Burnworth's Tips for Elk Calling

Burnworth's Tips for Elk Calling
Photo by Ken Dunwoody

Get in the right position to call in a big elk.

No moment in hunting compares to that shot of adrenaline that goes right to a hunter's heart like when he or she is chasing an elk.

My first bull came at the age of twelve, with my father by my side amid Oregon's dense, rugged Coast Range. That experience changed my life and, ever since, I've been in elkaholic recovery. I live by the motto, “There are only so many seasons in a man's life and you have to take advantage of every one of them.” At least that's what I've been telling my wife all these years.

Elk hunting is part of my DNA. Recently, I reflected on the elk hunting experiences I've been fortunate to have. Those magical times in the field when a bull is taken are what I fondly refer to as bull day. Last October I took my fiftieth bull. Most of my bulls have been taken with a bow in my left hand and a bugle in my right. If I had one tip to offer hunters calling elk, it would be position.

As in basketball, if you're not standing in the action at the right time, things can go wrong in a hurry. The following article highlights key points that I've learned along the way, points I hope help you have more bull days.

If you're a crazy elk hunter like I am, by mid-summer you'll have an elk call in your mouth. You'll be grunting, chuckling, and bugling until your wife has had enough. Some time around September 1st, my wife kicks me out just in time to go after Mac Daddy himself. Over the years, I've had the privilege to hunt with some talented elk callers. Others that I have hunted with should have stuck to the shooting part of the hunt. Calling is important, obviously, but many times it's not how well you can call, but rather how you call and where you're positioned.

This is not to say that sounding authentic, using the right call at the right time, or regulating the volume and direction are not important, because they are. The key is how you react once you get an answer. The first thing I do when a bull bugles above me is check the wind. No matter how far you have to climb or walk, you have to get the right wind. An elk will tolerate hearing you, maybe even seeing you, but if he smells you, it's game over.

I usually call a couple of times to see how hot a bull is. If he calls back every time, I go on him. What I've concluded is that you only have a short timeframe, not much more than fifteen minutes, to close on a bull while his hormones are raging. In other words, I chase them. We run right at them to quickly get as close as we can. Along the way we stop, calling just loud enough to be heard. That tells the bull we're further away than we really are. We'll use cow calls and bugles, seeing which one he responds to the best. I don't rake trees or call real hard, I work with the averages. I use tactics that I think work on all elk.

My style of hunting elk is not something you'd see often on elk hunting videos. My goal has always been to try to see every elk I call to. Call only enough to pinpoint where the bull is. You don't want to risk blowing him out. Be sure to monitor the wind the whole time, and avoid walking on any trails a bull might travel along to reach you.

Before you start your call sequence, get the elk posse stopped and listen. Be sure all is quiet so you can clearly hear. Many times I've gotten busted by satellite bulls hanging on the outskirts of the main herd. Listening really works when you have multiple bulls calling and they're keeping each other going. If you're within 150 yards and can't hear elk, snap a twig or move your feet. Many times this can get a response and the bull won't be able to pinpoint you. Usually he will call to you as if to say, “I hear you, what are you?” This is the most critical time to know when and where to setup.

One of the big mistakes hunters make is not putting themselves in the right position. Often you only have seconds to set up. Ideally, you're hunting with a buddy and at this point it's the caller's job is to pull the bull past the hunter. Too many times the caller stays in one position - near the shooter. The approaching bull will hang-up quartering towards the shooter and offer no shot.

The bull, the shooter and the caller are all in a line. Most of the time you will not be able to close the deal. The caller needs to be on his feet and ready to move. Many times the bull will try to circle downwind, and the caller needs to get up and move to change the bull's direction without being detected. The goal of the caller is to keep the bull moving towards the hunter, all the while using the wind and the sound of the approaching bull to determine his position. How far the caller and shooter are separated depends on the type of cover.

In semi-open bush where elk can see long distances, 100 yards is not too far. Use the cover to your advantage and hunt smart. Say you're looking for a place to set up and found a sixty-yard gap that is more open than the cover around it. In this situation, set up thirty yards downwind of the trail, right on the edge of the opening. Try and hit that point where the bull will come out, rather than pull him into the open, then try convincing him to cross an opening all the way to the shooter's position.

Put the caller on the other side of the opening, against thick brush, standing up. As the bull comes to the edge and stops, he gazes across and realizes that what he's looking for is just through the brush beyond. The caller keeps cow-calling. Only call if the bull stops or slows down; there is no need to call if he's coming. In this scenario, think about the calling setup as transforming into the shape of a T.

The bull is at the top left, the caller on the right and the shooter at the bottom with the wind blowing between you. It's up to the caller to maintain this relationship. This arrangement will usually result in a bull coming out past the hunter, giving a solid quartering away shot. Believe in your position and, if the wind is right, you'll get the shot and an extra charge of adrenaline.

When you know he's closing in, take a deep breath, maintain your composure and anticipate when you should reach full-draw. Be sure to range the distance before taking the shot, aiming at a specific point between a 1/3 to half-way up the bull's chest, right behind the shoulder. Elk have a big kill zone.

I would say fifteen-percent of the bulls we call in get shot after they have passed the shooter. This is ideal when it happens; for the bull is less likely to see you draw. The key is getting the hunter and the caller in a position to work the bull by them. It's not always going to happen; but, when it all comes together, it's like magic. Elk hunting takes us to pristine and remote country many of us would otherwise never see. Elk fuel our passion to be a field and, when it all comes together, there's no matching the feeling of accomplishment. By hunting smart and using your position wisely, you too will be able to feel what it's like yelling down the canyon at the top your lungs “Bull Day!”

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