Shane Donner was prepared, or so he thought. He had planned out each of his 45 seconds. He'd practised regularly, including earlier in the morning, and had spent hours studying the techniques of the masters.
But, under the pressure of the 2013 Canadian Elk Calling Championships, the 27-year-old's plans changed. When the official yelled "go," Mr. Donner – "like the reindeer," his dad says – was caught off guard. He hadn't had time to slip a reed into his mouth, one that allows him to mimic the sound of the large mammals for judges. He had no time. He just went for it.
"It all went out the window. I was freestyling," said Mr. Donner, a hunter and law student originally from Medicine Hat, Alta. "I was in complete autopilot. I could tell you what my routine should have been, but I don't remember what it was."
It worked. Competing in his first championship, Mr. Donner walked away with first prize – $1,500 – at the Edmonton Boat and Sportsmen's Show on Sunday.
"He was well above the rest," said Bruce Chisholm, one of three judges who sat, backs turned behind a curtain, to blindly score the sounds of each of eight competitors Sunday. In particular, an impressed Mr. Chisholm noted, Mr. Donner reproduced the sound of an angry, charging bull. "What we were looking for is a full range of all the calls."
They acknowledge, though, that all this is best served with some explanation.
Hunters use calls to lure elk for a close-range rifle or bow shot, but there are many calls. Cow and calf calls are quieter, squeakier and often done only with a mouth, a reed and one's hand. Bull calls are louder and often use a horn, a shrieking bleat meant to lure large, male elk.
Elk hunting is common across Western Canada, with the autumn hunts centred largely in Alberta. But in off months, the calls have become a sport themselves. There were no actual elk in Hall A of Edmonton's Expo Centre Sunday afternoon; just eight squeaking, bleating and shrieking contestants, three dutiful judges and a crowd of about 50 onlookers.
There are rules. First, no professionals, such as guides or people who sell their own elk-calling gear. It's amateurs only. Secondly, no electronics. Only reeds, whistles, horns and anything that can be played by the contestant. Third, there's a time limit: 45 seconds for cow and calf calls, and another 45 seconds for bull calls. Judges give a score out of 20 for each, which are then tallied together. Ties are settled by a playoff, known as a "blow-off."
There are different strategies. Some use store-bought elk-calling horns. Others make their own. Mr. Donner uses both, including a child's baseball bat, bought from Toys 'R' Us and then modified.
Competition calling is different than the real thing, said competitor Clayton Doege, 56. Judges need to hear a quick progression through all the different calls, and it's got to be loud. "It's just different," he said.
It's the range that Mr. Donner impressed with, and it wasn't close. Mr. Donner took home a wood-mounted resin trophy (of, naturally, an elk) and $1,500 that he plans to put toward tuition at the University of Calgary. Ken Rogers, a 40-year-old from Valleyview, Alta., won second place and $750. Gary Nemetchek, a 44-year-old from Saskatoon who won two years ago, took third place and $500.
His son, last year's winner Russell Nemetchek, didn't crack the top three, but shrugged off the loss. Last year, his classmates had been disappointed to learn his competition included no actual hunting. Their interests were piqued once more when they learned he won $1,750 in prizes that year.