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Getting Ready for Elk Season Day 4: J. R. Keller Takes Big Bull Elk

An elk alone in the wild.
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Editor’s Note: J.R. Keller has lived in Colorado most of his life. During hunting trips with his father, Keller realized a passion for turkey hunting, which consumed most of his free time. Keller soon became an avid turkey caller and has won numerous turkey-calling competitions, besides elk-calling contests. Known for his knowledge of hunting elk, turkeys, mule deer and waterfowl, Keller has appeared on many TV shows.


Two elk in the wild.

Two elk in the wild.

John E. Phillips: What is Tip No. 1 for taking bigger bull elk?

Keller: The first tip is to know where the elk are. Find a good area that will hold elk consistently, from year to year. You should do a lot of pre-season scouting to figure-out where these elk are within the areas you plan to hunt. The longer you hunt in a region, the more you’ll learn about that land, and the better you’ll be able to pattern the elk in that area. The most-difficult elk hunt you’ll ever go on is when you go to a place you’ve never hunted before. You won’t know where the elk should be, where they’ve been in the past, and where the elk are expected to be during the time you’re there. This is the reason most newcomers to elk hunting hire an elk guide. The more you hunt a region, the more you’ll learn about the elk that live there and where you can expect them to be at certain times of the year.


A wild elk.

A wild elk.

Phillips: What does pre-season scouting entail for hunting elk?

Keller: During the summer months, I look to try and see where the elk are, how-many elk there are, how-many bulls are in the herd, and where the elk are feeding, bedding and traveling. I search for places where elk should be hanging-out during bow and rifle season. The amount of rainfall the area you want to hunt has received is one factor that determines what kind of season you can expect. The rainfall determines the amount of moisture in the soil, and where certain plants will be growing that produce food for the elk. Once you know where the elk will eat, then you can better determine where the elk will bed, and where they’ll travel.


Phillips: What’s Tip No. 2 for having a productive elk hunt?

Elk hunter, J.R. Keller with a large elk antler on his shoulder.Keller: During the early season, start chasing the elk, and try to get close enough to call to them.  Many hunters believe that you can’t call-in an elk during the early season. The bulls may not be very vocal while they are in the rut, but they are actually receptive to calling. Often when you begin calling, the bulls will come in silently. When I start calling, I usually will set-up a blind and not attempt to call in a particular bull. Rather, I let all the bulls know that I’m in the area and that I’m excited, and if possible, I want to invite them over for a little socialization. You have nothing to lose by trying to call elk before the season begins. Calling elk also may help to locate and help you have a chance to see that really-big bull that you plan to hunt when the season arrives.


Phillips: So, when you call, you’re not expecting to hear a bull bugle back?

Keller: No, I’m calling to listen for brush breaking and twigs snapping, as the bull is coming to me. Because the bulls are not ready to bugle, they’ll come in silently, especially during the early season when you can hear the bulls as they walk and crash through brush.


Elk hunter, J.R. Keller and an elk antler.Phillips: What’s Tip No. 3 for hunting elk?

Keller: I think a lot of people have tendencies to overcall, regardless of the type of game they’re calling. I believe this is especially true when hunters are calling elk in the early season. When I have an animal coming in, I want that animal to be looking for me, not looking at me. I want to be set-up to where the bull can walk past me and never notice me. The speed at which the elk comes in enables you to know how much calling he wants to hear. As long as the animal is coming to you, you don’t need to be calling to him. The only time when you need to give the animal another call is if it stops coming or starts to drift away from you.


Phillips: What’s Tip No. 4?

Keller: When you go to take a bull, always hunt with a buddy. One hunter should be the caller, and the other hunter should be the shooter. If I’m calling for a hunter, I’ll set my shooter out in front of me, and I’ll start to call. If that bull starts to come in from the left, right or downwind from me, I can move around my shooter buddy and drag that bull to within range of him.


Elk hunter, J.R. Keller calling elk.Phillips: For Tip No. 5, what can you tell us about types of calls?

Keller: There are elk diaphragm calls, elk external cow and calf calls, elk tube calls and rattling bags.  I believe the standard diaphragm calls are more versatile, because your hands are free. You can do basically any diversification you need on a diaphragm call. Also, a lot of the external cow calls are very versatile, since you can get higher pitches on them. I usually use bugles to learn the location of where that bull is going. Once I locate the bull, I’ll slide in, set-up and start calling to try and get him excited by using a few of these different calls.


To learn more about hunting elk successfully, check out John E. Phillips’ book, “Elk: Keys to 25 Hunters’ Success,” available in Kindle, print and Audible versions at https://amzn.to/2IDszQk. You may have to copy and paste this click into your browser. (When you click on this book, notice on the left where Amazon allows you to read and hear 10% of the book for free). On the right side of the page and below the offer for a free Audible trial, you can click on Buy the Audible with one click.


Tomorrow:  J. R. Keller Gives More Elk Tips

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