At the World Elk Calling Championships, an Oregon man takes top prize


A Vernonia, Oregon, man was declared the world’s best professional elk caller at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s 2024 World Elk Calling Championships, held this week in Big Sky, Montana.

It’s the first pro division win for Tony Gilbertson, who previously won the 2021 men’s division in elk calling.

“I get more satisfaction out of calling and communicating with elk than I do actually harvesting them,” Gilbertson said. “I have an ear for the sounds that they make, and I try to emulate and mimic the sounds that they make.”

The World Elk Calling competition is put on by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a conservation and hunting organization. The annual event brings together the best callers from around the globe, though most hail from states with the largest elk populations. Many of this year’s top finishers came from Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Oregon. Participants competed for more than $45,000 in cash, hunting gear and other prizes.

Gilbertson, 55, has been calling elk since the early 2000s. These days, there are plenty of elk callers on YouTube and Instagram sharing their techniques, but when Gilbertson first started, he ordered DVDs to learn how to use diaphragm reeds to mimic elk sounds.

Mostly, though, Gilbertson learned by spending time in the woods.

“I tried to learn from the elk rather than learn from other people,” he said.

Elk callers place a special diaphragm reed at the roof of their mouth, and create sound fluctuations by blowing and applying pressure to the reed with their tongue. To create the deep bellow of a bull elk, the caller blows through a bugle tube, a hollow instrument made of plastic or aluminum that looks like a whiffle ball bat.

The goal in elk calling is to draw the animals close – usually for a nearby hunter. Bull elk (the males), cow elk (the females) and calves (the babies) make a wide range of sounds in the wild. During mating season, the right calls can draw out a bull elk looking to fight another male.

“It sounds like this deep, guttural roar and goes up to this high pitched scream,” Gilbertson said.

To do so, Gilbertson will emulate the sounds another bull would make. He’ll also stomp the ground, kick rocks, or hit a branch against tree to mimic what an elk would do with its antlers.

“To hear a bull that’s 700 to 800 pounds come up to you, they’re drooling and panting and making these bugles that will make the hair stand on the back of your neck,” Gilbertson said. “It’s a magical and amazing experience that a lot of people don’t ever get the opportunity to see.”

During the calling competition, seven judges, comprised of past elk calling champions, sports outfitters and lifelong hunters, sit behind a backdrop where they can hear the calls but not see any of the contestants. Callers make a variety of cow, calf and bull sounds and are judged on skill, delivery and realism.

After his men’s division win at the World Elk Calling Championships in 2021, Gilbertson was contacted by Phelps Game Calls to join their pro team. That bumped him into the professional division, where he came in second place in 2022.

Gilbertson even has a signature elk caller diaphragm, emblazoned with his name, now available through the Phelps Game Calls website (and available locally at G4 Archery in North Plains.)

This year, Gilbertson bested 10-time champion Corey Jacobsen of Idaho and two-time defending winner Beau Brooks of Kentucky. He took home $5,000 along with some new hunting gear and other prizes.

Oregon’s youngest elk calling champ, 14-year-old Ella Lees of La Grande — who won the women’s division in 2022 — placed third among the women in this year’s contest. It was a tight competition, with Marisa Pagano-Noteboom, the women’s champion in 2018 and 2019, winning a rare three-way call-off to take the title.

Another Oregonian, Cash Madden of Canyon City, placed third in the youth division.

Below are the winners in each division of this year’s competition:

Professional Division

Tony Gilbertson – Vernonia, Oregon

Ruben Hunt – Anaconda, Montana

Beau Brooks – Benton, Kentucky

Avery Betty – Middleton, Idaho

Men’s Division

Patrick Littrell – Florissant, Colorado

Kelton Allman – Santa, Idaho

Jaeger Evinger – Townsend, Montana

Koby Holland – Dillon, Montana

Women’s Division

Marisa Pagano-Noteboom – Anaconda, Montana

Audrey McQueen – Luna, New Mexico

Ella Lees – La Grande, Oregon

Voice Division (using no diaphragm reeds)

Sam Wolcott – Rexburg, Idaho

Rebecca Russell – Indian Head, Saskatchewan

Danielle Oyler – Livingston, Montana

Youth Division

Sam Jacobsen – Donnelly, Idaho

Colton Rasmussen – Rexburg, Idaho

Cash Madden – Canyon City, Oregon

Jameson Cook – Julian, California

Pee Wee Division

Hunter Littrell – Florissant, Colorado

Wyatt Hedges – Missoula, Montana

Jaxon Devaul – Colorado Springs, Colorado

Gracelynn Devaul – Colorado Springs, Colorado

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