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"Sweet Talk or Insults"

Throwing the proverbial "kitchen sink" at bull elk might work in your dreams, but in reality you've got to make the crucial decision—Cow call or bugle?
By Bill Buckley

Without a doubt, the biggest debate among elk hunters is what call works best for bringing in rutting bulls: bugles or cow calls? And no doubt it is the question running through most hunters minds after they get a bull to sound off.

Unfortunately, like most kinds of hunting there is no one, simple rule of engagement. How else can you explain the almost polar approaches two highly successful outfitters, Tim Doud of Bliss Creek Outfitters in Cody, Wyoming, and Dan Reddick of Wapiti Basin Outfitters in Belgrade, Montana, employ. Doud, for example, is an aggressive hunter who bugles in most of his clients' bulls. Reddick, on the other hand, can't remember the last bull he bugled in.

Despite their different styles, however, both guides approach rutting bulls with many of the same fundamentals in mind, while always being quick to adapt to the situation. And therein lies the answer to their success.


Calling in an elk starts with locating one, but don't think all you have to do is bugle once and any bull within earshot will answer. Fact is, only a fraction of the bulls hearing you will, and even then they often have to be encouraged. To get bulls bugling and to cover ground efficiently, Tim Doud has developed his own system.

"When I'm locating bulls, I always start off with a soft bugle, just in case a bull is close by and so I don't blow him out of the country. And if there's no response, I'll always bugle again, this time loudly. Just like when someone calls and catches our attention, yet we don't know where the person is, the first bugle might only make the bull aware another elk is calling. It's often the second bugle that gets the response.

When Doud is working along a ridge, going from one good bugling spot to another, he'll cow call frequently. "I don't pussyfoot around because you can't cover lots of country that way, so to cover our noise, and in case there's a bull right in front of us, I cow call every 50 to 100 yards. And the denser and rougher the terrain, the more I'll do it. That way there's less of a chance we'll bump a bull, and it gives us every opportunity to hear a nearby bull bugling or walking toward us."

"By the time we reach the next bugling spot, anything close should have heard the cow calls. So when I bugle again, we won't get caught off guard, nor will I blow out a close bull."Dan Reddick also uses bugles to locate bulls, since the sound travels so well and he can locate elk from far away. But his reliance on bugling has decreased considerably.

"My strategy has changed dramatically over the past 10 years", says Reddick. "It used to be that you'd toot on your bugle at the right time and bulls would come running in. But not any more. I've found fewer bulls bugle these days, and that they'll often bugle once or twice, then shut up. Obviously bugling activity has a lot to do with the stage of the rut and a bull's disposition, but to put the odds in my favor and be the most efficient hunter I can be, I use cow calls more and more. I've keyed in on the fact that during the rut bulls are after cows, and that is a constant. They're not always looking for a fight, and let's face it, plenty of bulls come to bugles only to bump into hunters."

Reddick has so much confidence in cow calls that he frequently uses them to locate bulls. And when he does bugle but doesn't get a response, he'll often get one by following up with a cow call. Rather than making a few soft chirps, however, he uses his grunt tube for greater volume and makes a few drawn-out mews.


When they do locate a bull, each outfitter's response will often be completely different, thanks to their favoring one call over the other and due to their different hunting experiences over the years. When Doud hears a bull bugle, even in the distance, he's off and running right away.

"If the bull's not coming to me, then I'll go to him. I hunt very aggressively. I'd rather blow the bull out of the country or get in on him close. Since I've switched to more aggressive tactics, I've called in twice as many bulls. The fact is, a real elk doesn't stand in one spot and bugle incessantly. He's either moving toward the other bull or, if he's a herd bull and doesn't want a confrontation, he'll be moving away. That's why I'm not one of those stalemate hunters who stay in one spot for a long time."

"We're going after big bulls, typically herd bulls, and they're not going to walk a long distance away from their cows to come to my calls. So the easier we can make it for him to come to us - i.e. the closer we are - the easier it will be to get him within bow range."

