Hunting with an Elk Bugle—The Sport of Kings

The following information on hunting with an elk bugle comes from Chapter 8 of Hunting Our Biggest Game by Clyde Ormond. Hunting Our Biggest Game is also available to purchase in print.

There is no more thrilling form of big-game hunting than bugling for elk. Calling to the wild bulls, and getting them to answer puts the pursuit of trophies on the highest plane of sportsmanship. It is an art comparable to the deception of a trout with a dry-fly.

The technique of outwitting an elk with an artificial bugle had its inception in the Selway-Lochsa regions of central Idaho. The art has now reached the status where it is locally called the “sport of kings”, and is utilized by the very best of the big-game hunters. The results are often startling.

One example of this occurred in the Deep Creek area of the Bitter Root Mountains last year.

Jimmy, a local youngster, had read considerable about the knack of “calling” an elk with an artificial bugle. He had, in fact, whittled out such an instrument, while waiting out the long winter months until he could hunt again.

But despite this, Jimmy was only half-convinced that an elk could be whistled-up. Call a mallard? Sure. But a wild elk was something again.

One September morning at daylight, Jimmy was hunting a long spine of ridge just above the wilderness camp, alone. The crude elk bugle which he’d made was in the ruck-sack, along with his lunch and extra shells. As yet, he hadn’t even blown the call. One reason was that Jimmy hunted more for the skillet than for a trophy. A fat cow was what he wanted.

While waiting on the ridge for his partner to push something up out of the basin-bottom towards him, Jimmy suddenly heard a crashing of brush, a hundred yards up the ridge from him.

Turning slowly, Jimmy saw a six-point royal bull elk walking the crest, slightly towards him. Not wanting the tough old beast, Jimmy abruptly saw an opportunity to test the bugle. Easing it from the sack, he inhaled air and pealed out a blast on the instrument.

Things happened fast. The great tan bull plowed to a stand-still. Laying his massive antlers back along his withers, he bugled back—a high-pitched scream of rage:


The sight of a half-ton of bull ready to do battle caused Jimmy’s own hackles to rise. Not wanting to be caught napping, he slowly spit out the artificial bugle, and eased up his .30-06.

The mild movement was not enough to give the bull a definition of his potential foe, but did cause him to spot something among the sparse jack-pines. With a bound, and squealing to high Heaven, the bull came down the ridge. Knocking over dry trees with his vast antlers, and crashing over blow-downs, the beast headed straight for Jimmy, hackles erect and mouth open.

At a matter of feet, and when the enraged animal had filled the scope of his rifle to o’erflowing, Jimmy killed the bull in the interests of preserving his own hide.

Such an instance is unusual, and represents an extreme reaction. It did, however, convince Jimmy of the potential of elk bugling, in an unforgettable fashion!

The art of effective bugling for elk takes time and practice to perfect. Its success is based upon a thorough hunter-knowledge of the field behavior and characteristics of the quarry, incident to the rut.

Basically, the bull elk’s bugling is a battle-cry. It is his vocal display of masculinity, challenge to other bulls, and his warning to stay away from his private harem of cows. For these reasons, the wild bulls will ordinarily bugle only during the period of mating.

This period varies somewhat, due to differences in elevation and lateness-of-season. In such wilderness areas as the Selway-Lochsa, and Yellowstone-Thorofare region of Wyoming, the rut begins in early September. The mating season lasts four to five weeks, and in most elk country is over by the last week in October. In the highest elevations, however, the rut, and the bugling of the bulls, will begin earlier. I have heard elk bugling in early August, in the high country around Heart Lake in Yellowstone Park. The lateness-of-season, too, has a bearing on when the bulls begin bugling. In a general way, they will begin shortly after the first killing frosts.

