MEWS AND BUGLES: Elk Calling Through The Timber

July 7th, 2009 / Posted by
MEWS AND BUGLES: Elk Calling Through The Timber

By Michael Hanback

Fresh snow shines on the Rockies…frost shimmers on a golden meadow…cows mew…a rut-crazed bull lays back his rack and cuts loose a bugle, filling the crisp autumn air with his smoky breath and ringing the valley with one of nature’s wildest sounds. Elk hunting is all about beautiful images and supreme challenges. One of which is how do you call that big 6-point out of that meadow and away from his harem and into bow range? Here is one expert’s plan.

Making The Move“I think many people begin their calling repertoire way too early in a hunt,” says Will Primos, the boss at Primos Hunting Calls and one of the finest game callers in the country. “Once they spot or hear a bull a mile away, many bowhunters get all excited and start bugling. I think that’s a mistake. Chances are a herd bull isn’t going to leave his cows and come all that way to fight. And the truth is, the lead cow usually dictates what goes on in a head. If she hears you calling from afar she is liable to take the herd, including the bull, the opposite way. In the rut a lead cow wants nothing to do with another herd of elk.”

The key is to close the gap BEFORE calling to a bull. You can’t always do that, but try. “Watch or listen to a bull and sneak as close as you can,” says Primos. “Move down or up, circle, come over the backside of a ridge, whatever. Play the wind and watch for cows so you won’t get busted. The best-case scenario is slip within 150 yards or so of a bull before making a peep.”

The Setup and The Right Notes
Primos, who hunts mostly with a bow and films his encounters for outdoor TV and videos, prefers to tag team a bull. “The shooter slips as close as he dares to an elk and sets up,” he says. “The caller backs off 75 to 100 yards and tries to set up where he can see the action. But the caller should also pick a spot where he can hide and move around, bugling and cow calling not only out front, but also to the left, right and behind. That sounds like elk moving around back in the timber, and it’s realistic.”

Primos likes to start a bull with a simple mew. “If he strikes that I hit him back with what I call a hyper-estrus cow sound. I use our Hyper Lip Single, an open reed call, to blow a wavy, high-pitched ‘NAAAaaa, NAAAaaa.’ It’s the most urgent sound a cow can make, like when she’s coming into estrus. It often drives a big bull crazy.”

After floating his first calls, Primos reads a bull and plays the game. “Each situation and each bull is different,” he says. “Some elk respond best to lots of cow calling and bugling. Others prefer softer and more sporadic calls. Just be patient, listen, read each elk and give him what he wants.”

Common Encounters
Say you’re set up close to a bull that is responding hotly to bugles and squeals. “Give him more of the same, challenge him,” advises Primos. “He might come in all fired up, thrashing trees and ready to fight. What a sight!”

But what if a bull seems touchy, wary of your bugles? “He might be a herd bull that doesn’t want to leave his harem and come to you,” notes Primos. “Or he might be a satellite 5- or 6-point that doesn’t want to come in and get his butt kicked by another bull. In either case back off the bugling and stick with cow calls.”

Okay, you’re a couple of weeks into the season and the rut is winding down. “I’d use less bull calling and more cow calling,” says Primos. “Bulls are tired and have lost a lot of their aggressiveness, and they’re more apt to come to less threatening calls.”

This summer Primos jumped at the chance to bowhunt Tule elk in the coastal mountains near Yukiah, California. “Tule bulls rut earlier than elk in the Rockies, but hunting them is basically the same,” notes the game-calling whiz.

On August 10 Primos spotted some cows—and then a big 5×6 bull! “We were a mile away and rather than calling to him we make a big loop and slipped within 150 yards,” he recalls. “I set up while my wife and a guide moved back 75 yards. They started cow calling. The bull bugled 4 times and here he came. Man, I can still hear his high- pitched squealing! Somewhere above me a cow began making that wavy, hyper estrus sound. The bull kept walking. He moved by and I took him quartering away at 20 yards. The elk, the calling, the shot. It was one of those great times when everything just came together.”

Check out the Primos Elk Calls at

A video of a close encounter elk bow hunt is below…cool video…TERRIBLY SHOT CHOICE

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