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Bold Tactics for Calling and Decoying Elk this Fall

Don't be afraid to make some noise—and moves—when hunting bulls. These are the tactics to use.

Bold Tactics for Calling and Decoying Elk this Fall

As bulls grow their harems, they become harder and harder to pull away—unless you employ an aggressive calling tactic. (Shutterstock image)

Grabbing a decoy, I headed into thick timber with a buddy. I’d already filled my tag on this public-land hunt in Montana. The bulls were fired up, but my friend was reluctant to call. We hiked up a ridge thick with Ponderosa pines and set up. Below us at about 200 yards were two wallows. The trails connecting the wallows to the bedding areas ran straight up and down the mountain. Fresh sign was thick.

My buddy was new to bowhunting and had never arrowed an elk. This was his third season, and the first time we’d hunted elk together. He got set up against two fat trees. In front of him was a small meadow, 30 yards long and 10 yards wide. If a bull approached, it would be a close shot. I moved behind him, held the Montana Decoy, then began cow calling. Before I ended my first series, a bull bugled. I hit the open-reed call again, and again the bull responded.

Less than two minutes later, a cow appeared. She was locked on the decoy and wouldn’t budge. Holding the decoy, I backed down the hill and called, and she came right at me. She passed 7 yards from my buddy, who was at full draw. The bull came right behind and was met with an arrow at 12 yards. When it comes to calling elk, sometimes aggressive moves pay off.

hunter with tagged elk
A decoy is an effective, yet overlooked, tool when it comes to hunting elk. This bull came in on a string to check out the Montana Decoy Back Country Elk. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
THE DECOY BONUS

On that hunt I used the Back Country Elk decoy, a photo-realistic 2D decoy that shows the hind end of a cow facing away. I had other Montana Decoys with me, but chose this one for three reasons. First, there were a lot of cows in the area. Second, it was the third week of September and the bulls were hot, but reluctant to leave their cows. And, third, I knew it would allow me to make the move that drew the elk within spitting distance of my friend. In this situation, the combination of moving and calling did the trick. The bull came in, thinking it could add the lone cow to his harem.

Decoys are a very valuable tool, but still overlooked by a lot of archery hunters. I’ve had good success with them when bulls won’t leave their harems and when hunting pressured elk on public land. If hunting alone, I like setting up the decoy behind me and off to the side. Calling brings the bull in for a look; once he spots the cow decoy, the hope is he’ll move in close and give me a shot opportunity. Decoys also work when hunting from treestands, but place the decoy to the side, not in front of you, so an approaching bull must pass by your stand.

IT’S ALL ABOUT POSITION

Over the decades I’ve delivered hundreds of elk hunting seminars around the country and talked with many fellow hunters. One of the biggest takeaways from these conversations is that hunters often struggle to fill archery elk tags because they’re afraid to make a move.

This is where knowing the animals and the land is important. Always know which direction the wind is blowing. Anticipate wind shifts throughout the day and hunt accordingly.

Moving in the shadows, I could care less if an elk sees me. If they spot me, I freeze. Once they’re relaxed, I continue moving. If they hear me, I stop and wait for them to calm down, then proceed. If they smell me, the gig is up. I’ve never killed a bull that’s smelled me.

Elk have some of the best noses in the animal kingdom. I use no scent-blocking agents and don’t wash my clothes in special detergent. When elk hunting, you’re usually sweating and smelly before you even get to where you’ll be hunting. Play the wind when trying to reach a spot to call; if it shifts, leave. You will never fool the nose of an elk. Ever.




Scott Haugen with tagged elk
The author used a mix of cow and calf calls, along with aggressive bugles, to pull this bull within bow range. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
COMBO CALLING

You don’t have to be a world-class caller to bring in elk, but you do need to know what the sounds you’re delivering mean. Early in the archery season, cows and calves stick close together. They communicate a lot with one another, but their sounds are subtle. This is also a time when young bulls start bugling. Some of the worst sounding bugles I’ve heard—from man or elk—have come from bulls in early September. Remember, these bulls have not bugled since the previous fall, and it takes a bit of time to get those vocal cords tuned up.

Don’t use this as an excuse to get sloppy with your bugles—just know you don’t have to be perfect. If you make a mistake, call through it. Don’t stop and restart the sequence if you miss a note. Elk sure don’t.

Early in the season I like using a combination of cow mews and young-bull bugles. The goal is to let big bulls know cows are around and an insubordinate bull is interested.

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As the season progresses, the rut ramps up. The peak of the rut is driven by photoperiodism and usually happens in the third week of September. With the onset of the rut, calves will start venturing farther from their moms to feed and explore their new world. When this happens, cows and calves become more vocal to maintain contact. This is especially true in brushy, densely forested habitat where they can’t see one another. Cow and calf communication is highest early in the morning and at dusk. This is when I mix up my calling to emulate the cow and calf sounds I’m hearing in the woods.

Calf sounds are high-pitched and can be drawn out and frequent. Sometimes they’re pleading if the calf has lost contact with mom. For making these sounds, I like an open-reed mouth call as it allows me to hit a range of notes.

Cow sounds are lower pitched than those of calves, and the notes are often shorter. I use the same open-reed call to produce cow elk sounds, but I also use diaphragm calls and Slayer Call’s new Enchantress, which is a push-button call (see sidebar, below). If you don’t like using diaphragms, give it a look.

BUGLE PLOYS

As for bugling sounds, I get raspier and more aggressive later in the season. I still use some insubordinate bugles to get the attention of a big bull, letting it know there’s an intruder on the outskirts looking to steal a cow. Here, I like mixing up cow and calf calls, then interjecting a young, high-pitched bugle. It’s a lot of calling, but it creates realism and has worked for me in multiple states.

If I’m calling to a big bull and it’s responding but not budging, I’ll get aggressive. This is when I go to pleading cow mews—what some folks call estrus calls—and follow those up with raspy, hard bugles. If a bull starts bugling back, I’ll cut him off, trying to mimic the same notes and cadence he’s delivering. The goal is to challenge him so he comes looking for a fight. That bull already has what he wants. You’re the intruder and have to convince him to come to you.

If the bull still won’t budge, try raking trees and stomping on the ground. If you’ve ever seen a bull thrash a tree, or witnessed two bulls fighting, you know there’s nothing you can do to reach that level of energy. But you can try. Using a combination of cow calls, loud, aggressive bugles and tree raking, I’ve brought in a lot of bulls I’m certain never would have responded otherwise.

This season, play the wind and mix up your calls. If you’ve struggled to fill elk tags in the past, make a point to be aggressive and try something new this fall. You might end up with a freezer full of meat.

Slayer Elk Calls
  • Powerful tools for chatting up big bulls.
Slayer Elk Calls
Slayer's ArchAngel and Entantress elk calls.

I’ve used a lot of elk calls over the decades and recently have been impressed with offerings from the folks at Slayer Calls. The new ArchAngel ($89; slayercalls.com) is an acrylic bugle that delivers crisp sounds, and the volume is easy to control. The first time I used this bugle last September, three different bulls responded, and a big 6-point came charging in for a fight.

In addition to a comprehensive line of great-sounding diaphragms, Slayer also has two external-reed cow calls. I love external-reed calls for the range of sounds they quickly produce and their ease of use. With these, it’s simple to mimic calf-and-cow communication.

The Enchantress push-button call ($75) also achieves a range of sounds. It’s a versatile, easy-to-use call that not only produces perfect cow and calf sounds, but also crisp bugles and even lip bawl bugles when used with the Swagger tube. These calls sound realistic and are made in the United States.

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