Tips for Calling Educated Elk on Public Land

Create a strategy for calling high-pressured, well-educated bull elk on public land.

Tips for Calling Educated Elk on Public Land

The “I’m the boss” bugle response to my call shocked me as I attempted to spur an afternoon encounter with an elk herd I had been shadowing all day. I knew the herd from more than a week of hunting the group on a mountaintop refuge. Although they likely didn’t know me personally, they knew hunters were harassing them with elk calls every time they dropped from their cloudy pinnacle to graze on the lush, lowland meadows.

Now that I had the bull’s attention and at close range, I needed for him to march toward me, not away. As suspected, he bugled again and profited from protection via his traditional, lockdown disposition I experienced nearly every day. With a wind direction perilously close to giving my presence away, I decided a parallel move to his position while calling would keep my scent downwind and possibly jumpstart the stalemate. With nothing to lose but another afternoon opportunity, I took off paralleling the stalled bull and screamed a challenge to start the fray.

Sometimes a bull resounds a challenge immediately, but before you take off, remember to survey your surroundings to chart a well-concealed course.
Sometimes a bull resounds a challenge immediately, but before you take off, remember to survey your surroundings to chart a well-concealed course.

Hung-up elk are as everyday as using your smartphone. Expect it. As access to more and more ranches close to the average hunter, it pushes you and me onto available, and ever more teeming public lands. Fortunately, elk inhabit many of those properties, but increased hunting pressure educates the elk to the sounds of elk calls quicker than grade-school kids understand the liberty of having a smartphone.

How do you combat increasingly educated elk when you finally do get a window to hunt? You can’t follow standard protocol. Your strategy needs to be fluid, flexible and adaptive to account for the changing exhibitions of elk herds. The U.S. Marines oftentimes repeated phrase of “Adapt, improvise and overcome” has merit in the elk woods. Mentally repeat that credo as you approach your next hung-up bull.

Parrey Cremeans, a native of northern California, is a Mossy Oak big game regional pro staff manager for the northwest United States. His passion for elk includes operating Just for Hunting Outfitting along with his partner, Steve Boero. Cremeans understands elk have personalities as varied as the coworkers that surround you in the breakroom. With more than a quarter century of archery elk experience to call upon, he knows reading an elk to determine if they have shifted into neutral in the hung-up zone is critical for success.

“The hung-up bull may take all the patience you have as a bowhunter,” explained Cremeans. “If the bull has not returned to a herd, and you will know this because he’ll bugle as he herds his cows in the opposite direction, he may still be around. Your number one enemy is the wind, and every other elk in the woods will approach downwind. That’s why it is important that you know the surrounding terrain and use obstacles, when possible, to make bulls approach the setup directly before they can circle.”

Bulls will sometimes hang up after hearing your calls. Some are fearful thanks to past hunting pressure, others are fearful of a butt-whooping.
Bulls will sometimes hang up after hearing your calls. Some are fearful thanks to past hunting pressure, others are fearful of a butt-whooping.

Cavalry Bugle Charge

Some bulls just give you a vibe that screams they are in charge with their first scream. Is that the green light to bugle and charge in like a cavalry unit of yesteryear? Hit the brakes soldier! Before you take off with a defiant attitude and sword drawn, be sure to read the mind of your intended target. The bull could be just a loudmouth that won’t back up its initial challenge. It could hang up faster than you do on robo calls. Or it could embrace a Mike Tyson persona and storm in for a fight before you even put down your bugle. Your job is to determine quickly if the bull is a hard charger or a wait-and-see fella in no hurry to make a mistake. Cremeans wants to determine a bull’s intentions as well. His answer is to keep up the pressure. Why?

“That aggressive, fighter bull is the easiest one to call should you catch him in the right mood,” stated Cremeans. He continued, “I will continue to press the bull with challenge bugles while slowly introducing herd sounds and even the sounds of a second bull in addition to my initial bugle. This assures the hung-up bull there is something to fight for. The only time I walk away and look for another opportunity is when I am sure the target bull has left the area or I see the bull, and do not want to harvest him with my bow.”

Rarely does Cremeans embrace a cavalry charge from the get-go. For him it introduces too much risk into the success of the setup. It’s a move he’ll reserve for the final closing, especially if it appears things may be going south. Instead, he prefers to continue creating the mood of a restless herd. By imitating a herd, he believes a fighter bull will eventually talk itself into coming in for a look.

The reason Cremeans thinks twice before charging right in is that when you begin to challenge a bull, it places him on high alert looking for another elk. Terrain features, dense cover and even weather, like fog, may help you with a charge-in tactic, but keep Cremeans insight handy that after you begin calling all eyes are wide open and looking for another elk.

Another scenario could play out after your heart races from hearing a trumpeting, forest bugle. The bugling exchange may become one-sided with you doing most of the talking. When Cremeans comes across a retrained bull, he switches gears quickly. The bull is not ready to fight, but the game isn’t over yet. 

Meek and Timid

It’s not the sound you’re hoping to hear in elk country. After broadcasting a throaty bugle to provoke a bully-bull, you wait for dominance to ring out. That’s when your heart sinks with the return from afar of a submissive, half-hearted bugle that doesn’t give you any indication there’s more than five raghorn points sitting atop the sound-maker. Don’t walk away from the situation yet. More than once I’ve been fooled by a weak bugle that turned out to be a beast of a bull simply unwilling to uncork and take it out of park. For Cremeans, a tepid bugle is no reason to walk away over the next ridge. For him it’s all about changing the direction of the conversation.

