5 Bull Elk Calling Strategies for Different Hunting Situations

The author bugles into a canyon, searching for a response.

It’s a rush to call in a bull elk. Not much can match seeing a bull tromp into shooting range with stiff legs and his antlers back while he bugles his head off. More practically, calling is also the most effective way to hunt elk in many situations. This is especially true when you’re hunting in forested terrain or with a short-range weapon.

Don’t let your calling ability stop you from trying to call in elk. You don’t have to be a professional caller that can rip perfect bugles and make every nuanced cow-call variation to be successful. In fact, I consider myself an amateur elk caller (I’ve only been using elk calls for about 4 years), but over the last three seasons, I’ve called at least 10 bulls into shooting range. Locating elk habitat and maintaining a favorable wind are more valuable skills for calling in elk than your proficiency with actual elk calls.

From my experience, it’s actually kind of easy to get a bull elk to come to calls. It is much more difficult to initially locate the bull and then get him to walk through a shooting lane once you’ve called him in. I’ve called many bulls to within 60 yards but have only had a shot at a couple.

Let’s walk through some actual examples of bull elk calling situations so you can learn from my success and mistakes. I’ll go through 5 common elk-calling situations and how I handled them. The situations elk calling situations are:

  1. Calling in a bull elk with morning thermals
  2. Calling in a bull elk in and afternoon bedding area
  3. Calling in a bull elk in a late-morning bedding area
  4. Calling in a bull elk with evening thermals and around an obstacle
  5. Using calling to intercept a bull elk moving to a morning bedding area

Hopefully, these examples will bolster your confidence to call in bull elk yourself.

The legend below explains the symbols I’ll use in the graphical demonstrations.

Symbol descriptions for graphics.

5-Step Elk Calling Strategy

I use a general 5-step strategy to locate and call in elk. The basics of this strategy can be applied to nearly any hunting situation.

  1. Find an area where you think elk will be.
  2. Walk through the area (keep the wind in your favor) and cow-call every 100-400 yards (depending on the terrain).
  3. Bugle if there’s no response to the cow-call after about 30 seconds, if there’s no response to the bugle after about a minute then bugle again, if there’s still no response keep moving and repeat steps 2 and 3.
  4. Once an elk responds, estimate it’s location and position yourself to move in on the elk from downwind, then try to get within 100-200 yards of the elk.
  5. Use bugles and cow-calls to bring the elk into a shooting lane. I like to start with a cow-call and be ready to cut the bull off with bugle as soon as he responds.

This is my general strategy. Things will change slightly based on specific situations, and the calling sequence in Step 5 is almost never the same.

In the examples below you’ll see how I adapt this strategy to match location, terrain, and time of day.

1. Calling in a Bull Elk with Morning Thermals

Early morning can be a good time to call in elk. This is often when elk will be most active (or late evening). The first bull I ever called into archery range was during a morning hunt.

I left the truck and climbed up a ridge to call. When there was no response to my initial cow calls, I bugled. A bull responded in the distance. It sounded like he was a half-mile or more away with a couple of small ridges between us. At that distance, it was hard to pinpoint his exact location so I set out to get closer.

I called with a location bugle and a bull responded over a half-mile away.

At the top of the next main ridge, I let out a bugle hoping the bull would respond so I could locate him. He responded immediately. He seemed to be near the same location I heard him the first time but we were now much closer. He was also slightly downwind of me.

I cut the distance by a little less than a half-mile and bugled again. The bull responded in about the same place.

Let’s zoom in on the situation a little bit to see how the rest of the call-in unfolded.

Zoomed-in view of the previous image.

At this point, I was excited and nervous. It sounded like the bull was fired up and was going to come to me. But the wind wasn’t good. The morning thermals were pulling down into the canyons and draws and the bull was slightly downwind of me.

I knew if I wanted a chance to get him into archery range I would have to get downwind of him. I worked down the ridge 100 yards or so making sure to stay on the backside of the ridge so the wind would pull my scent down the draw behind me and away from the bull.

Once I’d moved down the ridge I bugled again. This time I pointed the bugle tube behind me hoping the bull would think I was farther away than I actually was. This might make him walk a few yards farther before he stopped to look around, putting him in range.

The bull responded to my bugle immediately. He had closed the distance and moved toward my previous location.

I circled about 100 yards down the ridge and called again. The bull responded and was closer.

Again, I circled down the ridge another 30 yards, or so, just in case the bull came in downwind of my previous position. This time I didn’t make any calls because I didn’t want to give my location away.

Shortly, I heard a bugle just over the lip of the ridge followed by hoofbeats. Then antler tines appeared and a raghorn bull crested the ridge 30 yards in front of me. He stopped, surveyed the ridge-top, and chuckled as if to say, “Where are you?”. Unfortunately, his vitals were obscured by timber.

