3 Elk Calls Every Hunter Needs On a Hunt

By Shaggy Outdoor Team

August 21, 2023

Hey there, fellow elk hunters! The elk season is just around the corner and if you're anything like me you're getting excited and you are making sure you have all the gear needed to be successful.

One key item every hunter needs in their pack when hunting elk and should be practicing before the hunt is their elk call.

Depending on which season you're hunting will determine which of the calls are ideal.

Bull Bugles Are Excellent for Early Season Rut Hunts.

Cow Calls are Great for Luring Bulls from a herd or cow estrus calls are excelling for getting bulls worked up. 

What are the 7 Keys to Elk Hunting Success?

Top 3 Calls Every Elk Hunter Needs For Early Season Success. Bugle, Cow Call, Calf Call

If you're anything like us at Shaggy Outdoors, you know that the heart-pounding thrill of tracking down a majestic elk in the wild is an experience like no other. Over the past three decades, I've roamed the rugged mountains of Arizona and Montana, honing my skills and gaining insights that only time and hands-on experience can provide. One invaluable lesson that I've learned on my journey is the undeniable importance of mastering the art of elk calling.

Imagine this: you're nestled amidst the breathtaking beauty of the elk's natural habitat, the crisp mountain air filling your lungs as you wait in eager anticipation. It's not light out yet, quiet with only a little rustling of the trees, but suddenly a bugle pierces through the darkness of the landscape. The sound echoes across the canyon and ignites a primal surge of excitement within you. You just experienced the majestic sound of an elk bugle, a sound that can send shivers down your spine and set the stage for an unforgettable hunt.

But the bugle is just one of many sounds made by the elk in the wild. To truly connect with these majestic creatures and increase your chances of a successful hunt, you must embrace the full range of elk vocalizations. Get more information on the sounds and vocalizations of elk in our blog What Are the Elk Sounds and Vocalization Mean for Hunters where we give you several videos that provide the differences in sounds these animals make. 

Rutting Bulls and the Sounds Herd in the Early September Hunt

Getting to know the sounds of elk bulls, cows, and calves will come in handy during your hunt. No matter if you are hunting in the early rut or late season, the sounds of the elk are important. 

Understanding these sounds and duplicating the communication of the elk with your call will strategically transform your hunting experience from good to legendary.

So what are the three elk calls every hunter needs to master? Well, we have already talked about them. You need to master the:

  1. Elk Bugle (big boy looking to dominant the mountain & let everyone know who's boss)
  2. Cow Call (estrus cow & traditional cow calls)
  3. Calf Call (those little ones lost and the most talkative)

The intent of the hunt is to harvest an animal and put food on the plate. So while the weapon is essential and the shot placement is crucial, the ability to get a bull to close the distance is just as important for any early-season archery hunter.

You get the bulls interested, in the early season, by mimicking the language of another bull closing in on his territory and posturing to fight. The cow calls can be used during the early rut season to lure a bull from a herd or an estrus cow call can let a bull know a cow is ready to breed. 

Having spent countless hours observing elk behavior, deciphering their intricate communication patterns, and perfecting my own techniques, I can confidently say that the estrus cow, bull bugle, and random lost calf calls are the trifecta every elk hunter should master when hunting elk. 

However, knowing when to call or when not to call is as important as calling itself. I've spent many an hour in the mountains thinking my calls would be a benefit and ended up scaring off a big bull. So while calling can be beneficial to the success of a hunt, the fact is, when using the cow call or bugle sounds you could lose the interest of the animal without ever knowing it. 

Now there are thousands of variations of the bugle, cow, and calf sounds made by elk in the wild. The bugle can be followed by a chuckle or whining and the cow call could be a traditional cow sound or could be one with a variation indicating the cow is in heat and ready to breed. Calves tend to continuously talk as they are constantly concerned with where their mother is at. 

While all elk calling sounds are essential to learn, the timing of which to use when and where generally comes with experience. I'll run through a few scenarios for you to trigger some thought and then the next time you're out hunting and can't get a bull to react you may try one of these calling techniques. 

Whether you're a seasoned hunter looking to up your game or a curious newcomer eager to embark on your first elk-hunting adventure, this guide will walk you through the three different call types you will want for your hunt and the tools that will get you the sounds needed to communicate with the elk in your area.

