Think 'Left Brain' on Call Setups

Elk Hunting: Think 'Left Brain' on Call Setups
Infographic by Ryan Kirby

Fill that tag by knowing your game and following this plan for elk hunting.

By Gary Lewis

Early in my elk hunting career, I noticed a trend in how elk responded to our calls. If there was a hill or a mountain, the elk would go to the high ground, or stay on the high ground and circle to the downwind side.

One of my elk hunting teachers is Dan Kloer. He is a calling expert, call designer and veteran of many seasons of bugling to bulls and calf-talking cows into bow range. Kloer said elk are "left brain." Troy Neimann, who has been my elk-hunting mentor and who teaches an annual elk seminar series with me, said elk tend to go to their left when approaching a caller. What else can we learn from successful veterans like these guys? A lot.

Bull elk bugling during the rut. (Shutterstock image)


Think of it this way. Elk are social animals. They like to be together. They group for safety, for feeding, for mating season. There is a social structure, a hierarchy. They tend not to vocalize over each other. And for all these reasons, they are susceptible to calls. And bulls are more likely to investigate the sounds of female elk from late August into September and all the way into early November.

Looking back on dozens of call setups, I remember elk coming from uphill, downwind and my right side. Neimann's experience confirms that, and so does Kloer's.

They tend to go to their left and show up on your right. Last year Neimann called in close to 20 bulls in two days on one ranch. Days like that are rare, but they afford the opportunity to learn from the animals.

"Each one came from above and to their left," said Neimann. "They circle to the downwind side. They hear, they want to smell and they want to visualize."

This is the key to the calling setup, and why even a new elk hunter should not worry so much about how their calls sound and spend more time thinking about each setup before they start calling.

Infographic by Ryan Kirby (click to enlarge)


HERE'S A GREAT SETUP that's deadly on elk during September hunting. The shooter and two callers form a triangle with the shooter at the tip of the wedge and the primary callers at the base. If the shooter has cover, he can move forward to get the shot. If not, the callers should move back to give the impression that cows are leaving. That draws the bull in from his original position toward the shooter. Stay within sight of each other, and use predetermined hand signals to communicate with one another.


Elk make a lot of different sounds. Bulls scream, hiss, challenge and chuckle. Cows bugle (yes, they do), mew and chirp. They rake their antlers and nibble at grass and stomp their hooves and their ankle bones click in still morning air. Each animal has an individual voice.

Our ears disbelieve what we hear. That's why we interpret the cow bugle — a four-note call that goes from high to low — as a spike squeal or a hunter's poor attempt, and we miss what's really going on.

Approach a call setup with the plan to stay in place for an hour. The first 45 minutes are for calling and the last 15 are for staying in place, quiet, on watch.

With this in mind, put several different calls into play, starting with cow sounds and calf sounds and then escalating, if the time is right, into bull sounds.

An elk comes to a call because it has been sold on a scenario. "They want to believe. Then they want to confirm," Neimann said.

It's hard to predict what a complex creature will do, but we do know some things about elk. One of the most important this time of year is that they want to come to the sounds we make. They believe. And a lot of times they come from the high ground, circle to the downwind direction and come in, circling from their left side. Now they want to confirm by scent or by sight.

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