In Colorado’s early rifle season for elk, the ability to bugle to bulls is the trump card for high-country hunters. I experienced the surprising results of high-intensity calling to elk, even well into October, past the time conventional wisdom says calling should work. Here’s my report, from the aspen-clad country northeast of Craig.
Elk camp. At 9,000 feet, this was home for a week earlier this month. A simple dining hall, an open-country kitchen on one of its ends, and an American flag fluttering beneath glittering aspen leaves.
I was a guest of Dick Dodds’ outfit, Elkhorn Outfitters, and while we were based in the heart of high-country elk habitat, I had my doubts about the success of our hunt. For starters, we arrived at camp the day after early October’s full moon, which surely kept rutting elk up all night. Second, temperatures were forecast in the upper 70s, and with their winter coats, that’s the sort of weather that will send elk to shade this time of year, and shut them down in the heat of the day. And lastly, we were near the end of the breeding season, the time when bulls start to pipe down.
But I had an unexpected weapon at my disposal: the crazed calling of elk master Wayne Carlton, pictured here atop his favorite mule, a rangy mount named Woodrow Wilson.
I’ve long admired Wayne for his innovative call-crafting skills and his ability to parlay his woodcraft into a successful brand. It’s hard to walk into any Western sporting goods store and not see Wayne’s image and logo plastered on an entire aisle of elk calls. I watched him closely to see how he played the selection of cow calls and diaphragm calls he wore in a lanyard around his neck.
The routine was the same for day after glorious day: we’d saddle up our mules in the pre-dawn glow and ride out to various parts of Dodds’ lease, calling to bulls that had fed and bred all night. For several set-ups, bulls would respond, but they wouldn’t come in to our calls. I was beginning to worry that we were too late into the rut.
The view repaid my anxiety. We hunted the very top of this aspen-and-lodgepole country, and even when the bulls failed to respond, the landscape managed to take my breath. If there’s a lovelier place than Colorado’s high country in early October, I haven’t seen it.
Mid-mornings were spent glassing shaded hillsides and trying to call in eager, juvenile bulls.
We even tried decoying elk, but for the first part of the week, the herd bulls seemed to be in a pattern that kept them tending their herds, and leading their harems into dark timber at first light.
We’d tie up the mules and follow responsive bulls into deep canyons. At one point I stalked in on a bugling bull, and must have closed within 50 yards of him. But a bedded cow busted me as I made my approach in tight timber, and the herd flushed. The bull continued to answer my challenge bugles, even as the entire herd ran for deeper cover.
In the heat of the day we’d try to catch a few winks in the shade of the fluttering aspen leaves.
Carlton was restless. He would wake from his nap and chirp and mew to the four winds. In the middle of one warm, windless morning, he got a hot response, the searing bugle of an interested bull. Then another bull let loose. Carlton responded by bugling with an intensity that was startling. He ripped off one high-octane challenge bugle after another. At one point, I wished he’d slow down his part of the conversation, but to my surprise two more bulls joined in. “The secret to calling,” Carlton told me, “is to be emphatic. Know when to call, and know when to call a whole lot.” Andrew McKean
Eventually, we had four different bulls responding to Carlton’s calls. Dick Dodds and I left Carlton under a tree, where he continued to distract the bulls with challenge calls, while Dick and I covered ground. We closed distance to the bugling bulls, then split the distance again. Finally, we called from a ridge above an open meadow. We had two bulls at inside 50 yards, but couldn’t see them because of the dense cover. Another bull sounded off to the left. Then a fourth bull started up a steep ridge just out of sight, closing in on our location. I told Dodds, “I’m taking the first shot I get.” He nodded, and kept looking for a bull that fit that description.
Finally, this bull, the one that had climbed the ridge, leaving his harem behind to check out the source of the challenge bugles, emerged from a line of timber on the far side of the meadow. He was a long way off–we later ranged him at 290 yards–but I was sure I could make the shot. I slowly got to my knees, settled my Mossberg rifle on the shooting sticks, and got the bull in my crosshairs.
I missed the first shot, but the bull couldn’t define the origin of the shot, and stood long enough for me to find him in my Bushnell scope. I tipped the 5×7 bull over with the second shot, and Wayne and Dick and I got to share a special moment.
Post-kill relaxation. In the aspen grove where my bull fell, my hunting partners gather to celebrate the conclusion of an intense morning. Chris Dolnack, Kevin Howard, and Carlton share a light moment before gathering our mules.
As we were sharing a snack, Dolnack looked across the meadow. “Check that out,” he said, more casually than I expected. “There’s a bull.” We watched this little raghorn parade across the meadow where we had been calling just 15 minutes earlier. We called to the bull. He stopped. But Dolnack passed on the shot. It was early in the week and he wanted to hold out for a mature bull.
Just as we were about to draw straws to see who would go fetch our mules, we were met with this scene. A pair of Dick’s guides anticipated our need, and ambled across the meadow with our mounts in hand, one of their puppies keeping pace with the mules.
Back at camp, we hung the bull from the meat pole, and tucked into a welcome supper in the high-country dining hall. Under the Stars and Stripes. And those immaculate aspen leaves.

Elk calling