Although Doud wants to get in a bull's face, he doesn't charge recklessly toward him. To avoid bumping the bull, he tries to cut the distance by half each time he moves, say to 100 yards if he thinks the bull is 200 yards away. If he's still not close enough, then he'll try to halve the distance again. Bulls often sound farther away than they are, either because they're facing away when bugling or the terrain or thick timber muffles their calls. This way Doud can still move up aggressively, but with caution.

Because Dan Reddick so often locates bulls by cow calling, and bulls are more likely to sneak in to cow calls than bugles, he's content to stay put once he gets a bull to bugle. "Patience really pays off with cow calling. If I'm in good-looking elk country with plenty of fresh sign, and there's plenty of timber around me, I'll stay still for as long as an hour and a half, even if a distant bull really gets worked up. I know I can still go after him later on because he's not going to leave the country. In fact, he could even be coming in. But what if there's a closer bull and he's coming in? If you move on the distant elk, you'll probably bump the closer one."

"That's the most significant change in my hunting strategy", says Reddick. "Seven years ago you'd wait 15 minutes at the longest. But I've called in too many bulls I didn't hear bugle not to be patient. You can't expect every bull to rush in. And while you're waiting, you have to be on guard, because bulls approach cow calls much more cautiously than they do bugles. They can also pinpoint the sound better. That's the only downside to cow calling. But still, it's a good trade-off.

"I've found cow calling two or three times, then waiting, really works early in the season, when bugling activity is slow and bulls tend to come in silently, and also late in the season during the second rut. During this period, from about September 28 to October 2, cows that haven't bred come into season, and the bulls are really revved up for them. Then I cow call much more than bugle, with tremendous results. Bulls - and many of them big bulls - will often bugle once, then come running in. And they'll cover lots of ground to get to me. Of course, I don't always stay put when I hear a bull bugle, especially if I don't think the immediate area is going to hold any elk. If I'm on an open ridge and hear a bull a half-mile away, for example, I'll go after him immediately."


Both Reddick and Doud stress the importance of trying to figure out what kind of bull you're working. That's because his age and social status - single, herd bull, or herd bull with satellite bulls - will dictate what tactics and calls you should employ.

While it's hardly an exact science, if a bull continues to bugle back to your calls but moves away when you try to cut the distance, then chances are you're dealing with a bull with cows. If a bull's bugles either sound like he's staying put or coming in, then he's probably a lone bull, and if the woods light up with multiple bugles, you've got a herd bull being harassed by satellites.

Being a big fan of cow calls, Reddick will use them with telling results on lone bulls and younger bulls. And if he gets into a herd bull being harassed by satellite bulls, and he's after any bull, he'll play the odds and stick with cow calling. He may suck in a satellite, although he surely won't get the herd bull leaving his cows to come after another. If, however, Reddick is trying for the herd bull, then he knows he's got to pressure the bull. He'll try to work him up with bugles, but if the bull still won't come in, then he'll stay back and continue calling while his hunter sneaks in for a shot.

Like you'd expect, Tim Doud also advocates pushing herd bulls. For lone bulls he's content to be less aggressive, since that bull is probably coming in and being too aggressive will only increase his risk of bumping the bull. But if a herd bull is moving away, he has no choice but to run after him and apply pressure.

"Sometimes it takes one or two hours of hounding a herd bull before he'll think "enough is enough" and come in", says Doud. "But you've got to keep the pressure on. Herd bulls try to avoid confrontations, so when I move up on a bull, I move quick. And where I can, I'll hold off calling to him until I think I'm really close. That way he can't track my approach and he may not continue to move off."

Once Doud figures he's dealing with a herd bull and the bull's walking away, one trick he uses to head off a wild goose chase is to quickly cow call, which sometimes stops the bull from fleeing and might even bring him in. However, that's about the only time he'll breach what both outfitters consider one of the cardinal rules of elk hunting: don't mix bugles and cow calls.


There aren't many concrete rules in hunting elk, but not mixing cow calls and bugles is one of them. And for a very good reason. As Tim Doud explains, "If I'm bugling and all of a sudden switch to a cow call, now the bull's going to be looking for two elk instead of one. Then I have to make sure there's enough cover to hide two elk. The chance of him stopping short and looking for more visual confirmation has just increased.