As he took one tentative step toward my right and a possible shooting lane, a squirrel dropped a pine cone and the bull whirled, running back the way he came.

After calling the second time, I circled down the ridge another 30-50 yards and remained quiet. The bull walked in bugling at 30 yards.

This first call-in was exhilarating and boosted my elk-calling confidence. After that, I knew I had the ability to locate and bring elk in with calls. I just had to keep at it. It wasn’t until two years later that I would actually harvest a bull elk with my bow.

What I Would Do Differently

When you call a bull into 30 yards you’ve done a lot of things right. The one thing I didn’t do well was to predict the direction the bull would come in from and make sure I had a good shooting lane.

Predicting the exact path an elk will take is hard to do. Sometimes you just guess wrong and it costs you a shot.

This call-in helped me learn firsthand how important wind and positioning are to getting a bull into archery range.

2. Calling in a Bull Elk in an Afternoon Bedding Area

For most of the daylight hours, elk will be bedded in sheltered locations. Targeting these locations can be very effective, but bedding areas can be difficult to find without spooking elk.

This example occurred in mid-September. It was mid-afternoon and I was hiking into a spot I’d never hunted.

I started in the bottom of a canyon and hiked uphill.

The afternoon thermals were strong and blowing straight uphill. Since the wind was at my back I made sure to stay on open faces where elk would not likely bed and to not get upwind of any potential bedding areas.

I zigzagged up the ridge across the open areas calling into potential bedding locations.

After doing this for about a mile, I cow-called and a bull (there may have been more than one) responded to the side of me and slightly downhill. This was a great location because it meant I didn’t have to work hard to stay downwind of the bull.

I couldn’t pinpoint his exact location but guessed that he was 500-600 yards away on the side of a heavily forested draw, so I started moving in his direction.

The bull bugled occasionally as I moved closer to him, so it was easy to keep tabs on his location and stay downwind.

I cow-called and a bull responded ahead of me and slightly downhill.

Before I got within 200 yards the elk stopped bugling. I didn’t want to alert him to my presence so I didn’t make any calls. When I thought I was about 150 yards from the elk I found a spot with decent shooting lanes and got ready to try to call the bull in.

I ripped a bugle down the hill (hoping it would sound like I was a few yards farther downhill than I was in case the bull tried to circle around to get my scent). Then I kicked and snapped several branches on a deadfall next to me (trying to sound like a bull raking).

I moved closer to the bull, then bugled and raked a tree. The bull did not respond.

At first, nothing happened. There was no response from the bull. I wasn’t sure what to do. The last time he bugled he had seemed pretty close.

Because I didn’t know what to do I just stood there and waited, trying to think of where he might be and wondering if there was any way he could have detected me.

Just when I was sure he wasn’t going to come in, I caught movement in my peripherals. The bull was walking in from my left just down the hill from me.

Even though he hadn’t responded, my bugle and branch breaking had brought him in!

After a few minutes, the bull walked silently into bow range and I was able to get a shot.

I scanned ahead and found a shooting lane the bull was headed for. As soon as the bull’s head was behind a tree a drew my bow. 30 yards downhill from me, the bull paused momentarily between two trees, vitals exposed.

My finger squeezed the release and the shot felt good, but the arrow drifted back towards the end of the rib cage. Not a great shot. The bull jolted and bolted out of sight.

After waiting an hour I went to search for blood. I couldn’t find any. It was agonizing. Since it was nearly dark, the shot wasn’t ideal, and I had no trail to follow, I decided it would be best to leave things be and continue the search in the morning.

After a short search the next morning I found the bull expired just 100 yards from where I’d shot. What luck!

My first emotion was a massive sense of relief that I hadn’t lost the bull to a bad shot, appreciation and elation replaced the relief, then eventually faded into anxiety as I realized the monumental task ahead to break down and pack out the bull by myself.

It was about 8:30 am when I found the bull and even though I was only 1 mile from the truck it was 7:00 pm by the time I was done.

What a great day!

The author with his first bull elk.

What I Learned

Once a bull has responded to your calls you have to trust that he’s moving towards the location you last called from even if he’s not responding. He might come in quietly, and if you’re not ready you could miss an opportunity (wait til you read the next scenario). If he’s not coming, you don’t lose anything by expecting that he is.

Since you can’t know exactly what an elk is doing you have to stick with the assumption that he’s coming to where you are until something disproves that assumption.

3. Calling in a Late Morning Bull Elk

Late morning can be a great time to call in a bull elk. By this time, most of the cows will be bedded down for the day, so a bull doesn’t have to worry about them getting away from him if leaves for a few minutes. He may also get aggressive if he thinks another bull is encroaching on his herd.

