October 16, 2020
My hunting buddy, Jody Smith, let out an urgent “Psssst!” and pointed with his eyes to our left. My release was already on the bowstring, as I’d heard the quickened pace of elk footsteps approaching through the forest.
Seconds later I could see the top of a Roosevelt elk’s rack, twisting and turning through the dense brush of the Oregon Coast Range. When the bull slipped behind a fat Douglas fir, I raised to my knees and drew. When the bull emerged, I gave a quick cow chirp with a diaphragm call. The bull stopped instantly and the 12-yard shot was simple.
While on that day we lured in the bull with cow and calf calls, Smith, a full-time guide (541-643-6258; jodysmith guideservice.com), uses cow calls less often these days when he is attempting to locate groups of elk at a distance.
“In pressured areas the bulls simply respond better to bugles than cow calls,” says Smith. “It’s a total reverse of what it was even 10 years ago, when I almost exclusively used cow calls.
“About the only time I cow call these days is when I’m moving in on a herd and hear cows calling,” continues Smith. “Once I bugle and get a bull to respond, I’m on the move, trying to close within 100 yards before calling again. I move fast. I’m a lot more aggressive with these elk than I used to be. As I move, I stick to the shadows. When I break twigs and go through brush, I cow call once in a while to cover my noise. I don’t care if an elk hears me or even sees me moving in the shadows, but if they smell me, the jig is up.”
Another hunting partner, Chris Stewart, agrees with Smith. Stewart has taken a number of big Roosevelts with his bow, and credits his success to moving in close before he begins calling. “I bugle like crazy, all season long,” says Stewart. “I don’t let the calendar determine how I call. Rather, I base it on what the bulls are doing. These elk might be bugling their heads off on September 13th, and on the 14th you might not hear a sound.”
Like Smith, once Stewart gets a response to his locator bugle, he tries to close the gap to within 100 yards before setting up to call. “These big bulls won’t come out of cover to check you out, so you have to go in after them.”
As soon as he hears an elk bugle, he marks the spot, tracks the wind and makes his move. The closer he gets, the slower he moves, all the while listening for cows, calves and bulls “talking.” Because Coast Range habitat is so brushy in the deep, dark canyons where he hunts, he does more listening than looking.
Both Smith and Stewart also agree that if you set up and call repeatedly too far from the herd, the bull will simply round up his cows and take off.
“If you can get within 100 yards, wait 15 minutes or so before calling, then start making sounds, bulls will come in more often than not,” Smith says.
Stewart notes that he’s scared off a number of bulls by setting up and calling at 200 to 300 yards out. “If the cows and calves are talking, those are the sounds I use once I’m in close, but if bulls are bugling, I’ll bugle right back.” says Stewart. “Whatever sounds you make, be ready; when you’re within 100 yards of a herd, a bull can come charging in fast.”
“Call and move, call and move—that’s my routine all season long,” says Stewart. “If I bugle to locate a bull and hear nothing, I’ll move to another spot. I might come back later that afternoon, or even the next day, to see if a bull has gotten fired up enough to pursue.”
It’s an aggressive tactic to locate elk because, as noted, elk at a distance might not respond to a call by moving toward you. But they are likely to reveal that they are in the same area you are hunting, giving you a chance to plan a stalk.
Another accomplished elk hunting buddy, Parrey Cremeans, echoes Stewart’s approach. “With Roosevelt elk you have to move. People don’t realize how severe coastal Roosy terrain is. It’s like the Rocky Mountains, but in a jungle. These elk can quickly move from one drainage to the next, and it might take you two days to catch them in the brush.”
When Cremeans is set on putting his tag on a big herd bull, he bugles from the start of the season on.
“I listen to what the elk are saying. If a bull is bugling in early September, he might be too timid to come to a call, but he’s still bugling and gathering cows. This is when I move in close and keep bugling, hoping the bull will take my challenge.”
