I quietly skidded down the slope through the trees, wading carefully through a foot of powdery snow. I crossed the creek bottom and quietly hiked up the other side. My best option was to get on the ridge above him, downwind, and stay in the trees out of site. I found his tracks in the snow and followed them to the timber’s edge. At about 500 yards, I spotted him grazing in the open right where I had last seen him several minutes before. At that moment, I didn’t yet know how an elk call would change this entire hunt for me.
We were in a hunting unit where we could legally use our general tags to take a spike bull elk. We started hiking up an old logging road in zero-degree weather that morning. The sun was coming up in the east, and I was concerned my fingers would freeze despite having on all my best cold-weather hunting gear.
About 20 minutes in, my brother stopped and threw up his binoculars. Within 30 seconds, he whispered there was a spike elk below us and across the drainage, grazing on an open ridge. There wasn’t any other elk with him that we could see. My dad and brother encouraged me to go after him, and since we were nearing the end of the season, they didn’t have to tell me twice. I took off down the side of the mountain quickly and quietly, glad I’d thrown my gators on in the deep snow.
Table of Contents
Reading About Elk Calls Earlier in The Year
Back in June, I took my car in for an oil change. While the tire place always prefers people returning later to pick up their vehicle, I welcome the chance to wait, sit, and do nothing for an hour. This particular shop has a subscription to Game and Fish Magazine, and I always take the opportunity to see if I can learn something new. I picked up the latest edition and began thumbing through.
An article by Jim Zumbo, “40 Years of Girl Talk Has Revolutionized Elk Hunting,” caught my eye. I found this article so interesting that I scanned every page to save and re-read it.
My ex-husband was an avid elk hunter and hunting guide. He often carried a cow call with him, and I had previously always relied on him for such things. At the time, I never really cared to learn more. After we divorced, I gave it little thought and figured it was too complicated to figure out.
This article changed that. I had never considered the different ways to use a cow call and how they aren’t just for calling in bulls. Instead, as Zumbo illustrates, elk calls may stop spooked elk in their tracks or cause them to pause long enough for a shot. I was interested in dipping my toes in.
Shopping For An Elk Call
If you’ve ever been to an outdoor store looking for elk calls, you know that it can be overwhelming. If you haven’t, well, it can be overwhelming. These calls come in all shapes and sizes, emitting different sounds and frequencies. From mimicking the sound of herd and satellite bulls to cows and calves, there are plenty of options.
However, the article gave me a good idea of where to start. I now understood I needed a simple, all-around cow call. I didn’t spend any time doing research. I wanted something lightweight, low profile, and relatively easy to use. I landed on the Rocky Mountain Hunting Calls. These diaphragm calls offer several options depending on what you’re looking for. They fit in your mouth, and using your tongue and different blowing techniques, you can make everything from calf calls to bugling bulls.
I’ve heard people say they sound like a wounded wild turkey when trying to use these types of calls. There is a technique, and I do recommend practicing it. I drove around town all summer with these calls in my vehicle, experimenting with elk sounds and, accidentally, a dying turkey. By the time hunting season rolled around, I was no expert. Still, occasionally, I could muster a sound that resembled an elk.
Putting My Elk Call to The Test
When it came time to use my elk call, I wasn’t sure of the best way to access it. Holding it in my mouth the entire time while hiking in steep country with a pack and gear wasn’t an option. Putting it in my pocket was possible, but I ultimately carried all three of them in my hunting pack belt pocket. Easily accessible on one side was my range finder, with my elk calls on the other side.
We had an early Montana winter and spent most of the season trudging around in deep snow. While it certainly made for quieter hunting, it also tested us physically and mentally. My dad, brother, and I had found a spot we kept returning to in search of mule deer bucks. While we never saw any bucks, my dad took a spike elk late one morning earlier in the season. We liked this spot and kept going back as it was a fairly small area with a relatively easy pack out.
So it was there I found myself in the timber on the ridge above this lone spike bull on a cold November morning. At this point, I had taken out one of the elk calls (the green one, if I remember right) and was carrying it between my teeth. Walking through the trees, I chirped on it every so often. If the bull heard me making a noise, the chirping would sound like another elk moving through the trees (or so I’d read).
When I spotted him again, I got out my range finder and had him at about 450 yards, which was further than I like to shoot. So, I got ready, undid my pack, and tried to sneak closer. Ultimately, I was on my knees, trying to get in position. I decided I’d better use a tree branch as a rest, and as I was getting set up and putting a bead on him, he spooked. He ran about 50-100 yards when I pressed my tongue against the call, forcefully exhaled, and hoped for an elk sound instead of a turkey.
He stopped in his tracks, broadside, and looked my way. He was next to a tree with a branch hanging in front of him, and further than I wanted to shoot. I had several seconds to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. At this point, he was looking in my direction, trying to decide if what scared him was another elk or something more menacing. I decided, pulled the trigger, and had him down with one shot from about 450 yards after all.
Had I not had that elk call and used it, he would have been gone, over the ridge and out of sight.
Success on this elk was sweet for several reasons. First, I had yet to successfully take a wild game animal since my divorce in 2017. There were many reasons, including hunting alone, not wanting to process and pack one out by myself, trying to find my hunting mojo, not being motivated, and more. My family had recently moved to Montana. I once again had my brother and dad to hunt with, renewing my interest and making it more fun.
The second part of this was the skills I had yet to be able to use in several years, coupled with this newfound tool to throw in the mix. I am still proud of knowing exactly how to put the stalk on this elk and pull it off alone. My brother and dad watched from the mountain above me.
Moving forward, I will always carry a cow call to use in whatever situation I find myself in. I even bought the same calls for my brother for Christmas. I feel this won’t be the last time we use them.
Elk Calls: Another tool in The Toolbox
Elk calls are another excellent tool for the hunter’s toolbox. While they may not work in every situation, there are plenty of opportunities to try them. After success on this hunt, I shared my story with a long-time hunter friend. He said he always carried one and has used it in similar situations.
I was always intimidated by them. I thought there was so much to learn, and it overwhelmed me. But that one article changed elk hunting for me forever. I’m not naive enough to believe it will work every time or that I’ll be successful from here on out. But it will improve my odds and chances over the years. I’ve got a lot of hunting left in my life, and I am willing to bet I’ll have success again because I carry an elk call.
How I made it this long without realizing the value of one, I don’t know. I still get excited thinking about how well it worked and how I wouldn’t have been successful without it. I will continue to use these same calls as they are small, lightweight, and with some practice, sound like an elk and not a dying turkey.