The trick with calling in a late morning or mid-day elk is finding him, then getting into position.

In this example, I hiked to the top of a ridge system that had promising-looking bedding areas on the slopes of the side draws. By mid-morning, the thermals were steadily uphill so I could walk the ridge tops without being scented by the elk below.

From the ridge top, I aimed a location bugle into a likely bedding area and a bull’s response bugle resonated back.

He seemed to be about halfway down the opposite slope. This was a great position.

I sent out a location bugle and a bull responded in the draw below me.

All I had to do was circle around to the top of the slope he was on, move in on him, and try to bring him into range with some calls.

I circled over to his side of the draw and gave another location bugle to get a better fix on his location, but the bull didn’t respond.

This is where I started making mistakes. One big mistake in particular.

I circled around and bugled from a saddle to get a better location on the bull, but he didn’t respond.

Since the bull didn’t respond, I worked down the ridge, closer to where I thought he was.

I found an area with good shooting lanes and started making some cow-calls, then bugled. At first, nothing happened so I thought I might need to get closer to the bull.

I took a couple of steps down the hill and an elk bolted from behind some trees about 100 yards away but it didn’t seem to go far. I couldn’t tell if it was the bull or a different elk. I cow-called a few more times and saw some movement in the trees where the elk had disappeared. Then saw a white rump walking away.

It turns my calls were bringing the elk in, but my movement spooked it.

I worked down the ridge until I thought I was about 100 yards above the bull and cow-called and bugled. The bull moved in closer. I didn’t know he was there until I moved and he spooked.

Frustrated at myself for not being more observant and patient, I moved farther down the hill in the direction I had last seen the bull.

Out of sight, but not far away, it sounded like the bull was raking a tree. The trees were pretty thick, but I found a place with some shooting lanes and made a few more cow-calls followed by a bugle.

After a couple of minutes, some movement caught my eye and I saw one antler of a raghorn swinging out from behind a tree, about 40 yards away. For a few minutes, he stood there swinging his head back and forth, looking for the elk that was making the sounds.

I made a few more cow-calls that got his attention but he never moved from behind the tree. Eventually, he walked off.

I followed him and was able to keep his attention for a while, but could never pull him into shooting range.

Finally, I decided to leave him be for the day and left. The entire hike back I was beating myself up for not being more patient with my initial calling setup. Had I waited a little longer, or been more observant, I might have had a chance.

I moved farther down the hill and cow-called and bugled again. The bull came to 40 yards but I didn’t have a shot.

What I Would Do Differently

I should have assumed my calls were bringing the elk in and trusted in that assumption. Had I been a little more patient with my first calling setup I may have been able to get a shot at the bull.

4. Calling in a Bull Elk in the Evening (Around an Obstacle)

The biggest variable that affects my calling strategy is wind direction. In the previous two examples, I approached elk from above when the thermals were blowing uphill. In mountainous areas uphill is the typical wind direction from late morning to late afternoon.

In this example, you’ll see that my strategy is different to accommodate the downhill evening thermals.

Because the thermals were moving downhill, I stayed close to the bottom of a canyon and walked up the canyon with the wind in my face. At locations where side draws came into the larger canyon I was hiking up, I would cow-call and/or bugle up the draws hoping for a response.

About a mile up the canyon I cow-called up a draw and a bull responded with a bugle.

There was a large pile of blown-down trees between me and the bull that I wasn’t aware of. You’ll see how that affected the call-in as I walk through what happened.

The bull responded to my cow call.

I moved towards the bull about 100 yards. There was an opening about 50 yards across with thick timber on each side. I stopped there, hoping I could call the bull to the edge of the clearing and get a shot.

At the edge of the clearing, I cow-called. After a few seconds, the bull responded with a bugle. Before he could finish his bugle I responded with an emotional bugle of my own hoping to get him fired up and angry.

When the bull responded to my cow call, I cut him off with a bugle of my own.

After a few minutes, I hadn’t heard from the bull. I moved so I moved around the edge of the clearing to the other side. This is when I noticed the large area of blowdown and suspected the bull didn’t want to cross through it.

I bugled and the bull responded on the other side of the blowdown. He had been working around it to my location. If I let him keep coming it would be easy for him to get downwind of me and catch my scent. I needed to move around the deadfall to meet the bull.

I moved forward and called to the bull. He responded from the other side of the blowdown.

I changed direction and moved around the blowdown toward the direction the bull was traveling. When I found an area with good shooting lanes I bugled.

The bull responded. He was close. Maybe 100 yards away.

I kept my eyes peeled and watched a 5-point with nice mass work his way down the hill. 50-60 yards away he hung up in a grove of douglas fir that was just thick enough to prevent a shot.

