4 Essential Elk Calling Tactics for Solo Hunters

Not many things are as exciting as calling in a bull elk. However, if you spend most of your time hunting elk alone (like I do) you know that it can be difficult to get a bull to close the last few yards to get into a shooting lane.

When you hunt with a partner, a shooter can move toward the elk while the other calls. That way, if the elk hangs up 80 yards from the caller, the shooter can still get a clear look at close range. If you hunt by yourself that’s not an option and you’ll have to pull the bull all the way into shooting range by yourself.

Over my last few years of archery elk hunting, I’ve learned a few tactics and tricks that can help you get a bull to close the distance. These elk hunting tips and tactics will also work for rifle hunters that are trying to call elk in.

Four tactics that can help increase the success of solo elk hunters are to:

  1. Get close before you call
  2. Mask your calling direction
  3. Circle downwind after you call
  4. Be quiet and stay patient

By implementing these tactics I was able to call bull elk into shooting range during each of my first three seasons hunting bull elk. I didn’t always get a shot, but I was able to get elk into shooting range.

1. Get Close Before You Call

Once you’ve located a bull it usually pays to go quiet until you are within 200 yards (preferably within 100 or 125 yards) of his location. Often, I’ll locate a bull several hundred yards away with a cow-call or bugle. If he’s a long way off, I might even bugle a few times to get a better fix on his location. Then I study the terrain and try to get as close as possible before making another sound.

When I’m as close as I think I can get without spooking the bull I’l let out a soft cow call to see if he responds. If he does I cut him off with a bugle. If he doesn’t respond I cow call a little louder. If he still doesn’t respond I try to be patient and wait for a few minutes before taking another course of action. Depending on the situation I will either try to get closer to his location or else bugle to see if he responds.

Whatever the situation, I’ve found you’re much more likely to get a bull to come in if you surprise him with a call from close by than if he can track your calls as you move in from a distance.

The first time I killed a bull elk I only called three times. He responded to my initial cow call with a bugle, which gave away his location. Then I moved in and cow-called again. After a few minutes, he hadn’t responded so I bugled and raked a tree. A couple of minutes later he walked into a shooting lane thirty yards away and that was that. You can read about the details of this call-in and others in my article about specific elk-calling strategies.

The bull responded to my initial cow call.
After I moved closer, the bull came in when I bugled and raked a tree.

2. Mask Your Calling Direction

When you’re hunting alone it can be difficult to pull a bull all the way into shooting range with calls. One way around this is to make it sound like you’re farther away than you actually are. Once I get close to a bull I almost never point my bugle tube directly at him when I call. I point my calls upwind or in the opposite direction of the bull.

Pointing your bugle tube upwind makes it sound like you are farther in that direction, so if the bull tries to circle downwind by 30 or 40 yards he might end up coming right to you. Likewise, pointing the bugle tube in the opposite direction of the bull makes it sound like you’re farther away than you really are. That means a bull might walk a little closer to your position before he hangs up, potentially giving you a shot.

I’ve used this tactic in many different calling situations (you can read about a few of them here) and it works often enough to make it useful. When combined with the next tactic in this list (moving after you call) masking your calling direction can really keep a bull guessing about your exact location.

Calling away from a bull elk, then circling downwind and towards him can put you in shooting range if the bull hangs up or tries to circle downwind.

3. Circle Downwind After You Call

Elk are really excellent at pinpointing the location of a sound. Their lives depend on knowing how to approach a situation in the safest way possible. Because of this, a bull elk will often (not always) circle downwind of a caller’s location so he can catch any foreign scent on the wind before approaching.

As the caller, you can account for this by circling downwind 20-40 yards after you call. Once you’ve moved, be sure to stay quiet so you don’t give away your new position. Also, account for the bull’s line of travel, you don’t want to move so far that he’ll be out of shooting range if he comes straight to your last calling location.

By circling downwind, you can position yourself to be in shooting range of the bull if he comes in downwind of your location. I used this tactic on the first bull I ever called in. The bull was across a draw and slightly downwind of me. I called and he responded. After calling I circled down the ridge I was on, waited for a minute, then bugled again.

Again, the bull responded. He was now closer.

I circled downwind again. A few minutes later I saw antler tips coming out of the draw and the bull appeared 30 yards away, with a tree covering his vitals.

I didn’t get a shot at that bull, but since then I’ve used this tactic several times to get in shooting range of bulls without letting them get my scent.

When calling in this bull, I circled downwind after each bugle. The bull ended up coming straight to my location.

4. Be Quiet and Stay Patient

My final calling tactic for solo elk hunters is to slow down. Be quiet and patient.

Chances are that you’ve probably seen the tactics of some great elk hunter like the guys from Born and Raised Outdoors, Corey Jacobsen, Jason Phelps, and others. These guys are very aggressive in their calling and it usually pays off for them. But keep in mind that they are also hunting with one or more partners that can stay out in front and watch closely as an elk comes in.

Solo hunters have to call in the bull and position themselves for a shot. I’ve had several instances where I got too aggressive and spooked a bull that was coming into my calls because I didn’t give him enough time to get there. If a bull has responded to you give him time to come into shooting range before you reposition or try another setup.

Bull elk come into calling quietly, even when they’re fired up.

I located the first bull elk I killed when he bugled a response to my cow call. He kept bugling his head off as I moved closer. Then went quiet.

When I was about 100 yards away from his location I bugled. He didn’t respond. After a minute I started raking a tree.

Still no response.

The wind was good so I knew he couldn’t have smelled me. I thought he must have lost interest and moved off. In my mind, I started formulating a plan for what to do next. Just as I was about to move closer to his last known location my peripheral vision picked up movement. The bull was 50 yards away and moving in.

He never bugled but he was fired up. His nostrils were flaring and it seemed like he wanted a fight. Thirty yards away he paused in a shooting lane and my arrow did its job.

The only reason I had a chance at that bull was that I stayed where I was because I was trying to figure out what to do.

This experience taught me an important lesson. When you have a bull that’s responded to you slow down, be patient, and stay quiet. Take time to wait before running after him. He just might end up in your lap.

The author with his first bull elk. It was a bull that he called in by himself.

A Final Thought

Hunting elk alone is a difficult task. A solo hunt is mentally and physically taxing. It’s difficult to hunt day after day and cover miles of difficult terrain when you can’t seem to find elk. Then when you do find the elk it’s difficult to slow down and take the time to properly position yourself for a calling setup.

I hope these tactics give solo hunters more confidence in their elk calling setups. Calling in a bull by yourself is a major accomplishment, and it’s something that every elk hunter can do. Stick with it. Keep trying. Put in the work and you can call in a bull.

Konrad Hafen

Konrad is a natural resource scientist who spends much of his free time hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking on America's public lands.

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