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Brains vs. Braun Part 3: Think Like an Elk

September 2019
Author: Jerrod Lile

I have a dirty little secret – I like to call elk. I can’t seem to help myself, even though I know it is not the best way to kill the oldest and smartest bulls on the mountain. The reason it’s been my taboo secret is because some of my best buddies, like Brendan Burns and Dan Evans, both kill mega bulls with incredible consistency, and they do it without the calls while emphasizing how important it is to leave the calls in your pocket. Now that my secret is out, I can add it to the list of techniques I use to get within bow range of bull elk. In fact, I’ll start there because it’s the most used and abused technique in the elk woods.


In spite of the fact that I do love to call elk in, I pretty much only use calls to locate tight-lipped bulls so that I can slip in close to them with techniques that I’ll discuss later in this article. This is mainly because, again, calling is not the best way to kill the smartest bull on the mountain. Furthermore, it can be a great way to get the smartest cow in the herd to say peace out and take the herd with her if you do it wrong. Worse yet, she might make that decision even if you’re saying and doing everything right if she can’t get a visual confirmation that you’re actually an elk. To understand why, it’s important to think about it from an elk’s point of view. Elk are extremely vocal, and every vocalization means something. Thankfully, unlike humans, there aren’t many chatty elk that just like to hear themselves talk. If you’ll approach your calling from this point of view, it will force you to ask yourself the most important questions:

  • What message am I sending?
  • How do I want the elk to respond?
Clearly, the easy answer to the second question is that you want the bull to charge over to you upwind at 20 yards broadside and stop in a nice, clear opening. However, big bulls will almost never do that and it’s not worth wasting your time thinking that your calls are going to illicit that response. With that in mind, let’s expand on those two questions further.


When it comes to bugles, I believe that there are only three primary messages — to stay in touch, attract cows, and assert dominance. Bulls bugle when they are looking for other elk or when they are staying in touch with other elk that are within earshot. Mature bulls pretty much only do this early on before they get cowed up. Immature bulls will do this throughout the rut as they wander around confused and excited by the promise of procreation. Once the mature bulls settle into herd management mode, they have two more messages. One, they bugle to attract more cows. They know that their bugles can be heard by cows who will come seek them if they sound aggressive enough to be a good potential baby daddy. Two, they bugle to assert dominance. This can come from an angry place when they are threatened by a would-be suitor to their ladies, and it can come from a straight-up instinctive point of view that is almost the equivalent of a shock gobble from a turkey. They get so worked up that a sweet whiff of estrous, a hurried movement from a cow, the snap of a branch nearby, and pretty much anything else will spark a throaty, aggressive bugle that shows the world just how tough he is.

In light of that, if you decide to bugle, you better be sending one of those messages. I use the bugle primarily to locate bulls by playing the “I’m a lonely bull card” and I’m hoping to illicit the “I’m a dominant bull who will take care of my ladies” response from a herd bull. Occasionally, I’ve used the “I’m here to steal your cows” message but with very little success. The main reason a bugle isn’t very effective to spark a charge from a dominant bull is because of standard elk etiquette. Elk tend to fight like the duels from the olden days. It goes something like this, the challenger bull rolls up to the edge of the herd of sweet-smelling ladies and throws out a bugle and starts rubbing a tree. This is what would have been the equivalent of a slap across the face with a glove to ignite the oldfashioned duel. In response to the face slap, the boss bull screams back and starts rubbing a tree of his own. After showing each other who’s tougher on an inanimate object, it becomes time to show each other their antlers and body size in what is called a parallel run. This can go on for a while as the bulls feign in and out toward each other, warning the other dude that he’s going to regret it if he doesn’t get outta town! If that doesn’t work, they might spar around a tree or bush for a while in a last ditch, halfhearted attempt to win without a full-blown fight. If all of the above still results in a confrontation, the fights can be incredible. I’ve watched more than one scrap that ends with broken points and bloody wounds. Now, insert a human into this equation. We can’t even get to the full slap-in-the-facewith-a-glove stage because we have to hide our puny bodies out of sight while we make our best effort to scream out a throaty threat.

For a seasoned bull or a 13-year-old cow on public land hunts where they’ve seen and heard it all, it’s a giant red flag to hear a screaming bugle from just out of sight from a would-be suitor who never appears. It doesn’t take long for that to turn into a herd of elk that are relocating to get away from something that simply doesn’t fit inside the parameters of what is normal elk communication. In those cases, elk often leave simply because they instinctively move away from anything that isn’t normal. In their world, it is always better to be safe than sorry because the consequences of not doing so can be devastating. Understanding this is a key component to following the rules of communication in an elk herd.


