The screams of several bulls echoed through the sparse pine ridges, and seemed to be coming from all directions. I was out in front, calling and moving in on the closest bugle. Donnie was right behind me with the video camera, and Dave was 40 yards behind us, toting the elk decoy. As we crested a small rock outcropping, the bull bugled from a thickly timbered ridge just 200 yards ahead. With limited cover between us and the bull, I knew more movement would be risky. Donnie and I quickly set up next to a dead stump as Dave crouched down with the decoy 30 yards behind.
Up to this point in the hunt, the bulls had been difficult to call in. We had been chasing bugles every morning – lots of bugles – but the bulls weren’t committing. Setting up in a static position hadn’t been working, and the open terrain made it nearly impossible to move in quietly without being detected. With the elk continually on the move, it seemed impossible to get close enough for a shot. As we discussed our options the night before, Dave suggested packing the decoy to see if it would help. After several days of insane bugling but no close calls, I was game for just about anything.
The decoy was deployed as the bull let out another bugle from the ridge ahead of us. I gave a few soft cow calls back in the direction of the decoy to coax him down off the ridge. As he came into view, he paused and scanned the flat, looking for the source of the calls. As soon as he caught a glimpse of the decoy, he resumed his approach and came in on a string. The small six-point bull walked through multiple shooting lanes until he stopped just 25 yards from me and less than 20 yards from the decoy. At that point, he got his first clear look at the decoy and quickly turned and crashed away. Lucky for this bull, I was holding out for something a little bigger with my limited-entry Arizona elk tag, and he retreated back to safety. The video of this encounter using the decoy can be seen at www.elk101.com.
This was my first experience hunting elk with a decoy, and I was hooked. It had worked to perfection, so we continued to employ the tactic for the next few days. I quickly learned a few valuable lessons on hunting with decoys on that hunt, and have been able to utilize decoys as an effective part of my hunting style many times since.
Elk, like other ungulates, have decent vision. Scientists have determined their vision to be around 20/40 – not stellar, but good enough to quickly ascertain the outlines of certain objects. Elk also lack a full pallet of color receptors, which limits their ability to pick up on colors the way humans do, specifically the color red. What they lack in visual acuity, however, they make up for in their ability to detect movement. Elk have an exceptionally wide field of view, nearly two-and-a-half times wider than our 120 degree field. This gives them a keen advantage in detecting the slightest movements, even when the movement would seem to be completely out of their line of vision.
Due to the characteristics of their vision, elk use their sense of sight primarily as a secondary source of protection, and rely more on their noses and ears to keep them away from danger. If they smell or hear something, they will quickly scan their surroundings to confirm with their eyes whether it’s a threat or not. This method of visual confirmation can be either an advantage, or a disadvantage, for an elk hunter.
Don’t Hang Up On Me!
Perhaps the greatest obstacle an elk hunter encounters while calling elk is “the hang-up”. If you’ve called in more than three elk in your life, you’ve most likely experienced this. The elk comes in to 100 yards or so, and then stops. None of the calls you throw at him – sweet cow calls, vicious challenges, even the silent treatment – will break him loose and get him to continue his approach. Eventually, he turns and wanders back to where he came from. There is a reason elk hang up, and it isn’t their sixth sense. It’s actually, their third one – vision.
Elk have an amazing ability to pinpoint sound. When we call to an elk, they can pinpoint that location with precision accuracy. When they approach that location and can’t see the source of the calling, they get nervous. A 700-800 pound animal should be visible to them at that point. If it isn’t, they aren’t likely to come any closer until they can visually confirm what their ears have led them to believe.
The “hang up” is the primary reason why I like to hunt with a partner. A caller set up 40-60 yards behind a well-camouflaged shooter can often pull the approaching bull inside bow range before he gets nervous and stops to scan for the source of the calling. Depending upon the terrain, that two-person setup may or may not be enough.
Show Them What They Want To See
On that memorable hunting trip in Arizona several years ago, I learned a very helpful lesson. If an elk can visually confirm the source of the sounds he’s coming in to investigate, you stand a much higher chance of bringing him closer. The likelihood of that elk stopping and hanging up outside of bow range can be greatly decreased. With that first encounter now behind us, we ventured to our next setup, excited to reproduce these results on a larger bull. What we experienced though, left me scratching my head.
