August 30, 2023
I'm far from what I consider a great elk talker. However, time in the elk woods has taught me it's not so much how you sound, but where you set up that gets an elk killed.
Read on if you crave a fall that doesn't end with: "We had him going hard, but he hung up and wouldn't come.” Below are three scenarios you're sure to encounter this season. Heed the setup advice that follows each scenario, and you'll come off the mountain heavy.
Thick Timber Bulls
I'm an open country bowhunter. I like to use my glass and I want to see. However, I have excellent luck calling bulls in the timber.
If you have a bull answering your bugles and cow calls, study the landscape before you move in or have a buddy drop back. First, pull up your favorite digital mapping app and look at the terrain between you and the bull. Note the path of least resistance to help you better plan how the bull will approach.
Also, getting on the same elevation as the bull is essential. Of course, chances are good the bull will have to come slightly uphill or down, but the less extreme the elevation change, the better.
Next, get in front of the cover and not behind it. Stay still and trust your camo; an approaching bull won't see you if you're not moving. You may feel exposed, but I promise you'll be fine standing or kneeling. You won't get an arrow off if you sit behind a bush or tree. It's also critical to pick a spot with several shooting lanes, even in thick timber. I used to ignore shooting lanes and then never be able to drop the string, even on bulls within 30 yards.
If you're solo calling, get just below a small hill or rise in the terrain. If you set up in an area, even if it's super thick, and the bull gets to a place he knows he should see another elk and doesn't, the game is over. I always run a bow-mounted decoy from Ultimate Predator Gear when hunting solo.
If you can, drop a buddy back to call and keep the wind and thermals right; let him drag the bull right through one of your shooting lanes.
Uphill or Downhill
Often, when hunting elk, getting on level terrain isn't possible, and you’ll have to call a bull up or downhill. I like calling bulls uphill. Bulls have the visual advantage when coming downhill, and unless they are out of their mind in the rut, they will get to a vantage point, see there is no actual elk, and again, the game is over.
If there is no other way around calling an elk downhill, I always use a bow-mounted decoy to give the elk visual attraction.
When calling a bull uphill, you must pay ultra-close attention. Listen carefully for heavy steps, stick snaps and the like. I set my gaze where I will see the bull's rack before his head, and as soon as I see the frame, I draw my bow.
Also, before setting up to call a bull uphill, look at the terrain. Predict where the bull will come from based on the landscape, vegetation, etc., and position yourself for a broadside or quartering-away shot. I have set up many times without doing this and then got stuck with a 40-yard full-frontal shot. I don't mind that shot on an elk, but 30 yards is my limit for this shot angle.
Caught In A Meadow
I hunt elk on public dirt and can count how often I've caught a bull in an open meadow. Still, it does happen. If you see a bull in an open field and the cover allows, stay quiet and stalk in for a shot. If you must call, move back into the timber and try to pull the bull into the shadows with you. Try calling him to the edge of a meadow and he will move to the middle of the opening, see no elk and walk away.
Using a decoy, I have succeeded in calling from the edges of meadows or other small openings. However, bulls can grow suspicious without any cover or shadows to break the decoy's outline. I have had better success with decoys in the timber.
When To Hold Em'. When To Fold Em'
There's a fine line between being too passive and too aggressive. Last season, I had a bull coming on a string. I was solo hunting, but was set up so the bull had to come over a slight rise and then move around a tipped-over pine tree root system to find me.
Then the bull went quiet. I called. No answer. I listened closely, but heard nothing. After seven minutes, I stood to make a move on the bull. When I did, the bull popped over the rise and busted me.
It's tough to know when to abandon a calling locale, close the distance on a bull and try again. My rule of thumb is:
- If the bull bugles and is further away, I immediately move in on him.
- If the bull goes silent, I give him 20 minutes to show.
- If the bull bugles regularly from the same spot, I stop calling and stalk in.
Heed these tips this season and you'll better your chances of sending an arrow in the direction of public-land bull elk.