at the type of response you just received. Was it a herd bull responding aggressively? A round up bugle? A lazy bugle from a bedding area? A satellite location bugle? Another hunter? This can be hard to determine for novice hunters so always assume that it is a workable bull, take your best guess at the exact location and go from there. The approach will be completely different whether the elk are in a bedding area, feeding area, or transition area. Each of these areas play a key role in dictating your next move which is determining how am I going to close the distance. Elk walk about as fast as a human can jog. If they are headed to bed, you need to think about where they are headed and start moving that way – “coyote-ing” the herd. If they are already bedded, use the terrain features and make an educated guess. Is there a bench up there on the north slope in the dark timber below a saddle? I bet that’s where they are headed!
Try and get within 100 yards of that herd if the terrain and cover allows, then let the games begin. You need to force him to act in a manner that’s going to bring him into bow range – and that means getting close.The reaction can manifest itself a couple of ways: an aggressive “I’m going to kick your ass” reaction (challenging), a sexual inquiry “are you in heat?” (cow calling), or just plain old curiosity “who is this intruder elk?” You must interpret the bull’s behavior and pull the right tool out of your calling toolbox for that situation. BUT, regardless of the bull’s mood and your plan of attack, you need to CLOSE THE DISTANCE FIRST.
Mistake 2: The “Hang Up” Spot
I’ve been here and made this mistake plenty of times. With a background as a whitetail hunter, my gut reaction when an animal is close is to not move a muscle. The fact of the matter is animals can keenly pinpoint the location of call with a scary degree of accuracy. If he thinks he should be able to see the elk and he can’t see an elk – he’s not going to buy it. If he thinks he should hear you and can’t – he’s also not going to buy it. Most animals have a “hang up” spot where they are going to stop and take a good hard look around when coming to the sound of another animal. If they don’t see or hear what they expect to be there, they are going to walk away and either lose interest or become skeptical.
That is why the ”hang up” spot needs to be in bow range. You need a barrier or landscape feature between you and the bull that requires him to be within bow range before he should be able to physically see you. An open stand of aspens, as magical as that scenery is, just isn’t going to cut it. The thicker the brush the better but a variety of terrain features will work. It could be a ridge, rock pile, stand of quakies – anything that creates a physical barrier to get that bull into close range.
I’ve watched too many bulls hang up at 70+ yards because of a poor setup on my behalf. Don’t make this mistake. Anticipate the hang up spot and get within bow range. If you are solo hunting, by the time he can see you, it needs to be too late!
Mistake 3: Make Noise
Although completely logical, this is a surprisingly hard concept for many to comfortably put into practice. Most forms of hunting require stealth: stalking barefoot down an alpine gulley, standing motionless in a treestand, still hunting the dense timber… But elk are NOISY. If you are pretending to be an elk, it will sound unnatural if your calls are not accompanied by elk-like noises.
One of the reasons bulls hang up is because they hear the vocalizations of an intruding bull, but no sticks popping, branches snapping, limbs being raked, etc. All the way up until you are drawing your bow when a set of antlers are coming up over the horizon, you should be making noise. This could be as simple as stomping around or snapping a few sticks. It’s going to be uncomfortable the first time you do this with elk at close range, but it just may be the difference between a hung up bull or letting loose an arrow.