According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, elk at the start of the 21st century were a million strong. Like the adaptable whitetail and coyote, elk are adjusting, expanding and filling niche habitats they abandoned not long after Lewis and Clark surveyed Jefferson’s famous real estate purchase. A recent Colorado hunt was proof enough of that for me. Elk were oozing from the hillsides. On most of my elk hunts I look for sign. In Colorado I tried not to step in it.
Today, depending on where you go, you are just as apt to be hunting bulls in the open sagebrush as on the side of a 10,000-foot wilderness peak. To be successful, your calling strategies have to change as dramatically as the elevations. Here’s how four experts call elk in their very different backyards.
Doug Gardner, Powder River
Southeastern Montana, with its limited timber interspersed with miles of open country, certainly doesn’t fit the definition of “typical elk habitat.” Powder River Outfitters’ Doug Gardner knows the elk are there, however. He was raised in southeastern Montana, and in the course of five decades he’s watched the state’s elk population grow from a few sightings to a strong herd with world-class bulls. It takes a tactical approach to arrow a bull in open country.
Gardner is just as likely to locate elk with a binocular as with a bugle. To be successful calling, he needs to call a bull into timber. This isn’t always an easy feat, especially when the herd is lounging on an open slope. Sooner or later, the animals usually end up going to the strips of timber to bed down. Moving quickly, Gardner tries to get in front of the herd and cut it off as it moves toward timber. When he’s guiding, he places his hunter on the timber’s edge while he calls from 30 to 70 yards behind him.
Gardner isn’t afraid to use a bugle but often shies from a cow call because of the spooky nature of open-country herds. He thinks that cows often spook from cow calls unless they see the animal making the noise. Gardner likes a lone, mature bull wandering around. He believes most of these bulls are herd bulls that were pushed out of the top spot. He’s found they are usually eager to regain a foothold in the herd and, as a result, respond aggressively to bugles.
Al Kraus, Black Hills Archery,
Al Kraus makes his living running Black Hills Archery in the shadows of the Black Hills themselves. For his yearly elk fix, he travels to nearby Western locales offering garden-variety elk habitat: wooded mountains, vertical ascents and open meadows.
Kraus has six Pope and Young Club bulls to his credit. He attributes his success to an assertive, tight-lipped approach. Kraus eases within sight of the herd and positions himself in front of or parallel to it. Then he pulls out his calls.
“I feed off of the bull’s emotions and mimic him. If he’s chuckling, I’ll chuckle,” says Kraus. “I never try to be more intimidating, nor do I try to sound like too young of a bull. I want him to think I’m a contender. To do so I combine bugles with cow calls.”
Like a gobbler with hens, a bull can be almost impossible to call away from cows. Kraus isn’t afraid to back off and go in at midday if the bull doesn’t respond in the morning.
“Let him go and bed if he won’t come to your call,” advises Kraus. “Then slip in using the wind and get as close as you can. When I’m working a bedded bull, I always cow-call. I think it makes a bull believe a cow has gotten up and walked off.”
[pagebreak] Thick-Cover Calling
Santa Fe Outfitters, New Mexico
Clay Allison has a boyish grin and doesn’t look old enough to have earned his elk wings. If you see him in the elk woods, however, your opinion will change quicker than mountain breeze. Better yet, watch him in a thick-cover elk showdown and you’ll be glad he’s on your team. Allison-whose Santa Fe Outfitters does its elk hunting just across the state line, in southern Colorado-defines “thick” as cover so dense you have to call the bulls from it to get a shot. The calling tactic he’s fond of does just that.
“My tactic is to get up close and engage the bull with cow calls or bugles. I engage bulls close, then back off to pressure the bull into coming out for the shot,” explains Allison.
Allison isn’t an elk mind reader, but he knows how to interpret a bull’s actions and calls. If he’s working a bull that’s just loafing, he tosses cow calls into the brush. If the bull is screaming and trashing the landscape, Allison works the bull with bugles but doesn’t get intimidating enough to threaten the bull. He just wants to make the bull curious or mad enough to come in for a look.
Allison recalls one encounter that found him and a client waiting for a lone bull to leave thick cover. They could see the bull from time to time rooting in the brush, but the bull wouldn’t come to any cow calls. Instead of going in, Allison hooked to the side of the bull and moved nearly 100 yards away. Allison found a small opening and put the hunter next to it while he backed off another 40 yards. Using cow calls, he let the bull know the cow had moved and immediately the bull marched his way and walked past the hunter for a point-blank shot.
Some bulls never leave the cover. In those cases, Allison goes in after them. When he spots a bull, the game starts. If the bull is surveying the area, Allison stops. When the bull is chasing a cow, rubbing a tree or bugling, he moves closer. If there are cows around, the game will be slower, but not impossible. Once he gets in the bull’s face, he calls to close the deal.
Bliss Creek Outfitters, Wyoming
Tim Doud, owner of Bliss Creek Outfitters, based in Cody, Wyo., isn’t an old-timer yet, but he’s getting there by chasing elk above treeline in Wyoming’s high country. Over a quarter century of guiding and outfitting, he has learned that bulls at the treeline can be some of the most frustrating. In this environment, they can dive into cover or stay in the open, making him change tactics at a moment’s notice.
Doud finds herds above timberline by using locator calls, but his greatest asset is his optics. When he spots a herd, he doesn’t call until they are in position for an ambush.
“I watch to see which direction they are feeding in, then I guess where they’re going to bed,” says Doud. “Next, I circle around as fast as possible and get to the closest available cover. If I’m lucky, they’re heading to a bedding area. I set my hunter up in front of me at the edge of the cover and I slide deeper inside the cover to call the bull past my client.”
This sounds easy enough, but over the years, Doud has seen too many hunters push ahead too fast and end up in the wrong location. Doud makes sure the elk are on a definite course before he takes off for an interception, and he never calls while he’s watching. He doesn’t want to get them on alert, especially since the elk expect to see other elk in the treeless high country.
Once the elk get within range of Doud’s setup, he chooses his calls based on the herd’s structure. If there are several bulls in the herd, he cow-calls, hoping the bulls will feed off of jealously and race each other to the cow. If it’s a lone bull commanding a herd, he bugles to challenge the bull. Detailed observation of the bull’s attitude drives Doud’s calling tactics.
The settings for elk are changing across elk country. You no longer have to pack into remote areas of the Rocky Mountains to hear elk bugle. Change your calling tactics to match the setting and you might just be blessed with the strenuous pleasure of packing out an elk.enuous pleasure of packing out an elk.