"Because of this, if I switch from bugles to cow calls to stop a herd bull from moving off, and then he answers, I'll quit bugling and try to change position to make him think he's stealing one of the other bull's cows. If for some reason I can't move, then I'll cow call in a different direction than I bugled. That way the bull might think they're separated and that he might have a chance to sneak in and steal the cow."

There's another reason cow calls and bugles don't mix. According to Dan Reddick, the more elk an approaching bull expects to see, the more elk he expects to smell. "Hunters don't realize how much elk rely on scent (both airborne scent and scent left on the ground). And when a bull can't smell what he thinks is a small herd, he starts to get very wary."

Another rule both experts agree on is to stick with whatever call happens to be working, and for as long as it's effective. If you set off a bull by bugling, don't change to cow calls once you move in and set up. There's a reason the bull reacted so vocally to that call, and the only way to take advantage of his aggressive mood is to keep it up. Even though Tim Doud bugles in most of his bulls, the moment a bull answers one of his cow calls, he abandons bugling - at least until the cow calling stops working. Dan Reddick will also stick to whatever call is exciting a bull, no matter if it's a cow call or bugle. Like all good elk hunters, he stays flexible and lets the bull dictate what he uses. Only when the bull's interest wanes will each outfitter switch gears.

One last rule of thumb Tim Doud uses is to imitate a bull's bugles. "As soon as a bull answers me", says Doud, "I'll throw the same bugle right back at him. It's like if you and I are talking, and I repeat every word you say right after you said it, you'll eventually get mad. And I've found that works for elk, too. So the more aggressive or the bigger a bull sounds, the more I do too. And when I start cutting off his bugle with a similar one of my own, that's when he'll become especially enraged. And the madder you can get a bull, the better your chances of getting him to come in."


Finally, in keeping with not mixing bugles with cow calls, both outfitters stress the need to change locations any time you switch calls and any time a bull hangs up or starts to lose interest. As Reddick says, "If a bull hangs up, you've got to do something to regain his interest. Changing location is often the only way to do it. Most hunters don't realize that in nature, when a bull bugles to a cow, he's saying, "I hear you and here I am, so come on in", - and the cow usually goes to the bull. But since we're trying to reverse the natural order by calling the bull in, the more natural we can be, the better. So try moving closer or to a different side of the bull. That's sometimes all it takes.

"When I decide to switch calls, changing location makes him think another elk has just walked onto the scene, which often generates more excitement - especially if he thinks another bull is going to get the cow he's been waiting on."

Tim Doud also believes changing position is critical to success. In fact, he says the worst mistake a hunter can make is to stay put and call from the same position, trying to get the elk to come to him and not vice-versa. "An elk knows something's up when he hears a bull bugling from one spot for extended periods of time. Real bulls move around, and when a bull stays put for long, he's looking, not bugling.

"Besides, when bulls bugle at each other, 90 percent of the time they're bluffing. Fighting rarely happens, especially when one of them is a big bull. So one bull bugles, he bugles back, and that's it. He knows the smaller bull's finished, and there's no need to pursue the matter.

"But if I move in and get right in his face, then the bull knows I'm not bluffing, and he's going to have to do something about me. By getting close you make it easy for him to check you out. He might still not want to fight, and he might not walk 200 yards to take a look at you. But if he only has to walk 50 yards, then you've just made it easier for him to come in. That's why staying put for long doesn't work. It never forces the bull into action, because as long as you stay over there, he can ignore your bluff."

And there's the bugling versus cow calling debate in a nutshell: One outfitter advocating cow calling and being patient, the other partial to bugling because of his aggressive style. Still, despite dramatically different approaches, both experts regularly call in bulls because they've learned to treat each bull differently and let him decide what tactics they need to employ. That's sound advice no matter what calls you think work best.

Editor's Note: For more information about elk hunting in Wyoming or Montana, you can contact each outfitter at the following addresses: Tim Doud, Bliss Creek Outfitters, P.O. Box 2776, Dept. WS, Cody, WY 82414; (307) 527-6103, Dan Reddick, Wapiti Basin Outfitters, 2755 Outlaw Drive, Dept. WS, Belgrade, MT 59714; (406) 388-4941.

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