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What are “call shy” bulls? And how do you kill them?

What are "call shy" bulls? And how do you kill them?

All photo credits: Sam Sarbacher

With more and more hunters heading into the mountains to chase bull elk, mature bulls seem to get smarter and more call shy year after year. Personally, I have found that bulls react less to calls and find bulls that actually respond to calls is now the exception, not the norm. A lot of this is due to hunting pressure and the popularity of calling due to hunters on YouTube and other media combined with the drive of the average hunter to go deeper into the elk mountains in search of the sweet sounds of a bugling bull. A lot of the reason bulls are call shy is because of an interaction with a hunter who is calling in situations that are not successful. The bulls determine that the call is coming from a human, not another elk. No matter why, our job as hunters is to adapt and figure out how to harvest a bull — whether he is “call shy” or not. To do this, we might need to adjust our old strategies and use new ones to chase and harvest the call shy bulls of today’s public land elk hunting experience. 

What is a “call shy” bull and why do they exist?

In short, a “call shy” bull is one that hears you calling and doesn’t react or turns the other way and gets out of there. In that situation, you might think that your calling is subpar, but that is not always the case. Some bulls just become “call shy” over the season or over the course of their life, which is a mode of survival. You might sound exactly like an elk, but something about your calling sequence, pattern or sound just doesn’t sit right with them. Why does this happen? Like most animals in the mountains, elk are survivors, which means they survive the elements and survive predators. Hunters are a natural predator to an elk and they learn to avoid contact. When a hunter calls with the wind blowing towards an elk, calls in a bull and spooks it, overcalls a bull or makes other various mistakes, elk learn and associate that situation with danger. When they hear it again, they may even go into flee mode and head towards a different drainage. You cannot always determine what bull is “call shy,” but some techniques can help improve your chances of harvesting a bull — even a “call shy” one.

Call less

A massive problem that a lot of hunters have and that can create “call shy” bulls is overcalling. Elk are often very vocal creatures and, if you have ever been near an elk herd, you will hear cows calling and talking to each other. Though this is true, as a hunter, there are some negatives associated with joining that conversation. If you call too often, there is a chance that the bull determines you are not an elk. If the bull does come in, he will know exactly where to look for an elk and, if he doesn’t see one, he will spook.

Call less

Or a bull might hang up a hundred yards out of sight and wait for you to go to him. None of these scenarios lead to you killing a bull. I find my best success is to call a few times, then move slightly and wait 10 to 15 minutes before calling again. Do not make a mistake thinking that they cannot hear you because they most likely can if you are within a few hundred yards or more. A bull might even bugle once and then head in your direction, so calling sparingly and being patient may encourage him to sound off again in search of your location. Call less and find more success this fall.

Spot and stalk

If you locate a bull in a highly pressured unit, it may make sense to consider spot and stalk in lieu of calling. Some hunters wait for the bulls to bed and then sneak within a hundred yards or less if possible. Some stalk them while they are feeding. If you stalk them while bedded and get close, you have the option to call sparingly or wait for the bull to stand up and mill around. This usually happens around midday, especially if there is a change in weather or if it is hot and the bull is thirsty. Some hunters choose to spot and stalk elk as they move through transition zones. This can be beneficial because it allows a little more sound and movement since elk also move and create sound. The trick is to get at the right spot at the right time to intersect while keeping the wind in your favor. Whenever you are spot and stalking, you need to be aware of the wind and thermal changes. A swirling wind can ruin a perfect stalk in seconds, so always err on the side of caution.

Ambush

Trail and Neville's 2020 Colorado Bull Elk Hunt

When elk move from bed to feed and back, they often move along a similar travel corridor if undisturbed by pressure or significant wind direction changes. Often, along these corridors are pinch points or places where hunters could set up an ambush. A good ambush has to conceal your body and keep your scent from heading in the direction of the elk. Typically, a mature bull brings up the rear of an elk herd, so you need to fool the eyes and nose of the herd before the bull will walk by. A well-planned ambush can be very successful, especially on patterned and less pressured elk. 

“Call shy” bulls can be frustrating to a hunter hoping to kill elk in the way he or she sees on TV. Understanding the pressure in your hunting area and adjusting your hunting strategies accordingly might make the difference and help you bring home a bull instead of an empty cooler. Always remember that less calling is more; spot and stalk and ambush hunting elks can be successful. No matter how good a caller you are, you can not change the bull’s instinct to survive. Accept the fact that bulls are more than likely “call shy” and adjust your game to find success, especially on public land.

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