When it comes to cow calls, it is much more complex. Think about the most protective and careful human mother you’ve ever met. Then, multiply that mother’s awareness and senses many times over and you have a cow elk. Outside of the first somewhat carefree year of a cow’s life, they are born to be mothers and herd members where their sole purpose is to survive in an environment that is trying to kill them.

Somewhere between harsh winters and predators, humans stumble into the equation as a cherry on the top of their stressful lives. With that in mind, you should know that every time you blow a cow call, you’re telling the elk around you something. If you don’t decide ahead of time what your message is, you’ll blow it (pun intended) because you’ll be no different than that chatty person at a boring cocktail party who is talking for the sole purpose of hearing themselves. In the same way that you’ll try to move away from that chatty person, elk will eventually move away from a bunch of whiny cow calls that are coming from just out of sight too. I won’t pretend to be able to deconstruct what every vocalization means, but I believe that most cow calls fall into three categories that I’ll outline here.


When elk are born, they quickly learn mom’s voice and vice versa. The nursery herds that calves are raised in feature a lot of organized chaos as calves romp around while nervous moms feed and keep an eye out for danger. During this time, there is an incredible amount of verbal checking in that is as close to idle chat as elk ever get. This consists primarily of soft mews that bounce back and forth among the herd. Once calves start the weaning process, mom becomes increasingly intolerant as she prepares for another mating season. This results in a bunch of lonely calves and an opportunity for a savvy elk caller to get away with calling from out of sight of the main herd without throwing up too many red flags. Soft, sporadic mews can send the message that you’re interested in staying in touch with the herd, even though you’re not joining the herd. I’ve used this technique successfully a few times on older public land bulls, but it is very important to not sound too whiny and desperate. In fact, to pull this off, you’ll want to whisper the softest mews you can muster with the calls you are using. I’ll typically alternate between an occasional standard checkin mew at normal elk volume and then very sporadically let out the softest, shortest mews I can. My message is that I want to stay in touch, and the result I’m seeking is that the herd bull’s curiosity will eventually inspire him to move close enough to get a shot opportunity. For this to work, I’d say that whatever frequency you’re tempted to call with should be reduced by 75% or more. Tell yourself that you’re playing hard to get and coy, not desperate and easy.


Like I said before, the chaos of September breaks up a lot of elk families, which results in quite a few lonely elk. There is no lonelier elk than a calf that can’t find its mom. I’ve had these youngsters come barreling in at a dead run and stop within a few feet, mewing like crazy. Sounding like a lonely elk is pretty easy to do, and it can work pretty well if you’re trying to call in a young bull because he’s lonely too! However, if you’re trying to work in on a herd of elk and you’re using this type of calling, which involves high volume and frequency, you can be sure that no matter how much the cows and bull are calling back to you, the herd bull isn’t going to run over to you because that’s not elk protocol. The herd is answering you back as a courtesy so that you can join them. If you don’t follow the rules and join them, they are going to get antsy and leave because it’s not normal, and anything out of the ordinary is met with caution, which includes evacuation.


To my knowledge, the makers of the Woods Wise Hyper Hot cow call coined the term hyper hot. I’ll be honest, I’ve heard a lot of elk vocalizations in the woods and I’ve never really heard a cow sound quite like the sounds that elk hunters would describe as hyper hot. However, I am slightly embarrassed to say that I’ve used it a few times with various degrees of success. This nasal, whiny, desperate sounding call works best late in the rut and even post-rut. If you’re going to use it, remember what message you’re sending and the response that you seek. You’re saying I’m desperate for love and you need the bull to come in at a run. If he approaches you with caution, this whole plan is going to blow up in your face. The reason for this is because the hyper hot call is the next level of the lonely cow. If you’re hammering on the cow call like crazy and the bull closes the gap most of the way and you go silent on him, it’s a huge red flag. You’re supposed to be just as excited to see him as he is to see you! When you’re not, he thinks something went south and he typically leaves about as fast as he came. For this reason, this call works best with a partner or in terrain that allows you to move toward the bull quickly so that you close the gap before he hits the zone where he expects to find the love of his life.

I want to reemphasize that calls can be effective, but they are my personal last resort. If you use them, remember that you’re not just trying to sound like an elk, you’re trying to think like an elk, which means you have to think about the message you’re sending. Finally, remember that big, old bulls rarely have to go barreling into any calls. They’ve earned the right to sit back and have the ladies come to them. This means that more often than not, you’ll need to use one of the remaining techniques to put a herd bull on the ground.