 “When I run into a meek bull that appears not ready to fight, then I back off the challenge bugle. It’s time to introduce the sounds of a herd,” he explained. “That bull is still looking for a cow encounter, so it’s a safe bet to initiate cow, calf and estrus cow sounds at this point.”

Unlike an encounter with a boisterous bull, Cremeans will move toward a meek bull while using these sounds, but not in a charging advance. He simply hopes that calls coming from different locations will sound realistic and motivate the bull to look for the cows. But he also adds this advice: “Be warned, meek bulls are normally on high alert looking to avoid a butt-whooping!”

Depending on the personality of an individual bull and its recent history with other bulls, a bull could take on a submissive character. Cremeans understands some bulls just aren’t fighters for whatever reason. He typically breaks them down to bulls that were just beat down or are “lovers.” Despite the designation he places on a particular bull for its suppressed enthusiasm, Cremeans advocates to keep up the sounds of a herd atmosphere.

“If this bull knows you are protecting a herd, he will likely keep snooping around, eventually swinging by for a look. But be ready,” warned Cremeans. “This bull will likely approach silently. A meek bull goes through life on alert. He is the pessimist of elk and always looking for something wrong. Your setup needs to be perfect because if he sees anything of question that does not resemble an elk, he is gone and you normally will not know what sent him on his way.” 

Background Noise

Transitioning from a whitetail hunter nearly three decades ago to an elk hunter brought with it many internal conflicts. For whitetails, silence was golden, but each year I determined that life quote was more of a guideline than a rule in elk country. Today, I don’t think twice about snapping a limb during a conversing approach to a bull. In fact, adding in the background sounds of herd or bull movement is a mainstay in every encounter, especially those that include a bull determined to not lose its current, hung-up parking spot. 

Unlike whitetails that spook at any unfamiliar sound in their vicinity, elk don’t necessarily run to a new noise, but they do expect it if they believe other elk are in close proximity. Herds of elk create a commotion as they advance to destinations. Even a brawny bull that can be quieter than a field mouse when it focuses, oftentimes sets stealth aside if it’s on a mission to make an example of a satellite annoyance.

Antlers bang against branches, hooves snap fallen limbs, rocks dislodge with a colliding ding against other stones. If you’re a whitetail hunter, making sounds like this could make you cringe, but for an elk hunter these are the sounds that can lead to success when added to elk vocalizations. As long as your calling sounds genuine, additional sounds only authenticate the situation. A favorite for Cremeans is the addition of antler raking. That challenge alone often makes a hung-up bull shift into gear.

“Raking is always a good bet when a bull hangs up,” suggested Cremeans. “Raking is another challenge issued to the bull, just like in the old days when folks would challenge you with a glove slap across the face. Most bulls can’t refuse this challenge when it is included in your setup.”

Raking a tree with a branch, or even a carry-along shed antler, can make a hung-up bull show itself, but possibly in a silent mode.
Raking a tree with a branch, or even a carry-along shed antler, can make a hung-up bull show itself, but possibly in a silent mode.

On a hunt with a buddy several seasons back, we encountered a bull that had punched his long-term parking card. He’d scream back in defiance to my calls, but after a 15-minute yelling match he wouldn’t budge. During the debate I raked a tree to imitate the irritant of the faux bull, and despite his increasing infuriation, even that didn’t stop the deadlock. To end the impasse, I motioned to my partner to follow and we moved briskly down to the next opening below our current position. Along the way I kicked rocks, snapped the occasional limb and mewed like an excited cow. We barely were settled when the “Silent Bob” bull showed up for a 20-yard ending.

As for my earlier standoff, I took off on a parallel track to the bull after cutting off another of his lockdown bugles. The overgrown thicket of lodgepole pines veiled my movement as I pressed forward to maintain a slight wind advantage. With the snapping sound of a nearby branch, I skidded to a halt with arrow nocked. A moment later the supposed stalled bull ghosted past at approximately 30 yards. Glancing ahead I spied a brief window through the limbs that would give me a shot. As the bull stepped into the opening, I drew my Mathews. The bull, expecting another brother, stopped to assess the movement 1 second too long.

In what I recall to be slow motion, the bull whirled at the hit and ran straight downhill, giving me a tumbling ending better than any binge-worthy series on Netflix. My rope-a-dope routine highlighted with moving calls turned a potential hung-up bull into long night of packing.

The author moved while calling to this bull in thick cover. The move helped him keep the wind advantage, but also made the bull believe it was dealing with another bull.
The author moved while calling to this bull in thick cover. The move helped him keep the wind advantage, but also made the bull believe it was dealing with another bull.

Sidebar: Scents For Elk

Whitetail bucks deposit their urine calling card in a scrape. Elk, on the other hand, have an entirely different advertising approach and could be hyped as the best marketing campaign in North America.

Bull elk don’t leave their urine boldness behind. They carry it with them, and any seasoned bowhunter hits the brakes when a wall of bull odor hits them in the face. This odorous creation results from a mud bath combined with a splash of urine to plaster themselves in the urine-soaked mud as a message to everyone they are in the building like Elvis.

To help cloak your approach and veil your intentions from silent bulls trying to sneak in downwind, a sensible option is to occasionally disseminate a blast of elk urine into the surrounding air from a spray bottle. If you happen into an ambush location that offers promise for a setup, elk urine on a wick placed upwind of your position could also aid your efforts. In addition to attracting a bull, it could stop them long enough for a distracted shot on your part.

Companies such as Wildlife Research Center offer elk urine and estrus in both natural and synthetic formulas for a lightweight bull diversion to use when the action heats up.

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