Bugle: The Call of the Elk

Elk bugle! The sound of the American wapiti, or elk, carries far over the forests and mountains of America. The bulls are calling the cows, and warn off rival bulls. But their calls reach the hunters’ hearts everywhere, from corporate skyscrapers of New York to the oil fields of Texas, from high-tech valleys of California to ultracomfortable resorts of Florida. Stalking or calling a majestic bull elk among the unspoiled landscape of the West with a rifle or bow is something every hunter should experience, and every hunter who does wants to repeat.

If you want to do an elk hunt during the rut, which takes place in September in North America, you must know at least the basics of how and why elk bugle and the cow calls used to entice the love stricken bulls into range. Be sure to watch the videos attached to this post for some bugle footage that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand and make you long for elk country.

Bugling is the most well-known sound emitted by elk, but far from the only one. Living in a herd requires a certain degree of communication skills. An absolute minimum is the signal of alarm, which in case of elk is made in a high-pitched squeal or bark. When you hear this quite often the gig is up and the next thing you’ll here are thundering hooves and see a cloud of dust as the herd leaves the area.

One important sound and one a rut elk hunter should learn to identify and mimic is the cow estrus call. This is a nasally almost pleading cow call that signals a cow is ready to breed and if done correctly can catch even a herd bull’s attention and bring him in range. Another sound, that is used both by bulls and cows is the cohesion call, used to bring the herd together. A bull might, for example, give a cohesion call if one of the cows in his harem wanders off to a short distance.

A hiss is used as a threat in domination intercourse between bulls. Bachelor bulls sometimes do a series of quiet high-pitched squeals during fights between themselves or with dominant bulls, but dominant bulls apparently don’t use this vocalizations. Bugling is also not limited to bulls. Cows bugle too, during the spring calving season.

A bugling bull elk is a sight to see. With neck outstretched, antlers tipped back and muzzle slightly raised, ears turned backwards, and mouth opened, he presents a picture that all outdoor magazines love to print, especially if the weather is cold and his breath is turning to steam as he makes the call. A bugle typically consists of three stages. It begins with an “on-glide” growl, that gradually increases in sound frequency until it turns into the second stage: a “whistle”. A whistle is a long, steady high note. The bugle ends with a sharp drop in frequency, called “off-glide”. Occasionally a series of chuckles follows the bugle sounding like the bull is coughing or laughing.

Bugling is a part of mating behavior that is common for every variety of the red deer. A bugle is a sign of display – a way for the bull to say “Here I am, look at me”, to give a message of his strength and power and to tell his rivals I’m the biggest , baddest and loudest so stay away from my cows! It is addressed both to cows and other bulls, but mostly to cows. Studies identify at least two different vocalizations of bull elk. A clear, high-pitched sound is addressed to the dominant bull’s own herd. When the bull is threatened by a rival, its bugle becomes coarse and atonal.

A trained ear can sometimes tell a dominant bull from a bachelor bull or a yearling. To begin with, herd bulls bugle more often than subdominant bulls. Then, dominant bulls also give yelps, and use hissing as a sign of threat, while bachelors don’t – they only do sparring squeals, and it looks like the weaker the bull is and the closer he is to be defeated, the more often he squeals in frustration But don’t be fooled, sometimes the biggest bulls will have a high pitched squeally call of an immature bull and conversely a immature bull may have the deeper growl of a herd bull so it is best to lay eyes on the culprit before you walk away.

Hunters all over the range of red deer and wapiti use bugling or roaring behavior to attract the animals by calling. Siberian wapiti hunters make improvised trumpets out of birch bark, and European red deer hunters use calls to imitate the roar. American wapiti is not immune to this, too. The calling strategy is also similar. A caller’s best bet is to imitate a young bull that is a little before its prime – one that has sufficient seductive power for the dominant bull’s harem, and yet probably not yet strong enough to be a real match for the sultan of the mountains in a melee.

But one must be cautious when bugling, sometimes if a bugle is used close to a herd the herd bull will simply gather his cows and move out, choosing flight over fight to keep his harem. This is why many experienced callers will use a bugle to get a bull to respond from afar and locate the herd, then stalk in close and use cow calls or an immature bugle once within the bull’s “zone”.

Calling requires a lot of knowledge, practice and experience, and though a hunter who is new to elk hunting can learn much from videos, etc. there is no replacement for experience afield and, as usual, the best way to get introduced to a hunting tradition is to do is through mentorship of a good guide. BookYourHunt.com features a variety of guided hunts from North America‘s best outfitters. If you’re a do-it-yourself kind of hunter, still don’t go away without looking through our elk hunting options – some outfitters offer self-guided or drop camp services for getting you access to elk country on private lands or packing you out with horses or mules  into the wilderness which you might not be able to reach on your own.

Do the sounds of the elk bugle thrill your heart and fill you with the desire to abandon everything and go look for the majestic monarch of the mountains? We can get you there! Find your elk adventure on BookYourHunt.com now!


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