As mentioned earlier, the big wapiti bulls are most polygamous. Having collected his harem of cows by main force—and often seemingly against the wishes of the females—a big herd bull not only tries to keep them herded into a group during the period of the rut, but actually goes out of his way to fight, and “whip off” any other bulls in the area. He locates these other bulls, just as other males trying to horn in will find the band of cows, by bugling. The squealing, high-pitched scream of a bull elk is the most thrilling of all wilderness sounds, and can be heard, on frosty mornings, for well over a mile.

Last fall my hunting partner, and my son and I all had the rare opportunity to witness the entire battle of two such bulls. While stalking one of the bulls (after locating him with a bugle), another bull began bugling from across the canyon. The squealing became intense and closer together, and it was immediately apparent what was taking place. Rather than bag a trophy, we elected to watch the wilderness battle.

Talk about a thrill! Within moments, the second bull emerged from the fringing timber above the chaparral hillside, some three hundred yards away. For a second they eyed each other. Both were mature six-pointers. One suddenly lowered his head, pawed the earth and came head-on at the other.

We could hear their massive antlers rattle across the intervening canyon. Hoofs dug in, heads together, they pushed and tackled each other, straining until the footing gave way, and their heaving bellies were on the earth. Then they’d back off a few paces, and like express trains, come together again.

In sheer fascination we watched for minutes. Then the wandering bull slipped slightly, giving a momentary opening. The other bull plowed in, raking the opponent’s sides and flanks till he stumbled sidewise and gave ground. The cows, like the females of any species, looked on, enjoying it. In fifteen minutes, the stray bull was licked, and “antlered” back into the fringing timber from which he had appeared.

This wilderness spectacle was both magnificent and brutal. It was well worth the loss of both trophies.

The success of a herd bull in holding a harem is dependent upon his virility, strength, and fighting equipment. The size of the great sharpened antlers, and throaty depth of his bugling, is often reflected in the number of cows in the bull’s harem. Numerous cows, and a bellowing baritone call, often can be interpreted by the hunter to mean that the herd bull will be massive and in his prime. The squeaky quality of a bull’s bugling, indicates a young bull just learning to bugle. Small males are often tolerated in an elk-band by the larger herd bulls, possibly because the big bulls feel they can do little damage.

With a thorough understanding of what a bull elk’s bugling means, the season of year in which it occurs, the periods of the day in which the bulls bugle, and a complete familiarity with the wild call, the hunter then uses the facts to his advantage. He duplicates the natural call on an artificial bugle; and in doing so, gives the illusion to a desired bull that he is another male, challenging the harem.

In order to accomplish this without arousing suspicion, the hunter, naturally, has to simulate the intruding bull from a logical position and area; at the correct time of day; and in a manner identical to the behavior of a real bull. This, on the part of the hunter, entails skillful woodsmanship, a basic knowledge of the field-behavior of elk, and actual histrionics.

Briefly, he has to know that elk will bugle most during the daylight-to-sun-up period of the day. That the second best period is from dusk-to-dark. He learns that elk won’t bugle during fog, heavy storm, or impending snow-storms of considerable volume; and that they’ll bugle most after clear frosty nights. He has to realize that elk are among the spookiest of animals, that continuous bugling on the artificial instrument is unnatural and arouses suspicion, and that any challenging bull will bugle only intermittently and from a constantly changing position in relation to the terrain. Also, the hunter must understand that there are spots and areas from which a bull will logically do his bugling and sections of country (influenced by the time of day) from which no natural bugling would ever occur.

With a knowledge of all this, the hunter proceeds to simulate exactly what a wild bull would do. Once he locates his quarry, from an answer to his bugling, the smart hunter then carefully marks down the position of his game, puts the bugle away, and stalks his game to a place from where he can get his shot.

At this point, many a novice fails. For some reason he thinks that he can “call up” a bull with an artificial bugle—much as he calls mallards in to decoys. This is, for the most part, erroneous. The real function of the artificial bugle is to locate the bull or the elk-band. From there, it’s up to him as a hunter.

