August 24, 2022
I was hunting mule deer in an aspen forest when I heard strange, bird-like sounds off in the distance. Something about it wasn't right, though; these were unlike any birds I'd heard before. I eased up to a ridge and looked down the other side to try and identify the source of the sounds. To my surprise it wasn't birds at all, but a herd of elk.
That incident took place many years ago. I didn't give it much thought at the time, other than to acknowledge that elk make sounds that resemble a bird's chirp or a cat’s meow. Years later, in 1985, I was chatting with Don Laubach about elk hunting in a Gardiner, Mont., saloon. Don lives in Gardiner, a small town next to Yellowstone Park's North Gate. Elk are frequent visitors around town, often foraging on lawns and landscape shrubbery. Every resident of Gardiner is familiar with elk language. While we talked, Don produced an object from his pocket.
"Know what this is?" he asked, holding it up for me to see. I shook my head. "It's a cow elk call," he said.
I must have had a disinterested look on my face because Don smiled and blew into it. "What’s that sound like?" he asked. "Sure enough," I answered. "It definitely sounds like a cow elk."
Don sensed that I wasn't getting it. "Think about it," he said. "When you hunt tom turkeys, you use a hen call. Doesn't it follow that a cow elk call would appeal to a bull elk?"
A light went on in my head. This was a brand-new strategy that just might work. Don handed me the prototype call and invited me to try it out during the upcoming elk hunting season. He'd also given calls to a couple different outfitters, curious to know how the call would perform in other areas.
I spent the late summer and fall using Don's call in as many scenarios I could think of. The results were amazing, and before long I was completely sold on the concept. Shortly thereafter I wrote a story about cow calling for an outdoor magazine and was fortunate to have broken the news to elk hunters everywhere. Readers bought Don’s call, "Cow Talk," at a feverish pace, and it didn’t take long for other call makers to come up with their own versions.
IN THE BEGINNING …
Of all the big game species in North America, elk are the most vocal. Bulls bugle during the rut, but cows and calves chatter all year long. Most calling occurs when elk are on the move, but they’ll often sound off when they're feeding. Calves have a higher pitched sound than mature cows, but unless you're close enough to easily observe the herd, it's hard to tell which elk are calling in the moment.
My initial testing of the call occurred prior to elk hunting season so I could observe the animals' reaction in a wild, undisturbed setting. Living in northwestern Wyoming, I didn't have to go far to find them. Remember, cow calls had yet to be available, and no one had ever heard of them except for Don Laubach and the few of us who were trying them out. Elk themselves had never been exposed to an imitation cow call, either.
My first attempt at using the call was surprising. I heard a bull bugle in the bottom of a canyon and eased over to the top to bugle a response. The bull bugled back instantly and moved into a small opening about 200 yards away where I could clearly see him. He was soon joined by several cows. The bull and I exchanged bugles back and forth, but he was rooted to the spot. This scenario is well known to elk hunters—a herd bull is typically difficult to lure away from his cows.
Now was the time to try the cow call. I blew on it softly and waited. The bull fell silent and looked toward me as if extremely interested. I blew the call once more and he answered with a hearty bugle as he charged directly toward me. He stopped at 30 yards and offered a perfect broadside shot through a window in the underbrush. Had it been hunting season, I would have had a deadly opportunity with either a bow or a firearm. I lowered myself down close to the ground and crawled away with a big smile on my face.
There was no question that the cow call enticed the bull away from the herd. I've learned since that a herd bull with eight cows would prefer nine. There are exceptions, of course. His reaction has everything to do with his attitude and status within the herd. A mature bull with no cows, for example, has a far different mindset than a bull with a harem. Satellite bulls and even spikes have different agendas as well. Many will rush straight in to a cow call.
Sometimes a bull will respond vigorously to a bugle call by bugling back, but will hang up out of range or over a ridgetop or in timber where you can't see him. If the vegetation and terrain allow, move away from him quickly in the opposite direction, blowing the cow call as you go. This tactic often entices the bull to follow because the call tells him that a cow is moving away from the bull he just heard (you).
