‘Conversation With an Elk’: Pe Ell Game Call Designer Featured on Netflix Hunting Show

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Jason Phelps, 38, of Pe Ell, was camouflaged by a tree in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, a bow in one hand and an interpreter’s dictionary, of sorts, in the other.

Phelps was using one of his own business’s game calls, an instrument he has spent decades perfecting since he started to hunt as a child.

Next to him, friend and business partner Steven Rinella crouched and smacked branches against a tree, mimicking the sounds of two bull elks dueling.

Eventually, what Phelps calls a “monster” bull, comes sauntering toward the pair, expecting to be greeted by a rival elk in the early mating season. Moments later, the arrow through the bull’s heart brings him to the ground.

Elk hunters might say the story sounds too good to be true. Luckily, they can now watch it themselves on the Netflix original show, “MeatEater.”

Starring Rinella, “MeatEater” is a celebration of hunting and eating meat: for fun, socialization and for connection to the outdoors and humanity’s roots. A recent New York Times article calls the show host “arguably the country’s most famous hunter.”

On “MeatEater” season 10 part two, which dropped on the streaming service Tuesday, Rinella and Phelps take viewers on their successful hunt in an episode titled “New Mexico Archery Elk.”

It follows the hunt from start to finish in a neat half hour, featuring conversation between the two hunters, and between Phelps and the elk.

“In my line of work, I’ve been fortunate to get to know people who’ve mastered certain disciplines of the wild. My friend Jason Phelps is one of those people,” Rinella said in the beginning of the episode. “He comes as close to having a conversation with an elk as you can get.”

Bantering with elk, Phelps can get a sense of the bull’s age and size just from his call. Some elk respond to the sounds of other bulls, which he refers to as “bugles,” and some are more attracted to “cow calls,” or sounds of female elk. When hunting, he’ll spend much more time in conversation with the elk than he’ll spend face-to-face with them. With archery hunting, the art of calling is especially key, as the animal needs to come within a bow hunter’s range of about 30 to 40 yards. Of course, the closer the better. If he can coax the bull within 20 yards of his bow by staying camouflaged downwind of the beast, Phelps is likely to backpack out with enough elk meat to stock the freezer.

The expert caller has lived in Pe Ell since early childhood, and attended Centralia College and St. Martin’s University for his civil engineering education. For most of his career, making game calls has been a side gig. He worked full time for the state while growing Phelps Game Calls with the help of his family.

“I was kind of always tied to the state. Even as this thing grew, I was still going to work every day because of insurance. (My wife) is type one diabetic, my boy is type one diabetic,” Phelps said.

In late 2020, the opportunity finally came for Phelps and family to thrive full time in their growing game call empire. Rinella is the founder of a lifestyle brand, MeatEater, Inc. which sells hunting equipment and apparel, teaches the intricacies of cooking wild game and creates hunting content on podcasts and YouTube. Just over a year ago, MeatEater, Inc. bought Phelps Game Calls.

Alongside the benefit package, Phelps was drawn in by the sale because he could delegate the business side of things and work full time for the company, getting back to his roots as a call designer.

“Being able to call elk and talk to elk has been my passion,” he said.

Phelps Game Calls also maintained its identity in the purchase, easing the worries of brand loyalists who have come to love Phelps for his upbeat personality and adventurous hunting stories on social media and YouTube.

While his work allows him to travel all over the west in search of the best hunts, Phelps is a tried-and-true Pe Ell guy who got his start as a deer hunter.

“Growing up, I got to deer hunt, but I didn't get to elk hunt. And so there was always this allure,” he said. “When I got to finally do it I was like, ‘Yeah. This is a little better.’”

His first conversations with elk were carried out with a bit of PVC pipe with holes in it gifted to Phelps by his grandfather. In sound and style, it resembles a plastic recorder. Over the years, aided by his engineering background, Phelps became adept at building what he calls a diaphragm. The diaphragm is layered latex, stretched in a way where, while manipulating airflow and tongue pressure, the user can create vibrations producing a certain sound. The design is similar to the way a clarinet reed works.

Using the diaphragm and the Phelps Game Calls lightweight aluminum “bugle tube,” Phelps can amplify the sound enough to call elk long before seeing them. But he said his method “takes an extreme skill set that’s taken me years and years and years to perfect.”

One of his missions with design is to increase accessibility for new hunters. To do so, he designed a bugle tube with a mouthpiece. All the user has to do is blow.

“I've been accused of making it too easy,” he said. “Everything that we went and designed, we've tried to make it first sound good, and number two, then, be easy. Because if it doesn't sound good, then I don't care how easy it is. It’s a pretty simple design process: identify something that plagues a majority of the users, and attack and work on a solution.”

Another priority for Phelps is durability. To him, a product that doesn’t hold up across 10 hunts is not worth buying. Whenever he comes up with a new design, he will have hunters test it for an entire season before moving forward with production.

Through the team’s dedication, Phelps Game Calls now sells around 210 different products. While elk are a focus, the business also offers calls for waterfowl, turkey and predator hunters that range from wooden drumsticks hunters hit against a small box to classic single-reed duck calls. With MeatEater, Inc.’s help, Phelps said, the company is growing as fast as possible.

“This first year, it hasn’t been as easy as we thought it would. There's been a lot of transition and we've been very, very involved with everything,” he said. “But, I think the writing's on the wall that this will ultimately give us freedom within the company. It should hopefully make our lives easier as we move forward.”

To shop Phelps Game Calls or read more about the company, visit https://phelpsgamecalls.com/. Follow along hunts with Phelps at https://www.youtube.com/user/phelpsgamecalls.