To sound like an elk, think like an elk
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Jim Horn doesn't just love elk he seems to want to be one.
He certainly strives to sound like one.
When Horn hunts, whether he's wielding a bow or a video camera, he tries to forget that he's a primate with a big brain and only two legs.
He tries to imagine he's an animal who lives by instinct rather than deliberation.
"I'm not a human I'm an elk," he says.
Horn does not smile as he says this.
The transformation from human to elk is, he admits, a genetically unlikely one.
But a hunter needn't sprout antlers or grow hooves to impersonate an elk, Horn said.
If you can master a few common elk voices, then employ your mimicry at the proper moment, you'll probably fool at least some of the elk some of the time.
"Elk don't think, and they can't reason," Horn said. "However, they live by inherited instincts, and they respond to certain sounds that they've heard before.
"And that makes them vulnerable."
The ability to convince an elk that you share all his chromosomes is a valuable skill for any hunter, Horn said, and for a very obvious reason:
No elk ever fired an arrow or a bullet through another elk's heart.
Humans, on the other hand, who prowl the woods with compound bows and digital rangefinders and razor-tipped arrows, can be downright deadly.
"An elk isn't looking for a human, it's looking for an elk," Horn said.
If an elk thinks you're an elk, it might wander within shooting range.
But if an elk detects your true identity, very soon you'll see, as Horn puts it, "nothing but butts and dust."
Becoming your inner elk was among several lessons Horn instilled in an audience of about 100 local hunters last week during a free seminar that took place in the most appropriate setting possible: the Baker Elks Lodge.
Horn, 58, is a retired police officer who lives in La Pine.
He works as the Western promotions manager for Primos, a company that builds hand-held calls with which hunters can imitate several elk sounds, ranging from the puling whine of a calf to the majestic bugle of a trophy bull.
Learning to hunt
Horn admits that when he embarked on his first elk hunt 24 years ago, he "knew nothing" about the animals or the sport.
That hunt happened in Oregon's Coast Range, country that shares little with Baker County except steep hills.
Even the elk are different.
Elk that live west of the Cascades are Roosevelts, a subspecies slightly different from the Rocky Mountain elk that roam Northeastern Oregon.
Horn didn't care what kind of elk he was hunting he just wanted to hunt.
But he didn't take to the coast's incessant fog, nor did he care for the jungle-like undergrowth that makes a hunter wish he had brought a machete instead of a bow.
"And they have these huge banana slugs over there," Horn said, holding his hands apart at a distance that more approximates the length of a chinook salmon than a garden-variety slug.
"They'll attack you."
This time he does smile.
Two years after that first fog-ridden hunt, Horn traveled to the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
He rode a horse into North Minam Meadows, bugled once, then killed a 6-by-5 bull 15 minutes later.
"That started the passion," Horn said.
In the quarter-century since, he has hunted elk across the West.
And he has perfected a series of elk-calling techniques that he claims will lure elk consistently.
This is not the sort of skill you would expect a hunter to share, for free, with hundreds of potential competitors.
Of course it is Horn's job to sell elk calls.
And yet, he told his Baker City audience that he doesn't care whether they buy Primos calls, or some other brand.
He just wants hunters to try what he teaches.
"My rewards are the e-mails and the phone calls and the handshakes I get from hunters," Horn said.
"How many of you have been hunting for four or five years and just haven't been able to close the deal?" he asked.
At least a dozen hands leapt toward the ceiling.
"I hope to end that streak," Horn said.
A cacophany of calls
Horn's first lesson, he says, is perhaps the most important.
In essence, Horn admonished hunters to forget what they thought they knew about hunting elk during the first week of the archery season, which starts in late August.
Many hunters, he said, believe you can't use calls to attract elk and bulls in particular during the season's first week because the animals haven't started their breeding season.
"If that's your attitude, you're losing a great opportunity to kill a bull," Horn said.
He said he's met many bowhunters who walk into the woods on the season's first day, bugle a couple times, get no answer, then go home to wait.
But Horn said hunters shouldn't expect elk to answer their calls at least not early in the season.
"Most bulls I've killed did not bugle, and for eight years in a row I got my bull in the first three days (of the season)," he said. "But they did respond to my calls."
Horn demonstrates his tactics.
With one call crammed in his mouth and another clutched in his right hand, he emits a series of mews and chirps that replicates what Horn calls "herd excitement" the elk version of the background chatter you hear in a restaurant or at the movie theater before the lights dim.
After 15 or 20 seconds of this herd talk, Horn cocks his head and, using an external reed call, produces what he accurately describes as a "loud, drawn-out, whiny sound."
This, he says, is the note a cow can hit only when she is in heat a condition that happens once every 21 days between about late August and Halloween, and that lasts only nine to 14 hours each episode.
"It's an important sound to learn," Horn said. "Bulls know what that sound means, and they will be there. They want to get in on the action."
As soon as the last decibel of the ululating cow call has disappeared, Horn puts to his lips yet another call, this one attached to a foot-long, inch-wide tube clad in camouflage fabric.
The shrill shriek of a bugling bull blares across the room.
In every row hunters' eyes widen, their mouths curved into slight smiles.
This is the sound they all know, the wild wail of the woods they all yearn to hear as they crouch in a forest glade on a frosty morning, a bowstring taut between two fingers.
Horn's bugle starts as a tweeter-shattering treble but then deepens.
He does not, as many hunters do, embellish the bugle with a concluding series of "grunts" and "chuckles."
"Elk don't all do that," he said. "Humans do because we think it's pretty. My rule is, if elk do, I do. If elk don't, I don't."
After bugling, Horn said he waits, silent and still, for at least 45 minutes.
That gives any bulls in the vicinity time to approach.
Why they approach is not always obvious, Horn said.
But the sequence of calls give a bull three reasons to investigate, Horn said.
"He might be curious, he might be angry, he might be". . . . well, let's say he might be interested in the same thing that loud, amorous cow is interested in.
"I don't care why (the bull) comes in," Horn said.
Late-season calling techniques
Elk change their habits later in the breeding season, and hunters must adapt to those changes, Horn said.
Bulls become more aggressive, and they are more apt to bugle a challenge to a hunter.
That sounds like an ideal situation, but not necessarily, he said.
The problem, Horn said, is that a bull, as it walks toward the spot where it heard a bugle, expects to see another bull.
If he continues to hear bugles but never sees a rival, it matters little whether the hunter is a skilled caller the bull probably will run away.
"When the bull gets close, I'm going to forget the bugle and do something else," Horn said.
He'll snap a few brittle tree branches, roll a few rocks.
Then he'll use those cow and calf calls.
The goal, Horn said, is to mimic the sounds of a herd of cows and calves trundling through the forest.
The bull, though still curious about the location of his bugling rival, will at least think other elk, rather than a hunter, are nearby.
Stay quiet for 45 seconds or so and then, seal the deal.
Blow on that cow-in-heat call.
"Try it," Horn said. "It almost always works."
If not, hike a half-mile or so and start the sequence again.
Patience, Horn says, often puts meat in the freezer.
But don't overdo the patience.
"Take your calls, and use them," Horn said. "They don't do you any good in your pocket.
"The national average for elk hunters is one elk about every seven years.
"I don't want to wait seven years."