Pro-Tip: elk sound different and have different tones depending on their local habitat and type of elk. Make sure you are aware of the pitches and tones of the elk in the area you're hunting to ensure you are using your calls to their fullest ability. 

There are hundreds of choices of elk calls to choose from on the market and I'll introduce you to a few here in the blog. But there are only three different sounds you must listen for when hunting and duplicate as an elk caller.

Mastering the sounds will get you results, but I must tell you I have thousands of hours of calling experience with no results. But be prepared and practice your calls just like you practice your shots, be ready for that one chance to call in that 6 x 6 bull and fling an arrow through the air and take down that beautiful beast. 

So where to start?

Start by checking out the calls we present here and listen to the different sounds of elk in our What are the Elk Sounds and Vocalizations Mean for a Hunter blog where we give you several short videos to review the different sounds made by elk in the wild. 

Then you must pick up a few calls from your local sporting goods store. Here are a few calls you can purchase on Amazon. Click on the picture and we'll take you over to Amazon to check the price and compare.

The Elk Bugle

Slayer Call - External Call with Bugle - internal Reed System

Rocky Mountain Radar Wapiti Whacker Bugle - Challenge Call for Mature Bulls

Bugling Bull Pack a Bull Calling System - Elk Bugle with built-in diaphragm

Primos 946 Elk Call, Bullet Bugle - Used during the rut

Elk Bugle Calls are the most popular call for both experienced and novice hunters. The full bellow of a bull elk makes us think we're doing good. Truth is depending on your technique and sounds you could be just letting the mature bulls know you are nothing to be concerned about.

Master the sounds of the Bull Elk Call to get the best response from those big herd bulls hanging tight with ladies. Bulls are hard to pull from their harem, but with the right cow call (estrus cow) or bugle bellow, you just might have a fighter. 

Before buying a bugle for the season consider these two important factors:

  1. What is your skill level
  2. How much time do you have to practice

Bugles come with both built-in diaphragms for those hunters with less knowledge and calling experience and hollow bulges that you must use with a mouth diaphragm call. 

If you're inexperienced with the mouth diaphragm calls and how to get the best sound, consider purchasing a bugle that the reed system is already built-in.

If you pick up a diaphragm call early and practice using it on its own and with a bugle then you are ahead of the game. These types of calls give hunters an advantage where elk are bugling a lot. 

In areas where elk are not talking, the bugle will not be a viable option. Tony and I were hunting in the mountains of Montana a few years back in an early archery season. We were expecting to hear a bunch of bugles every day but were disappointed.

We learned that the bulls in that area of the Bitterroot Mountains are less likely to talk in the mountains because of mountain lions and bears. So, not every hunt goes as planned and therefore we had to adapt. 

Use a Mouth Diaphragm Call with Elk Bugle for Best Results

If you can pick up and practice a mouth diaphragm call ahead of time this is a great option for those hunters working alone. Having the ability to call and still be prepared to shoot is ideal. 

The mouth call gives you a hands-free opportunity to continuously call. The best elk callers use a mouth call. 

Slayer Call - McCarthy Signature Series. Bugle & Reed Combo 

Rocky Mountain Elk - 101 Diaphragm Call 3 Pack

Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls Starter Kit - two mouth calls with bugle

ESH Bull Elk Call & Cow Elk Call - Combo - used by beginners & pro callers 

Best Time to Use a Bull Elk Bugle

The rut is the best time to use a bugle when hunting. The rut for many areas of the west starts in late September and lasts for 10-14 days. 

The weather and the timing of the breeding season will dictate when the bulls will start bugling and yes the younger bulls will typically do the most talking. 

I've had the misfortune to hunt Arizona a couple of times when the rut started after the archery season was over, or nearing the end of the hunt. The AZGFD plans the season with the expectation of weather changes and breeding patterns to give archery hunters the opportunity to harvest a mature bull elk when the screams are being heard. 

You may hear the younger bulls bugling early in the rut and late after the main rut is over. These bulls are young and immature and haven't quite figured things out. Mature experienced bulls will be done breeding and fighting by the end of the rut and ready to part ways with the herds to stay alive for another year. 

