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  • Writer's pictureBridger Park

Mastering the language: A look into Elk Vocalizations

Updated: Mar 10

You're slowly making your way through dense pine when you hear it, the unmistakable, raspy, chest pounding scream of an angry bull that sends shivers down your spine. With shaky hands you put your bugle tube to your lips, attempting to steady your breath before you respond. This is the draw of elk calling, a dance between you and a 600 pound animal, a chess match, all woven in vocalizations. It's an art form as much as a talent, requiring dedication, practice, and a deep understanding of these creatures. In this article we will be going over how to better understand what you're hearing in the woods, to help you actually converse with the animals. In my opinion, calling elk is about the most exciting thing a person can do, but it requires more than just blowing into a call. Its a conversation, and to properly converse you need to know what the animals are saying.

The Bugle: Understanding the Emotion

The most iconic call in an elks arsenal, and one of the most recognizable animal calls in general, is the bugle. A melody ranging from a raspy growl, to the ear piercing scream. Deciphering what an elk is displaying with its bugle is vital, and one of the first things you'll learn in the elk woods. There are two widely accepted classes of bugles, location bugles and challenge bugles. Location bugles are typically longer, they may have a growl to start with, but the main thing to note is the volume. Generally the most recognizable note in a location bugle is the long, high pitched scream. This is so the sound will bounce off ridges and be heard from as far out as possible. They can also be quieter and somewhat haphazard. The most lackadaisical vocalizations I've heard have been elk locating to other bulls in the same patch of trees. No anger, no challenge, just a lazy as can be, not-so-elk-sounding moan. It's important to know, locators can be used as a defense mechanism for big herd bulls. Once an elk starts to breed his cows, he's not going to want to lose them, so when other bulls respond to his bugle from far off, he'll often take his cows and clear out.

The second, and debatably the most exciting noise to hear in the elk woods, is the challenge bugle. At the core of every diehard elk hunter is a memory of their first encounter with a screaming, angry bull. Deep, raspy, and the sort of thing you feel in your chest as tangibly as you hear it in your ears, sometimes followed up with ape like chuckles. It's usually shorter in duration then a locator, and far more intimidating. They tend to fall somewhere between a growl and the ringing sound we all know well. This displays one thing: I'm here, and I'm ready to fight.

Chuckles and Grunts

An important distinction that is not often made, is the difference between a chuckle and a grunt. Chuckles are more ape like, rapid, and usually have more in a sequence. A grunt is usually lower and more guttural, coming in 3 or 4 notes. Grunts serve as an intimidation, often coming after a bugle. Younger bulls often won't use this vocalization, so its a way of an older bull introducing himself as such. On several occasions I've heard sort of a mix between a grunt and a warning bark, signaling that bull knows somethings up.

A chuckle is one of the most misunderstood vocalizations in a bulls arsenal. The ape like sound serves a specific purpose communicating with cows. It's generally how the bull tells his cows, "Hey, get back here." When I first began observing the patterns and emotions of elk calls, I had perceived elk chuckles as a sort of "Hey, what are you?" This actually worked out well in my favor, I would hit the cow call when I would hear it, thinking I was identifying myself to him, which several times sent bulls cascading through the brush in a terrifying display.

Honorable mention: Glunking.

Possibly the horniest of displays an elk can make is glunking. Usually that means one of his cows is in estrous and he's ready to rock. You won't here this call often, and the only times I have, I've been right on top of the elk, as it's not audible from great distances. A well timed whiny cow call is the best way to respond.

Cow Elk: Whines, Moans, and Mews

If you get into elk, these are going to be the calls you hear the most. Generally you're around a lot more cows than bulls, and it's important to understand them. The staple in cow lingo is a mew, which if you say the word in sort of a high pitched voice, is exactly what the sound is. This term can be used as a blanket for most cow vocalizations, but I like to use it in reference to the calm call cows usually use to talk to the other cows in the herd. Another call worth noting is a calf bleat, usually soft and very high pitched. Calves will repeatedly call to their mothers while moving, feeding, or anything else that requires focus. This is simply to keep track of each other. The best cow vocalization to hear is an estrous wine. If you hear a a high pitched, moan-y sound, that if you heard a human women make would cause you to flush, this means she's ready to go, and is a solid indication that a bull is present. After hearing this is one of the best times to let loose a challenge bugle.

This is a good base line to better understand what's going on around you during the rut. It can be intimidating if you haven't been calling for a long time, and even seasoned elk hunters tend to get some misconceptions about calling. I definitely do, such as the correlation I can't give up between how often I hear glunking, and the number of wolves in the area, which has zero proof at all. Just remember: there is absolutely no substitute for experience. You have to get out and encounter it to truly understand them. Make a point to listen and retain what's going on in the elk woods. The next time you get into a rut fest, or even if its just two lazy ass bulls yelling at each other from opposite ridges, pay attention, listen. How do they respond to each other? What emotion are they displaying? It's hard to do with the adrenaline of a hunt, but it's the only way to truly understand them. A lot of knowledge and experiences will come from failures. Every season I blow a conversation or six with an elk, and each time I learn something valuable.

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