Some bulls are extra wary if there's heavy pressure on them. Anything you can do to be different from others is worth a gamble. One trick is to carry more than one cow call or learn how to make different sounds from your call. This presents a more realistic scenario. Cows almost never travel alone.
Exceptions are when they're calving in the spring or have been separated from the herd after being pursued by predators or shot at by hunters. The different scenarios in which to use a cow call are endless. The more you try, the better your chances of tagging an elk.
THE GREAT UNIFIER
Once, while hunting in eastern Oregon, I stumbled into a large herd of 90 or 100 elk. When they spooked, they separated into two groups. One group ran over a hill and the other down a canyon, causing a ruckus as they fled.
The wind had been right, so I was sure they hadn't smelled me. The timber was fairly thick, and I didn't think they’d gotten a good look at me either. Instead, I figured they'd heard me in the underbrush, saw movement and took off. Rather than risk a stalk, I decided to sit on a log, have a sandwich and let the woods calm down.
About 20 minutes had passed when I heard a cow calling from down the canyon. Almost immediately, another cow answered from over the ridge. Soon, the two groups were vocalizing vigorously. It was obvious that they were regrouping. I wondered what would happen if I blew my cow call. If, by any chance, they headed my way, I'd need to be off the ground since the forest was thick and offered poor visibility.
I had a tag for any bull, and a spike would have been most welcome, so I’d need to be in a place where I could view as many elk as possible to locate a bull. A nearby tree had stout branches that allowed me to climb up, and I was able to get about 10 feet off the ground.
I blew on my cow call and got no response. After a couple minutes I tried again. To my surprise, a group of elk was heading my way. As soon as I blew the call, a cow or two would immediately reply. Moments later I saw movement in the timber and realized they were going to pass across a small opening about 40 yards away. I had a perfect vantage point and would be able to see every elk in the group. The two herds were now together and walking slowly, some milling around—a couple within 20 yards of my tree. A cooperative breeze kept my scent from reaching them.
I figured that at some point I’d see antlers, and was concerned that the elk were so close together that I might not have a clear shot. I needn’t have worried because the entire bunch was composed of cows and calves.
Not a single bull. I couldn't believe it. But the incident bolstered my confidence in the cow call. That was the first time I got a positive response from elk that had been separated from each other, but it was hardly my last.
When you think about it, many wildlife species that travel in herds, flocks or coveys use vocalizations to regroup when split up. I've never made a conscious effort to break up an elk herd in order to call them back as you would with fall turkeys, but on countless occasions I've been busted by a herd while moving through thick underbrush and blowdowns. Calling them back with a cow call hasn’t always been successful, but it’s worked enough times to be worth the effort.
On another occasion, I hunted an area where a cow hunt had taken place the day before. As a result, cows and calves had scattered in different directions. I approached the area and spotted a large calf feeding by itself. The elk was on private land that was posted, and I was standing on public land. I made a cow call and the young elk immediately dashed straight toward me, jumped a fence and offered a legal shot.
It was early December and very late in the season, and the calf was exceptionally large. I had no problem shooting it, knowing it would be fabulous on the dinner table. The elk reacted to my call because it was alone and wanted to rejoin the herd. In this case a bugle call would have been ineffective. Had I not used the cow call, I would not have taken that elk.
STOP THEM IN THEIR TRACKS
The thing a cow call is perhaps most effective at—any time of the season—is stopping running elk. And I mean a skid-to-a-halt stop that allows the hunter to get a shot at a standing animal.
This technique allowed my wife, Madonna, to take a beautiful bull during a late Wyoming elk hunt. She'd drawn a tag that ran into early December, a time when most bulls have migrated out of the high country and are in more accessible lower elevations. We waited to hunt the last week of the season to capitalize on the larger number of bulls that we could reach by hiking. Our strategy was to hike up the bottom of a canyon for 4 or 5 miles, then up to the top of a ridge before hunting our way back to the truck parked along the highway.