The best time of day to bugle is at sun-up. To be in a natural place for such bugling by then, necessitates being there by daylight. Since basin-heads and the open alps where the first rays of the sun will strike are favored spots for elk at sun-up, a good place from which to bugle is the ridge-crest immediately above. Bugling from such a ridge has the added advantage of being done between two basins, from which answering calls can be heard.

While actually bugling, the hunter should remain quiet. Any bull in the neighborhood will naturally look towards the sound, and the hunter should not be detected. Too, he should be hidden from view in every direction from which he anticipates game. A good position to assume while bugling is sitting, back against a tree, rock, or embankment, and with rifle across the knees. From such a position, the rifle is quickly available, and without undue movement, should game be suddenly spotted.

Once the hunter bugles, he should not repeat the call for at least ten minutes. Should no answer come the first time, he should repeat the bugling after ten minutes; then move to another area before calling again.

The natural bugling of a wild bull elk is hard to define on paper. It is a call of four distinct notes, beginning on a low tone as the bull starts air from his lungs, and rising like a musical arpeggio to the top note, which is a high, squealing, piercing tone much like a whistle…then “rocking” quickly back down the same series of tones. The call is finished in a series of guttural grunts, whose number and intensity depend upon the degree of rage. I have succeeded in making bulls so enraged with an artificial bugle, that these finishing grunts sounded quite like the barking of a small dog.

The natural call sounds something like this: Da-da-da-deeeeeeeee, da-da-dum! Grunt, grunt.

The timing of each of these “notes,” or tones, is as important to a perfect call as the pitch. The first three tones are blown approximately as fast as one would count, “one, two, three.” The high squealing pitch is held for a count of six, of the same rapidity. The three tones, going back downward in reverse, are then blown to the count of one, two, three again. Each of the finishing grunts is made to the count of one.

There is only one ideal way of learning to simulate an elk’s bugling perfectly. That is to hear the natural wild call while in hunting country, or in a game sanctuary such as Yellowstone Park—then practice at home until the wild call can be perfectly simulated.

An alternative is to hunt with an experienced elk-hunter who can bugle perfectly, and either let him do the bugling, or imitate his call until one can do it himself. One or two sour “melodies” played on an elk bugle in hunting country is enough to send the game scurrying into another drainage.

Where do you get an artificial elk bugle?

At this writing, I know of no commercial elk bugle which I consider perfect. I helped one manufacturer develop a bugle, which he wanted to market. Unfortunately, after I’d given plans workable, he substituted material. The finished product is off.

If the hunter wishes a perfect bugle, the best course is to make his own. Elk bugles have been made of every conceivable material, from electrical conduit, tin, monel metal, and bark, to plastic. I have found only two materials which will give perfect results. One is the dried elderberry canes often found in wilderness elk-country. The drawback to these is that they season-split badly, making them very short of life. Another fault is that the pith and leaf-nodes have to be scraped most carefully from the inside, and it is difficult to find dry elderberry cane of sufficient length.

The author using an elk bugle

The author bugling at daylight for elk.

The best material is bamboo. Only with bugles made of this material have I been able to get an absolutely perfect result. The mellowness, resonance, and timbre of well-seasoned bamboo will, in the finished call, duplicate the wild bull’s bugling to perfection, once the bugle has been made having the correct range and register of tones. The proper kind and dimension of bamboo is hard to obtain. One of the best sources is a sporting-goods dealer who still stocks those old-fashioned fishin’-poles like Grandpa used. The butt ends of these, if well-seasoned and free of leaf-nodes for reasonable length, are fine. Be sure to check, before purchasing, to make sure the bamboo has not been chewed on the inside by insects. Such chewing makes bamboo worthless for the purpose.

The best elk bugle I ever made—and this after several attempts to get the tones just right—was made from such a section of cane. It measures seventeen inches in length, by one inch, inside diameter. I use this old bugle season after season. Outfitters and packers habitually laugh at the old “blow-pipe,” but we usually wind up locating the elk with the hard-looking old monstrosity. As with a fine violin, it’s the tone which determines the value.

