FORT COLLINS — One can only imagine the confusion the calling causes Tom Diesing's neighbors and the elk that occasionally wander into his west Loveland neighborhood.
The bugling, grunts and mews from Tom, his son Thomas and daughter Jessie Sletten are so real that one would need a discerning ear to pick out if the sounds are animal or human.
"We really haven't had the neighbors complain, at least to us, and most of them have lived around us for quite a while," Tom said. "Some ask how we have done when we get home from a competition, but otherwise I don't think most even know we do this."
The family recently returned from the World Elk Calling Championships in Salt Lake City, where Tom (pro) and Jessie (women) each placed second in their divisions from among a record-breaking number of callers.
Thomas (pro) failed to place at the event held during the final International Sportsmen's Expo on March 16-17.
The three are no strangers to the big stage. Thomas has seven world championships, winning his first world title at age 11. Jessie has won two women's world titles. And Tom, who taught his kids all he knows about calling, is still looking for his first championship, though he has won many competitions and competes at the pro level, the highest division.
As you might imagine, few outside of elk hunters or hunters in general even knew such a thing as the World Elk Calling Championships existed. But the prize money — the winner of the pro division won $5,000 plus several thousand dollars in gear — and the fact the event is streamed on social media is making it more popular.
"Oh, you get butterflies before you go up and call," said Jessie, who estimates she's won more than $5,000 in cash and gear at calling events. "Anything can happen. No matter how much you've practiced, there are a lot of people watching and many more streaming. And the competition is tough. You can't make a mistake."
There were 105 callers in six divisions at the event, which draws the best of the best. Basically, each contestant blows their best and hopes they win. But this year in the pro division, the championships went March Madness-style with brackets to determine the winner.
The catch is trying to figure out what the seven judges are looking for in the calls. The family helps each other, listening to each other's practice performance so they can help them arrange sounds in a pattern that they believe will sway the judges to pick them.
Competitors have 45 seconds to perform bull calls and 45 seconds to perform cow calls and convince judges, who are behind a wall and can't see the contestants, to score them highest.
"The hardest thing is you don't know what the judges are looking for," said Tom, who estimated he and his son each have won more than $20,000 in cash and gear from calling events. "My philosophy is let's make every call that an elk does and hope for the best."
And when it's showtime, the nerves start kicking in, almost like when you are calling in a big bull in the outdoors.
"It's like you're at the Olympics, sitting there watching for your score on the big board and hoping your score is better than your competitor," said Thomas, who lost to the eventual champion in the Sweet 16. "There is a lot of heartbreak when you see you aren't moving on."
Watching the competition from a parental standpoint is no different than watching your kids play sports, though the emotions at the competition spilled over to Tom's wife, Kim, wanting her husband to win a world championship after he had placed second numerous times.
"I was bawling when he made it to the finals," said Kim, who has helped adorn the walls of their home with its many wildlife wall hangings. "If I had to do what they do in a contest I would pass out. It's crazy. I get more nervous at competitions than they do. I just keep telling them I'm their groupie."
This elk calling started with Tom about 35 years ago, and he infected his kids with the bug from an early age. He would take them to local elk calling jamborees, where he would help them call. Thomas admitted that, back then, some of his friends thought it was weird.
"My hunting friends thought it was cool, but some of my other friends when I told them about using a bugle tube to make the sound, they thought I was talking about Bugles, the chips you eat, and they were really confused. I just told them it was a redneck thing, but after winning worlds they thought it was pretty cool."
It was even more difficult for Jessie because of her gender. Few women were participating in the events and fewer still cared to know about her calling life.
"I always wanted to encourage more women to get involved in it," said Jessie, who owns an online skincare consulting business, is married and has a nearly 2-year-old child. "I had a blast doing it and being female gave me an unique edge. I owned the redneck part of it and made it part of my pitch when I told people about it. They would get a good laugh. But I also told them I use the calling to go out and call in an animal to take. That really impressed them."
Tom said he wanted his kids to enjoy something he loved as much as he did. When they actually did, he said it established a love for the outdoors that his entire family enjoys to this day.
These days, the 53-year-old has a lot tugging at his time. He is director of distribution at Boulder-based Leanin' Tree greeting cards, makes and sells his own calls under the name Mile High Note Game Calls, teaches calling lessons and tries to squeeze in hunting, fishing and calling at competitions with his family.
"It used to be a personal thing, to be best elk caller in the world and getting that title," Tom said. "I still like to compete but my enjoyment comes from watching how Thomas and Jessie do."
And as much as all three enjoy the calling competitions, they said it was no toss-up between calling to judges at a competition or calling in an elk in the wild.
"I may get butterflies on stage," said Thomas, a Loveland resident and project manager for electrical contractor company Utility Sales and Service. "But nothing beats the adrenaline rush of calling a big bull or even a small bull or cow in. Every time, it's exciting."