A good-sounding bull was bugling from just inside the timber on the opposite side of a large meadow. The opening was 300 yards across, and was speckled with small junipers; enough to allow us to move part way across the meadow without concern of being detected. We slipped out through the meadow until we ran out of cover, then set up the decoy and began to call. I was set up 40 yards to the right of – and downwind from – the decoy. My mind was already skipping ahead to the celebration we were certain to be enjoying momentarily.
The bull stepped out from the timber, bugling incessantly at our every call. He was hooked and we were reeling him in. Then, he made visual contact with the decoy. What happened next was completely unexpected based upon my previous experience. The bull didn’t come running right up to the decoy. Instead, he turned and began skating the edge of the timber, circling around 200 yards downwind of us. He stopped bugling, and was visibly cautious as he worked his way around the meadow to my right. Still 200 yards away from us, the bull stopped. He was now at a sharp angle to the decoy, and the 2D representation of another elk had suddenly lost much of its viewable surface area – and evidently, its realism and appeal. The bull turned and slowly walked back into the timber.
The first bull had seen the decoy and walked in on a string. The next one, however, saw it and instantly became cautious. What was the difference? Our setup. In the first setup, the bull could only see bits and pieces of the decoy. It was enough to confirm there was something there he expected to see, but it wasn’t enough for him to get a clear look at. So, he continued his approach.
In the following setup, the bull was able to get a clear view from a safe distance. When the decoy didn’t respond to his presence, the bull instantly became nervous and knew something wasn’t right. Keeping a close eye on the decoy, he moved around to the downwind side where he could get a second opinion from a more reliable sense. Before he managed to catch our wind though, his eyes were able to notice something was wrong with the rapidly diminishing image of an elk in front of him, and his confidence was shattered. He left and couldn’t be convinced we were a real elk for the rest of the morning.
Three Keys to Using a Decoy
Since those first experiences with decoys, I’ve had similar mixed results. There are a few things that have helped increase our effectiveness in using decoys, though.
First, I’ve found it beneficial to employ calling with a decoy setup, rather than sitting silently and waiting for the elk to notice the decoy. If I blindly set up along a game trail or on the edge of a meadow or wallow without calling, I don’t use a decoy. I’ve rarely had elk approach a decoy the way a turkey approaches a static decoy setup simply on visual contact. Curiosity may bring them a little closer, but a full approach within bow range is highly unlikely. My experiences indicate a greater likelihood of hanging up if the elk encounters a sudden, unanticipated visitor. Calling will give them a primary sensory indicator that they can then confirm with visual evidence.
Second, don’t give elk a clear view of the decoy. If an elk can clearly see the decoy from 100 yards away, they seem to be much less likely to continue closer. I’ve found that setting up a decoy in intermittent timber or broken terrain will give the bull glimpses of the decoy as he approaches, without allowing him to stop and fully analyze what he’s seeing. If you’re set up in an area that doesn’t allow for this, “flashing” the decoy can provide the same effect. This can be done by calling to the bull as you hold the decoy up. Once he gets a momentary visual of the decoy, slowly drop it back out of sight. Again, a glimpse of the decoy will tease the bull, but not allow him a full look and an opportunity to visually study the decoy.
Finally, use the decoy as a last resort. Rather than utilizing the decoy as soon as I have an elk coming my direction, I use it as a last-ditch option to pull a stubborn bull into a setup after every other attempt has failed. Similar to bugling when a bull is running in to a cow call – there’s no reason to give him something he isn’t asking for. If the bull is coming to my calling, I don’t feel it necessary to produce an additional appeal to his senses. In my experience, a bull that is already coming in when he sees a decoy has around a 50% chance of continuing closer, so I employ decoys only after my initial tactics have stalled out.
My personal style of run-and-gun, aggressive elk hunting definitely holds a place for the use of a small, lightweight decoy. And while decoys will never be my sole, “go-to” tool for hunting elk, they definitely add another dimension to my hunting style that I feel consistently contributes to my success.
For more tactics and information aimed at increasing your elk hunting success, be sure to visit Corey’s Online Elk Hunting Course – the University of Elk Hunting – at www.elk101.com/onlinecourse/.