He chuckled. I chuckled.

He raked a tree. I raked a tree.

He was quiet. I was quiet.

Then he slowly turned and walked back up the hill. I bugled at him and he responded but didn’t stop walking.

I moved in the direction the bull was traveling and bugled. He responded and came within about 50 yards.

Staying downwind, I followed the bull. I was able to get a few more glimpses of him and he responded to my calls a few times but he never came into shooting range.

What I Woud Do Differently

Given the way this one played out, I don’t know if there was much more I could have done. If I would have recognized the blowdown obstacle earlier, then I would have moved around to the area where I ended up calling the bull in before making any calls.

This would have given me more flexibility to call, then move, as the bull came in so he couldn’t pinpoint my location so easily.

5. Using Calls to Intercept a Moving Bull Elk

During the rut, morning can be a difficult time to pull a bull elk into shooting range because the bulls are often focused on getting their cows to a bedding area. With their focus on that, it’s difficult to pull them away from their herd to challenge another bull.

However, even in this situation, you can use calling to get close to a bull.

As bulls feed and move toward bedding areas they will often bugle back and forth to stay aware of each others’ location. If you can keep a bull bugling then you can get an idea of where he’s going and try to intercept him. Even though he’s focused on getting his cows to their bedding area he might pull away for a minute if you can get close enough.

I was on a morning hunt with a friend and we hadn’t heard or seen any elk. Finally, we came around the end of a ridge. I let out a bugle and two bulls replied below us.

The morning thermals were pulling our scent downhill. The wind direction would have made it difficult to get in on one of the bulls, which was almost directly downhill from us. The other bull seemed to be close to the bottom of a draw that went down the ridge we were on.

I bugled on the backside of a ridge and two bulls responded.

We hurriedly backtracked, to get the wind right. Then moved down towards the ridge saddle, making sure to stay on the opposite side of the ridge crest so our scent was pulled away from the bull.

I bugled again, and the bull responded. It sounded like he was moving up the draw toward the saddle.

I bugled again and the bull responded. It sounded like he was moving toward a saddle in the ridge.

Staying on the opposite side of the ridge as the bull, we moved down toward the saddle. Just as we were about to break through a stand on dense firs into the edge of a clearing a couple of cows and calves walked into the clearing about 60 yards away.

We moved slowly, right the edge of the firs, but the elk caught movement and were watching the treeline carefully. We couldn’t move.

A couple of minutes later a nice 5-point walked into the clearing, 45 yards away (broadside of course), and bugled. I didn’t have a shot. The firs were so thick that even though I was on the edge I couldn’t get an arrow through. As I tried to maneuver around, the bull caught movement and became alert.

Somehow my friend found a shooting lane and I heard an arrow whish out of his bow. But it sailed just over the bull’s back. The herd spooked and took off.

We moved down to the saddle and intercepted the herd as they came to the top.

The bull kept bugling, but we weren’t able to pull the herd back into shooting range.

What I Would Do Differently

Things worked out pretty well for us in this situation. There’s not much more we could have done. If the elk had arrived a few seconds later we would have been out of the trees and had a clear shot at any elk that walked into the clearing.

We didn’t do anything wrong. Sometimes the timing is just off by a few seconds or the positioning is off by a couple of yards. That’s what makes getting a shot at an elk with a bow so difficult. It’s a game of inches and seconds.

Situations Where It’s Difficult to Call in Elk

Calling in bull elk is a very effective hunting strategy, but it may not be the best strategy in some scenarios.

When a bull comes into a call he expects to see an elk once he can see the location the calls are coming from. If you’re hunting open country where elk can see for a couple of hundred yards then it’s going to be hard to call a bull into archery range. You can still use calls to locate elk and get them coming your way, but you’ll need to get creative to seal the deal.

It’s also difficult to call in elk if you can’t hear them or they can’t hear you. On windy or rainy days it is especially difficult to hear high-pitched bugles.

Finally, areas that lack consistent thermals or wind direction are difficult for calling in elk (or just hunting elk) because it is very difficult to determine where you should set up so an elk doesn’t catch your scent on the wind. I’ve been successful calling in elk in areas with almost no wind as long as it stays consistent. But if the wind swirls frequently, then it’s likely you’ll get busted frequently.

Go Try Calling in Elk Yourself!

I hope the one thing you take away from this article is that, if you’re interested, you should try calling elk yourself. Get some calls (see my recommended elk calls for beginners) and start practicing. Then go into the elk woods and start applying the things you’ve learned about. As you do that you’ll gain your own knowledge about elk behavior and develop a style of elk hunting that caters to your strengths.

There’s no substitute for the knowledge that comes from experience.

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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