A bugle could be good for the later part of the rut season by using it as a locator call. You could bellow out a good bugle early in the morning are late into the night and listen for a response. If you get a response you can plan your attack based on the direction the response came from or know you might have a bull to hunt in the morning. 

Warning: Be careful with the bugle sounds. This can be one of those times when multiple hunters are in the area and they each are bellowing out a bugle thinking they are talking with a bull and not another hunter. Accidents happen so make sure you have a good line of sight on a bull before you pull the trigger. 

Pro-Tip: I've killed more bull elk being quiet and not calling than I have calling in a mature bull. Yes, you can be successful if you use your ears and sight over the sounds of calling elk.

The Cow Elk Call

Like the bull elk bugle, there are a million and one options for the cow elk sounds. Choosing the best option will be determined by a hunter's knowledge and ability to make sounds. 

I'm not a good mouth diaphragm caller so I like to use the different hard case cow call models. 

I for one have several different cow calls (check out the picture at the beginning) and I use several at any given time on my hunt. I choose to do this at times to mimic the sounds of multiple cows or a small herd of cows. 

I use the Cow Elk Call for several purposes when hunting. Here are a few.

  1. Lost cow during the rut to get the herd bull to find me and try to pull me into his harem.
  2. I use the estrus cow sound to pull a bull into my shooting position
  3. I use the cow call in late-season hunts to locate other elk
  4. I use the cow call as a distractor with multiple cow and calf sounds when setting up for my shot or the shot of a fellow hunter

Best Time to Use a Cow Elk Call?

This is one of those, there is no wrong time to use a cow call statement. The cow call can be used throughout the hunting season. 

The big decision is when is the best time and how are you using the call. Use the call to pull in a bull in the early season and late season use the call to find a herd or single bull in a hunting unit. 

Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls - The Temptress Open Reed Cow Call - good for all seasons 

H.S. Carlton's Calls Boss Cow Elk Call - mature cow boss sounds 

E.L.K. Cow Talk Call - Used during all hunting seasons

Primos Hoochie Pack Call - Used during all hunting seasons

The Calf Elk Call

Using a calf sound is often used later in the season as part of a cow and calf talking scenario. I've only used the calf call during the rut when I'm trying to distract a lead cow from another hunter's location. As a distraction, I've had success moving a herd away from a hunter so he was able to take a shot on a mature bull. 

Elk in general and Cows and calves will talk all year and a calf sound will not typically pull in a mature bull during a rut. The bulls are only concerned about breeding cows and posturing bull elk during the rut. 

Use the sounds of a lost calf after the rut when hunting cow elk to pull the cow towards you for a shot. 

Here are a few Calf Calls. The calls can be used for calves or cows depending on the tone and sounds you make with the call. 

Pro-Tip: the calf is an often overlooked call. I like to use the distressed calf sounds (lost calf) when hunting pre-rut or post-rut. Elk Calf Calling can be an advantage for those hunters who are patient. 

Slayer Calls - Calf External Reed Call - High Pitch Sound good for all seasons 

Phelps Game Calls - EX Suk'r Elk Call - use for talking cows and calf. 

Primos Hunting Select 4 Calls with Case - Used during all hunting seasons

Primos Baby Hoochie Moma Call - Used during all hunting seasons

Final Thoughts on Elk Calls Every Hunter Should Master

I joking say master because there are only a few master elk callers in the world. The best elk callers are those who spend hours in the field honing their skills and talking with elk even when they are not hunting. 

Most likely you are like me and don't have that kind of time. We must master the calls we have and listen to the elk in our hunting zone. 

Don't overdo the elk calling if elk are not talking in your area. This is one lesson I learned early on. If you don't elicit a response to a bugle or cow call, move on. Maybe the elk are not in that canyon. 

Keep moving. If you have no response to a bugle when on the top of the mountain, then keep moving. Elk rarely, unless bedded for the middle of the day, stand still. They are typically grazing and moving throughout the day and night. 

Use multiple cow and elk calls. Don't get hung up with one call. Having multiple calls can give the impression there are multiple animals.

And finally, be safe. Too many times elk hunters stumble upon each other during the early season hunts. The bugle sounds great and if you are good you will pull in other hunters. Be certain of your shot. Just because it sounds good doesn't mean that bull elk is a shooter. 

Good Luck with Your Elk Hunt!