The youngest women’s World Elk Calling Champ is a 12-year-old from La Grande

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A 12-year-old girl from La Grande is the World Elk Calling Champion! Learn more here.

Elk sounds vary from grunts, screams and coos to something like an excited chimpanzee – a sound human elk callers refer to as “chuckling.” None of it sounds like something that would emanate from a 12-year-old girl. But the new, youngest ever Women’s World Elk Calling Champion is Ella Lees, a middle schooler from La Grande.

She won the title in July at the Utah competition 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. This year’s top finishers came from Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Montana and Idaho.

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

“You’re trying to make the elk come to you, or in competition, you’re trying to sound as much like a bull elk or a cow elk as you can,” Lees said.

An elk caller places a diaphragm reed at the roof of their mouth and creates 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.

Lees could have competed in the youth division, but she wanted a challenge. Last year, she finished as runner-up in the women’s contest. It was the first time she competed on the world stage, but she already had several years of calling experience.

Her uncle, Mike Kaup, started giving her lessons when she was 9 years old.

Kaup said he’d been waiting to teach one of his nieces or nephews to call, and he jumped at the chance to train a protege as soon as Ella showed interest.

“She’s got a natural ability to listen and repeat things really well,” he said. “If I’d tell her to try to make a sound, she could pretty much mimic it, and we’d just sit there and go back and forth. I’d make a sound, and she’d make a sound. Then I’d make a different sound, and she could usually copy it pretty darn close.”

They would get into elk battles while riding in the car. Kaup would bugle, and Lees would respond with a slightly more aggressive tone. They’d get louder and louder, like two puff-chested rivals working themselves up to a fight.

That’s how elk calling works. Often a hunter is trying to call an elk forward to fight. Hunters might also make the sounds of a female elk to attract a male or create a calf cry to draw out a mother.

“It’s a different kind of hunting,” Kaup said. “You’re not just out there to harvest an animal. It’s a lot of fun to have them come in and know that you’re able to call them in and interact with them and try to understand what they’re saying.”

The more time he spends listening to elk, Kaup said, the more he understands about how they communicate.

“You can’t just make the sounds and be a good elk hunter,” he said. “You have to interpret what they’re saying. You have to read the emotion of the animal and try to figure out what’s going on to know how to respond. It’ll change through the seasons, how they’re going to react, depending on hunting pressure or the environment.”

Lees watches elk calling videos online to improve her technique, and she practices by calling the elk herd that lives near her home in La Grande.

Still, when it came time to travel to Park City, Utah, for the World Championships, Lees was nervous.

“I could definitely hear my heart the whole time,” she said.

It turned out, there was no need to worry. Lees had an unbeaten run through the 2022 bracket, besting four former world champions.

Kaup filmed her as she bugled but said he should have turned his camera around to show the surprised audience.

“Everybody was like, ‘Did that seriously just come out of that little girl?’” he said. “She just has such a powerful bugle that it’s hard for people to compete with her.”

The best callers can make a career out of it. Kristy Titus, an Oregon hunter, has her own signature series of elk diaphragm reeds, corporate sponsors and an outdoors video series called “Pursue the Wild.”

Lees did have a few sponsorship offers after the World Championships, but the family politely refused.

“Right now, we just want to make sure it stays fun,” Kaup said.

In addition to elk calling, Ella competes in basketball, soccer, track and wrestling and plans to try out for tackle football this fall.

All that, and she keeps a 4.0 grade point average.

Lees came home from the World Championships with a $2,500 prize, a trophy and a bow, which she isn’t quite big enough yet to use in her own elk hunting.

“I think she’s just getting started,” Kaup said. “Once you’re the world champion, they know what they’re up against, and they’ll be watching her, so she’s going to have to keep changing and improving.”

— Samantha Swindler; sswindler@oregonian.com; @editorswindler

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