Here’s how to make such a bugle:

Begin by sawing the bamboo to the right length. If a length of seventeen inches-by-one-inch diameter cannot be had in available bamboo, then arrange the dimensions so as to achieve a ratio of one-to-seventeen, as between inside diameter and overall length. Smaller bugles, like saxophones, will be higher in tone-register than larger ones. But there are “tenor” bulls, as well as “baritones.”

With the cane cut to correct length, cut a sloping V notch in the top side, approximately (for the seventeen-inch length) one and one-quarter inches from the blowing end. Make the side of the V nearest the blowing end at right angles to the length, the other side a long slanting cut for about three-quarters-inch down the top side. This notch is made exactly like the notch cut in an old-fashioned willow whistle.

Next shape a round plug one and one-half inches long, of hardwood doweling, which will fit precisely into the blowing end of the instrument. If too loose, this plug will allow air to escape around it. If too tight, it will split the bamboo.

This end-plug is inserted into the blowing end, so that the down-bugle face extends just beyond the rear side of the V cut. Only trial and error will determine the exact point at which the plug must be inserted before the bugle will “play.” While experimenting, place the left palm over the downward, open end of the bugle, sealing off all air. Inhale a lungful of air; blow easy for the first, low note; then increase the breath-pressure for the higher tones-just as the progressively higher tones are reached, without fingering, on a trumpet.

Once the end-plug is in exactly the right position, mark the location with a pencil, or knife-scratch. Then cement it into place solidly with model-airplane cement. When it is thoroughly dry, it may be practiced upon until the wild bull elk’s bugling can be perfectly simulated.

There are other make-shift and lesser-effective elk bugles. Vern Hamilton, an outfitter in the Chamberlain Basin country, showed me two this fall which had been whittled out of lengths of plastic garden-hose. With these bugles, he had successfully called up several bulls at the beginning of the hunting season.

Again, two empty cartridge cases, held together with rubber bands, and played by blowing across the upper, open ends, will often cause a bull elk to answer. John Shinkle, guide for Sandy Sanders’ outfit in Wyoming, carries such a simple call. Such empty cartridge cases, naturally, duplicate only two of the bull elk’s four tones, and these more or less simultaneously; and the shells are chosen to simulate the two tones. Shinkle used an empty .250-3000 Savage case, and an empty .300 H&H Magnum case, taped together.

Further, with unmolested elk, or at the beginning of the hunting season before the great beasts are spooked by hunters, a bull will occasionally answer a simple, high-pitched whistle. Stan Greenup, who hunts Montana’s Bitter Root country, has often demonstrated to me that he can make a bull answer—at least once.

Lastly, it is possible for one, with constant practice, to simulate a bull elk’s bugling with lip-whistling. I have practiced such mouth-bugling for hours on end, and can duplicate the wild call to some degree. In fact, in the fall of 1955, I whistled two different bull elk in the same canyon into answering, while hunting with South Dakota’s Governor Joe Foss in Wyoming. We actually got Joe a shot at one of them, having located and marked him down by the rudimentary “bugling.” The bamboo bugle, incidentally, was at the time back in the saddle-bag, on the horse we’d tied to some scraggly pines in crags country. As so often happens, we contacted elk when we hardly expected them.

The above make-shifts are only partially successful. Often they will provoke no answer at all. If the game is at all wary, a bull usually will not repeat an answer from such a make-shift; and due to his habit of circling suspiciously after bugling, is easily lost to the possibility of stalking. It’s by far best, while one is at it, to make a real bugle.

Such an instrument is priceless for saving the hunter literally miles of tramping and fruitless hunting, in an endeavor to locate elk. A good bugle, correctly and judiciously blown from the high ridges and canyon apexes at daylight—from which a wild bull naturally bugles—will locate all elk-bands in the immediate area up to a radius of nearly a mile. This, of course, assuming that the overall conditions of the rut are ideal and the game is not molested.