And if Cremeans can get a bull fired up mid-season, he’ll keep moving and calling then, too.
“September 8 to 12 is a transition time,” he says. “If a bull is bugling to defend his cows and the herd is not moving, I’ll move in fast and aggressively challenge him with bugles. But if his calls indicate he’s rounding up cows to move out, I’ll get in front of him and mix up cow and bull calls to convince him to come get me or fight me.”
Cremeans is also a guide (justforhunting.com), based in Redding, California, but he hunts Roosevelt elk wherever he can. Even for hunters who are happy with “any legal bull,” he suggests the best strategy is to keep moving and calling. “Satellite bulls can come in just about any time to check things out, so keep moving and calling. As long as the wind is right, anything can happen.”
One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of elk hunting is that every move I make needs to be based on what the elk are saying and doing. If there’s a lot of cow and calf talk going on, I’ll mimic those sounds to send a message to a bull that a cow is straying from the herd. This may pull in the herd bull or different bulls hanging on the fringes of the herd. One time, while filming a TV show, I called in the same little 5x5 bull on three different setups over the course of a morning in the Coast Range.
In mid-season, as bulls focus on defending their herd, things change.
“Once the gathering is over and the protecting begins, that’s when I like getting really aggressive,” Cremeans says. “I’ll get close to a herd and bugle hard to try and capitalize on the testosterone-induced emotions of a big bull.”
If you hear a cow make an estrous sound, blast your cow call. I’ve only witnessed this sound twice, but I can say the loud, piercing shrill these cows make is one you’ll never forget. Mimicking those sounds and tossing in some insubordinate bugles will often get multiple bulls moving your way, so be ready—what’s about to happen can happen fast.
This archery season, grab the calls, lace up the boots and take to the Roosevelt woods. Listen to what the elk are saying and let them be the ones that determine your next move. By focusing on the science of these elk, and covering ground, filling a Roosevelt tag might become a regular occurrence.
Take a Stand
Sometimes, getting off the ground improves your chances.
As with most kinds of hunting, flexibility can increase the odds of success in elk hunting. While much of your elk hunting might revolve around moving to find the elk, treestands have a place in the Roosevelt elk hunter’s bag of tricks, and the keys to making them work are the setup and patience.
The biggest advantage treestands offer hunters is getting them off the ground, which elevates human scent. Air travels like water, in layers, so the higher a hunter can be in a treestand, the less likely an animal is to smell him. For elk, hang stands at least 20 feet off the ground.
Position treestands in areas where you’ve patterned elk and know they will travel. This is where patience comes in, as you’re relying on elk to naturally move through an area, which means you may need to sit all day every day for the better part of a week. Mineral licks and wallows can be good places to hang stands. For coastal elk, waterholes may not be the best choice for a treestand, as elk get a lot of water from the vegetation they eat and from multiple water sources in this wet habitat.
Trail cameras and scouting can help narrow down elk movement patterns and assist in determining where you should hang a stand.
Foldable versions give you an advantage.
When it comes to hunting Roosevelt elk, decoys are an underutilized tool, as many hunters ignore them due to the dense habitat. This is where a foldable, low-profile, photo-realistic cow decoy can help.
Roosevelt country is so rugged and brushy, it’s often impossible to even set up a decoy. But if you have an open trail, are hunting the edges of meadows or logged units or are in second-growth timber that offers good visibility, you’re in a good situation to use a decoy.
The key to decoying Roosevelt elk is to set up so an approaching bull can see the decoy from a distance. The last thing you want is a hot bull charging in and getting surprised by a decoy that’s smack in its face. When decoying elk, you want the decoy to help pull that bull into shooting range.
Two of my favorite decoys are both made by Montana Decoy: Miss September ($99.99; montanadecoy.com) and Eichler Elk ($109.99). These are two-dimensional, photo-realistic decoys that show a cow quartering away while feeding (Miss September) and approaching with its head up (Eichler).