Outdoor Life Online Editor

Rattling works for whitetails, but will it work for elk? You bet, says Colorado guide Roger McQueen, who has invented a rattle call for just that purpose.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that rattling works at least as well on elk as it does on whitetails,” says McQueen. “Bulls maintain harems whereas bucks do not. That means more competition among the dominant breeders. They’re ready to rumble when they hear antlers banging together.”

McQueen has an impressive record to back up his claims. He’s arrowed a dozen Pope and Young-class bulls. And his clients have racked up some whopper trophies, including a bull elk taken last year that grossed 413 points.

Getting Rattled
McQueen used to carry elk antlers to rattle, which was tough work. The air is thin and the slopes are steep in elk country, and the shed antlers of a bull weigh 15 to 20 pounds. Whitetail hunters have dozens of commercial substitutes for antlers, from “rattle bags” to compact plastic contraptions, but none work well for elk. McQueen says it’s because whitetail antlers differ in composition and density from elk antlers. They don’t sound the same. But last summer McQueen perfected a call that could have a dramatic effect in the elk-hunting world. A talented taxidermist, McQueen has worked on enough elk and whitetail racks to understand the differences between the two. Bull antlers are porous and less dense than a buck’s.

So the guide developed his own lightweight rattling call, which resembles an old-fashioned dynamite plunger. When you push it down, the plunger mechanism crashes into knobs imbedded in the side of the box and makes sounds that simulate bull elk antlers knocking together.

“I worked on the call for five years until I got it right,” says McQueen. “When I use it, I follow the same sequence I’d use if I were rattling to a whitetail buck back in my home state of Kansas. I make rattling sounds for about a minute-maybe really loud, or maybe more subtle, depending on the circumstances. Then I pause for a few seconds and resume. If nothing happens after twenty or thirty minutes of rattling, I make a move.”

The $64 question is, how aggressive should the rattler be in the first place? Sometimes bulls spar, and sometimes they battle. But unlike whitetails, bulls seem to spar all fall, whether it’s before, during or after the peak of the rut. “I always like to ‘spar’ before I heat up the action,” McQueen says. “Bulls are moody creatures, and you never know if you’re going to push them over the edge or pull them in. Sparring is a safe frontline strategy. If light rattling doesn’t work, you can always pour it on.” Toss in the fact that bulls often like to circle silently to investigate a commotion before showing themselves, and you’ve got a strong case for going easy at first.

[pagebreak] Sometimes rattling brings unexpected results. McQueen recalls one hunt when he worked a fired-up bull for almost an hour. The bull would bugle at McQueen and then wait for the guide to bugle back. But the elk never moved closer.

“All he wanted to do was bugle back and dare me to answer. So I tried an easy sparring rattle, but then the bull just shut up,” McQueen says. “I hung around for a spell and decided to drop down the slope in case he circled downwind. No luck. Just as I was about to pack it up, I heard my favorite elk sound-antlers busting together in the distance. Within a few minutes I was close enough to toss a rock at a pair of bug-eyed bulls in the middle of their little disagreement. I videotaped their shoving match till one got the best of the other and nearly ran me over.”

The point is that rattling could fire up other bulls that you don’t even know are there, so use your ears as much as your eyes.

**A Bunch of Bull **
Rattling is half the battle. If you want to close the deal, you’ll have to learn a new call…and it’s noing like what you’d expect.

Like sumo wrestlers who grunt and groan, bulls sound off constantly during their shoving matches. “Sparring bull talk reminds me of bugling,” McQueen says. “I learned long ago that the deep, guttural bugles of a ‘herd bull’ often turn out to be just a young satellite. Likewise, even the biggest, baddest bulls sound anything but big when they go at it with each other. In fact, they don’t even sound like bulls.” Through dozens of ultra-close encounters, McQueen has documented on video that mad bulls frequently sound like whiny cows.

Which brings us to the latest generation of so-called “hot cow” calls. According to McQueen, they’re not based on the biology of the mating game but on the biology of the fighting game. “I can’t say ‘estrous cow’ sounds never occur in the wild,” he admits. “But I’ve never heard one. On the other hand, I’ve heard hundreds of ‘sparring bull’ sounds. If you get close enough, you’ll discover that these fighting bulls always whine and moan when they push each other around.”

You Make the Call
If you’re adept at mimicking a moody cow, you’re already close to sounding like a sparring bull. A diaphragm call is the best type to use, if only because of its hands-free operation. And it’s easy to vary the pitch and tone by simply changing tongue pressure. Moreover, this style of mouth call allows you to “cast” the sounds to one side or another as you rattle.

The goal is to create mewing sounds that rise and fall sharply. Experiment with different manufacturers until you find a model that gives you the widest range of tones with the least amount of tongue pressure. A good benchmark is the Sparring Bull, which was perfected by seven-time World Elk Call champion Audrey Hulsey. Originally designed by a dentist, this diaphragm call can be bent to fit almost anyone’s palate for an air-tight fit.

“The sounds made by fighting bulls are like cow sounds repeated in a series,” explains Hulsey, owner of Trophy Ridge Outfitters near Luna, New Mexico. “String the call out, nonstop, for about five or ten seconds. Pause and repeat. You can’t over-call the Sparring Bull.”

[pagebreak] “Lay it on thick,” adds McQueen. “Keep calling long after you’ve rattled. I’ve seen bulls talk like this when they pass each other. Sometimes they walk on by, sometimes they’re in a foul mood and turn around and just lock up.”

A good place to set up is near a wallow, where bulls tend to spar a lot because they’re used to interacting with one another in tight quarters.

The Fighting Season
The rut is the best time to rattle for bull elk, particularly when the demand for cows exceeds the supply. Early and late September finds bulls on edge, either gathering harems or defending them. Good bugling days are usually good rattling days.

“I like to bugle and rattle the first half of the season,” says McQueen. “It’s like the whitetail pre-rut: Bull elk haven’t been pressured much, and they seem to be more aggressive each day, especially in the morning.”

Mornings and late afternoons are prime time, but midday can be good, too. I hunted with McQueen last fall. Our hunt overlapped a full moon-the lunar phase most guides and outfitters dread-yet McQueen managed to rattle in four bulls during a period from noon to 1:30 p.m.

It all started with a distant bugle that interrupted a midday siesta. McQueen sprang to his feet and, for kicks, bugled back. He didn’t get a reply, so he tried rattling. Out of nowhere, two impressive bulls bounded into view, well within bow range. Each bull took turns bugling heartily as a third, bigger bull knifed in from behind. Clearly agitated and ready for battle, the two closest bulls rammed their heads together. Then, before I realized I was hunting and not dreaming, the third bull chased the other two off. As I inched around the juniper and reached for my bow, the remaining bull stampeded out of sight, obviously frustrated with the lack of a worthy opponent.

“Look who’s rattled now,” McQueen whispered, pointing in my direction. “If there’s a better way to hunt elk, somebody tell me what it is.”

McQueen didn’t get any arguments from me. bow, the remaining bull stampeded out of sight, obviously frustrated with the lack of a worthy opponent.

“Look who’s rattled now,” McQueen whispered, pointing in my direction. “If there’s a better way to hunt elk, somebody tell me what it is.”

McQueen didn’t get any arguments from me.