With the game located, and well marked down—by getting imaginary and intersecting lines between peaks, trees, canyon-heads, and so on—ninety per cent of the hunting is done.

The price the hunter pays for this location of his game, is a mild alerting of the game itself. Once a bull answers back, you may be certain he is alert and anticipating the moves of his “opponent.” Not only the bull will be advised of your presence, all cows in the band will also be watching.

Consequently, the actual stalk, from the moment the bull answers, will demand hunting skill of the highest order. One must somehow stay concealed from the quarry, utilizing all available cover and variations of elevation. He must move noiselessly, and keep into the wind—often by circling far around, instead of heading straight for the animals. Often, while making this final stalk, I have used a full thirty minutes or more, in covering three hundred yards of distance or less.

Another thing to watch is for any indication that the quarry has circled since the last answering bugle. Elk which are hunted much, or which have been previously deceived by artificial bugling, are most apt to do this. Too, a canny bull will often circle his expected opponent, to come upon him from an unsuspected direction—possibly to look him over before the battle, or to catch him at a disadvantage. In any case, once a bull becomes suspicious, he’s almost certain to circle.

Occasionally, if the hunter bugles and the bull which has answered once won’t bugle again, it does not mean that the beast has been spooked. Rather, it may mean that he’s suspicious but still curious, and will circle to come noiselessly upon his challenger.

I had this happen once in the Selway, while with a tenacious hunting partner. We’d bugled from a high spiney ridge, and succeeded in getting a bull to answer from the rocky canyon-bottom below. His prompt, maddened squeal back indicated he was on the war-path, and we had high hopes of busting him. Further, he answered once more, after ten minutes, and from a position to the left, but definitely coming uphill. That was all. We waited a full half-hour, then, feeling that we’d somehow spooked him, I bugled once more. There was no answer.

Sure now that I’d scared him, I wanted to go try another canyon. But my partner never gives up on elk. “You go ahead,” he said. “I’ll wait another thirty minutes, then I’ll be over that way.”

Later, he told me that I had not been gone more than ten minutes until the bushes opened up, not thirty yards behind him. He turned at the sound, to see a flash of “our” bull, wheeling back into the timber. The beast had circled full around, curiously, to come upon his opponent from behind. Partner was so flabber-gasted at the crashing sound, he couldn’t get his gun off.

One last caution. In inching noiselessly towards a bugle-alerted elk band, the hunter should not watch for the appearance of his quarry only in the spot where he has marked it down. Aside from the fact that elk constantly are on the move at the daylight and dusk periods, such a band always has a sentry on guard. This sentry is not the big bull which you want for a trophy. Rather, it is habitually an old cow, which posts herself, not with the others of the band, but off to one side, and at a different elevation.

Time after time, I have sneaked up on such a located band, only to have such an old cow crash away, showing only a flashing “sun-flower” of rump, before I’d catch sight of any of the band.

Lastly, when the hunter has successfully stalked his located quarry to within good shooting range, his first sight of the quarry won’t be that great bull standing broadside, well outlined, and in a good position for a shot. Rather, the hunter will see an ivory-tipped antler, as the bull swings in the heavy chaparral or timber; the outline of a leg; the twitching of a shadow that slowly becomes an ear; or a tan spot in the thick brush, which “doesn’t belong.” This is his game, his opportunity, his one chance.

Many a hunter has failed right there. Instead of remaining perfectly still and identifying his quarry, then slowly raising his rifle, he gets excited—and I’ll admit there’s ample reason—jerks his rifle up, and the game is flashing away.

There’s an old saying, “you’ll get no better shot at an elk,” meaning that you’ll get no better chance than the current opportunity. There simply is no more spooky, evaporative game around than an elk. Once the hunter has succeeded m sighting his game, regardless of the position, he must endeavor both to identify his trophy, discover where the vital area is from such a stance, s-l-o-w-l-y get his rifle up, and send his first bullet into that vital area.

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Hunting with an elk bugle - The Sport of Kings

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