In my opinion, ghosting along with a herd of elk is the very best way to kill a mature bull. In my younger years, the anticipation of this activity was almost too much to bear. My brain would tell me things like, “You’re so close. You have to make this happen!” Often, that would result in me trying to call, which almost always caused the herd of elk to move away from me. After repeating this mistake hundreds of times over the years, I’ve truly learned to enjoy the times where I get to voyeuristically join the herd. On those rare days where the wind stays consistent, I’ve been in bowrange of elk for hours at a time. You can learn more about elk in one hour of hanging out with them than you can learn by calling a hundred of them in. When I get tempted to be impatient, I repeat a mantra in my head that I’ve developed over the years. I simply tell myself, “Stay as close as you can for as long as you can, and good things will happen.” This keeps me patient and reminds me that elk hunting is not that complicated as long as they have no idea that you’re nearby.

When you are ghosting along with the herd, you are essentially banking on the fact that the bull will frequently work the perimeter of his harem, and one of the times he circles by you, he’ll provide a shot opportunity. One thing to note about this technique is that at some point every morning, the elk are probably going to haul butt toward their bedding area. When they do, I try to shift from ghosting mode to interception mode, which I’ll discuss later. The best times to ghost with the herd are late morning when they start staging around their bedding area and in the afternoon up until almost dark. Elk will often stage for hours in the afternoon when they first get up from their daily nap. As an added bonus, the rising afternoon thermals can be a bit more friendly because even if the wind flickers back and forth, your scent is rising with the hot air, whereas in the morning, the cool air keeps your stench close the ground, making even the slightest switch in wind direction devastating.


When elk line out to head from their nightly feeding session to their bedding area, they cover a lot of country fast. This makes them vulnerable for several reasons. One, they don’t have the luxury of standing around waiting for a fickle wind to blow your cover. Two, the herd shape changes from a circle to a line, which makes it easier to get in bowrange of the herd bull. Three, they will often travel up ridgetops or cross in saddles, creating opportunities to cut them off while keeping the wind in your favor. This technique is pretty self explanatory, so I won’t spend much time describing it. I will simply say that this method typically requires you to make a bold move at some point and go all-in on a spot. I like to use a small ridge, a bit of topography, or the edge of cover to peek at the herd and then hopscotch along with them repeatedly until I feel confident enough in the herd’s trajectory to pick out my spot. At that point, you are often forced into a position where you are going to become increasingly exposed as the elk move toward you. It’s high risk because if you guess wrong and they come by out of range, you may have to let them get way beyond you before you can relocate and try to catch back up again. Also, if they come by downwind of you, it’s game over.


In reality, blinds and tree stands are the safest way to try to intercept elk. You’re just waiting where you expect them to show up and you’re doing it from a super concealed position. I won’t waste your time telling you how to set this up. Instead, I’d like to point out that I’ve seen many patient whitetail hunters come out west and have incredibly high success rates on elk because they employ similar techniques that they use back home to hunt deer. The biggest key that they rely on is patience. If you grew up in the West hunting elk, I’d wager that you’re not as patient as your peer who grew up in the East hunting deer. When the weather won’t cooperate, the bulls are tight-lipped, and I can’t seem to turn anything up, I’m never afraid to turn to the waiting game to test my patience.

As an illustration, many years ago, I was fortunate to live near National Forest on one side of me and a big alfalfa field on the other side. I could often hear bulls from my porch at night. I tried like crazy to intercept those elk on foot, but the brushy terrain never allowed me to get in bowrange of the bulls. I finally hung a tree stand in a pinch point the elk liked to travel through, and we ended up killing seven elk out of that stand over the years. I’d still be hunting it today if that part of Idaho ever produced any really big bulls.


At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I can’t close the article without mentioning that you can’t kill elk where they don’t live. Most hunters do a pretty good job of figuring that out ahead of time, but then they get to their elk hunting destination and spend far too much time in camp, where elk don’t live. All of the techniques I’ve mentioned in this article are great, but the most important variable of all is time in the field that is coupled with sheer determination. Elk hunting is going to wear you down, and you’ll be tempted to sleep a little too long, take a morning off, or relax a little too long in your comfy camp. Some really cool things have happened to me simply by taking a nap in an elk bed instead of my camp trailer or by bivvying out overnight when I’d rather be enjoying the creature comforts of camp.

My final tip is to spend as much of your elk hunting trip as possible in elk real estate and not in camp. This doesn’t mean recklessly wandering through thick timber in the middle of the day, but it may mean napping near a hot wallow or snoozing on a ridge across from the timber where the elk bedded for the day so that you can hear them when they start firing up for the afternoon. I’ve killed elk at all hours of the day when I’ve been in the woods, but I’ve never shot one in camp. I think there’s probably a lesson tucked somewhere in that little nugget of truth.