We started each day in the dark and returned to the truck in the dark. The weather was terrible. The wind gusted with little letup, often reaching 50 mph. On top of that, the temperature never climbed above zero. It wasn't so bad when we were in the bottom of the canyons, but it was horrid on the ridgetops when we had to hunt across an opening. When that was the case, we donned full face masks. We repeated this trek daily, hiking along different canyons and ridges. We saw decent herds of elk every day, including several bulls that would have been taken on any other hunt. But this tag was one of the best in Wyoming, and we knew there were big bulls in the country we hunted. After all, we live a dozen miles away.
One morning we eased up a canyon along a creek that was iced over. As we were about to round a bend, I heard a tapping sound up the creek. I peeked around and saw a big bull striking the ice with a hoof in an effort to get a drink of fresh water. At that moment, he saw me and ran up the heavily timbered hillside. I could see by the route he was taking that he’d eventually cross a clearing. I told Madonna to get ready to shoot when I blew the cow call, which I did as soon as he entered the clearing.
He came to an abrupt stop and looked at us. Madonna was in an awkward position, though, desperately trying to find a steady rest for the 150-yard shot, but the bull took off a split second before she was ready to shoot. One jump and he was back in the timber. The adage, "that's why they call it hunting," wasn't very comforting.
We continued to hunt every day, but we never saw a good bull. On the eve of the last day, we decided to try hunting on the mountain where we live. We headed up the slope and were startled to see a big bull running down the mountain. Something had spooked him, and he was only 30 yards away. Madonna got down on one knee and I blew the call. He stopped in his tracks and looked at us. A second later I heard the wonderful crack of the rifle as the bull collapsed at the spot.
He was a dandy, with massive beams and five points on each side. A biologist estimated him to be at least 10 years old. Without the cow call, we likely would have gone home empty-handed. That hunt was one of the first where I tried stopping a running elk with the call, and I was immediately convinced of its effectiveness.
THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM
On another hunt, my daughter Judi and I and a small group hunted on horseback in the Wyoming Range in western Wyoming. After hunting hard for three days and seeing only cows and calves, we inadvertently spooked a bull from the timber. He dashed across a clearing and I hit the cow call. The bull stopped, Judi fired and missed, the bullet hitting high in branches. The bull took off again, I blew the call and Judi missed once more, again hitting high.
The bull was almost into the timber when I told Judi to aim lower. I blew the call a third time. Incredibly, the bull stopped again. Judi's bullet passed through both lungs and the bull ran 40 yards before piling up. I was amazed it had stopped for the call after being shot at several times. I tested Judi's scope afterward and found that it was seriously off, no doubt a result of bouncing around in a scabbard and banging off trees all day.
So why do running or spooked elk stop for the cow call? I think a reasonable explanation is because it sounds somewhat like a bark made by an alarmed elk. Upon hearing that sound, elk are instantly on the lookout for danger, and stop to see what made the call.
WALK AND TALK
When walking through the woods, no matter how hard you try to be silent, you will inevitably make some noise. I coined this phrase many years ago: "The sound of a snapping twig is quickly forgotten by the hunter, but long remembered by the hunted."
If elk are bedded or feeding closely out of sight and they hear you, they'll either dash away or listen intently. If I blow my cow call lightly as I walk, I've found that the quarry will often allow me to get closer because they hear what they think are elk moving toward them. If everything goes to plan, I see them before they see me. If they spook, I blow sharply on the call and get ready to shoot when they stop to look.
The cow call has been around for 37 years since Don Laubach introduced it to the hunting world. It's been used by hunters everywhere from lowland deserts to snow-capped peaks. The bottom line is it works—in any number of scenarios—and is one of the most important tools in the elk hunter’s bag of tricks.