Outdoor Articles

Elk Dominance Displays: Rattling For Elk

by Pursue The Outdoors on June 25th, 2005 in Big Game Hunting

Dominant bulls that see antler tipping from small racked bulls often charge the smaller bull in anger. Hunters can use these dominance displays to attract a bull while hunting.

The big six by six bull elk had been willing to come to my bugles a half hour earlier. But, it was hung up now about seventy yards away. I had chosen a spot next to a large pine tree behind some brush, hoping the bull would walk by while looking the elk it thought it heard. I caw called softly on my Haydel’s mouth diaphragm to assure the bull everything was all right., and to try to get the bull to come closer; meeeuw.

The bull looked in my direction. I paused and then let out a soft grunt; uugh. I didn’t answer the bull because I didn’t want to give my location away. It was several minutes before the bull moved again, seining in a wide arc around to my left. When the bull had moved about thirty yards, but hadn’t come any closer, it stopped and grunted again, trying to get the cow elk it thought it heard to call and reveal it’s location. I remained motionless, and cow called again, hoping the bull would come closer.

When the bull stepped behind a large patch of brush I decided to take a chance. I reached into my backpack took out a pair of rattling racks. The bull looked in my direction and grunted softly again. I kept silent for ten minutes while the bull moved a few steps, looked around, grunted several more times, but did not come any closer. When the bull stepped behind a large patch of brush I decided to take a chance. I reached into my backpack took out a pair of rattling racks and began to thrash the pine tree beside me. I held the racks high enough that the bull could see them but not me, tipped the racks back and forth, and made sure to make plenty of noise. The bull looked up, apparently saw the racks waving in the air, and slowly approached me. When the bull was forty yards away I put the racks down, and bent to pick up my Darton Viper. Then I heard a crashing of brush behind the bull. As I looked up another bull came out of the woods, bugled loudly, and went after the six by six. Before I could even bat an eye both bulls charged by me and into the woods beyond.


Apparently the second bull had heard me or the first bull calling, came in to hear the bull grunting, and me thrashing, assumed the six by six was making a challenge, and charged. Although one of the bulls had responded to my thrashing of the tree, and my waving the racks in the air, and it had been exciting, the end result was not what I had expected, me standing there with my bow in my hand watching two nice bulls disappear into the woods. But, on the positive side, my tactics had worked.

Elk Dominance Displays

Prior to, and during the rut bull elk rub on trees; rake and thrash brush, spruce and pines; and participate in sparring to express dominance. They also participate in dominance displays of head bobbing and antler tipping. Scientists believe that bulls often judge the size and dominance of each other by the apparent mass, number of points and the distance of the arc of the rack of another bull as it moves back and forth. Obviously large racked mature bulls with 50 inch plus main beam lengths have an antler arc that is easily distinguished from the smaller arc of lesser racked bulls. Dominant bulls that see antler tipping from small racked bulls often charge the smaller bull in anger. Hunters can use these dominance displays to attract a bull while hunting.

Tip The Bull

I use a split four point rack for tipping because it is easier to haul around than a large rack. A four point or larger rack may scare off small and medium sized bulls. To tip the bull I hold one antler in each hand, position myself behind a tree, bush or rock and tip the antlers back and forth above my head after I have attracted the bull by calling.

Raking, Thrashing and Rattling

Dominant bulls encountering each other, especially if an estrus cow or cow herd is near, will fight for breeding rights. The sounds of any of these activities (rubbing, thrashing, sparring, fighting) will Attract other bulls in the area, particularly dominants. Subdominants that have previously been beaten in a fight may immediately leave the area. If a bull hangs up out of range you can get him to come in by raking the trunk of a pine tree with a large stick or your tipping rack; breaking off branches with your hands; or thrashing the outer limbs of a spruce tree, willow or alder bush. Raking and thrashing can be used to bring in bulls from as far away as a half mile.

You can also rattle elk just like whitetails. After you get close to a bull take the rack you use for tipping and slam the two sides together, then roll your wrists and grate them together simulating two bulls twisting and pushing. You can pound the ground with your boots, break branches and grunt to make the fight sound more realistic. Don’t rattle the same bull from the same area twice on successive days. If he comes in but you didn’t get him move to a new area and try again.

Be patient when using any sound to Attract elk because it may take them a half hour to come in. Bulls at closer range may charge right in, or be brought back by raking, thrashing, grunting and gurgling when they began to leave. You should include a decoy when using these techniques. If the bull doesn’t see an elk when it responds to these techniques it usually will not respond in the same area again

T.R.’s Tips: Elk Calling, Tipping, Raking, Thrashing, and Rattling (TRTR)

  • Calling should be used for long range attraction. Scents, TRTR and decoys are short range attractors.
  • Calling and TRTR are most effective in areas with; high bull to cow ratios, high numbers of dominant bulls, open forest, limited habitat of river bottoms, and property managed for trophy quality.
  • Because elk travel so much calling and TRTR work best near “high use” feeding, watering, crossing and bedding areas.
  • Calling and TRTR are most effective where you can see the bull before it discovers you. Choose stand sites in open areas and use natural cover or blinds for concealment.
  • Calling and TRTR work any time of the year but are most effective prior to and during peak rut, when bulls are most aggressive.
  • Calling and TRTR work best in the morning when bulls are herding and calling cows or going to bedding areas, and are less effective during midday. Bulls may respond near feeding and bedding areas during midday and in the evening.
  • Bulls that respond to calling, TRTR and scent are intent on discovering the source, which leaves you vulnerable to discovery. Take precautions to conceal or disguise unnatural sights, scents, sounds and yourself.
  • Use the buddy system when using calls, TRTR or scent. One hunter attracts the bull while the other shoots.
  • When bulls are a long way off use long, loud calling and TRTR sequences so they can hear it. When bulls are close use short, soft calling and TRTR. Long, loud calling and TRTR make you prone to discovery.
  • When you hear two bulls answer you, or two bulls challenging each other, get between them and let them do your work for you.
  • Small antlers and imitation racks work best for TRTR techniques because they transport easily and their sound carries farther. Use neutral color racks.
  • To rattle bring the antlers together loudly, then roll your wrists and grind the racks together simulating two bulls pushing and shoving every 3-5 minutes and 15 minutes apart. Stop and listen for the approach of a bull before each session.
  • Rustling brush and pounding the ground with a stick or rattling racks, grunting and blowing add realism to TRTR.
  • If you don’t get a response when you call or TRTR wait a half hour and try again, or move a ½;-1 mile away and try.
  • Use bull in rut, cow elk or estrus scents to add realism and bring bulls into range after they are attracted by calling and TRTR.
  • When a bull hangs up out of range use soft TRTR, grunt, gurgle or cow call to coax it in. If the bull starts to leave before you get a shot, or won’t hold still, use a grunt or mew to stop it.
  • Patience is an asset when Attracting elk. Bulls may respond from as far as a mile in calm weather and open country. Bugle and use TRTR every 10-15 minutes to keep the bull interested. Listen carefully before and after each session.
  • An elk calf decoy added to calls, TRTR and scents provides the final visual stimulus to bring in reluctant bulls and distract their attention from your position.
  • Before leaving your stand check the area thoroughly, especially if you have been watching a bull. More than one bull may have responded and be nearby.
  • Don’t use Attracting techniques on the same bull from the same site on successive days. If it comes in and you don’t get a shot wait a couple of days before trying that site and that bull again.

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