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NORTH POWDER — If not for the frozen saliva, Justus Gray might never have started his business.
The saliva, to be clear, was his own.
Gray was blowing into a plastic duck call, hoping to lure a few mallards to within shotgun range.
Except it was something like 8 below zero and his spit turned to ice and the call came down with a sudden case of laryngitis.
And because the call was, as Gray readily admits, from the lower end of the price spectrum, it wasn’t designed to be opened so he could thaw the plastic reed that, at least in theory, mimics a duck’s quack.
Which is to say he might as well have been using a popsicle.
When Gray returned to his home on a ranch near North Powder that day during the winter of 2014 he started to ponder the problem, and whether he might be able to solve it in a manner more satisfying than simply buying a more expensive call.
Inevitably this led him to his laptop computer.
“I Googled how to make a duck call,” said Gray, 28, who grew up along Wolf Creek Lane and graduated from Powder Valley High School in 2007.
A little more than two years later, Gray owns an online business, Wolf Creek Hunting, where he sells duck, goose and elk calls that he handcrafts from exotic hardwoods and acrylic in the shop next to his home.
The journey from a frustrated duck hunter with a frozen call to an internet entrepreneur was not a precisely straight one, Gray concedes.
Suffice it to say you don’t learn to make wildlife calls by watching a couple of YouTube videos — although Gray did that too.
“You start by throwing a lot of calls away,” he said with a rueful smile. “They’re extremely finicky little buggers to make, and I probably tossed the first 30 or 40 that I made. I practiced and practiced. But once I finally got one to work I kind of got hooked.”
The crucial part, he said, is the tone board.
That’s the narrow piece inside the call over which the reed, a thin rectangle of mylar, hangs.
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When the hunter blows on the open end of the barrel — the tube that fits over the tone board — the air causes the reed to flutter and produce sound.
Making even a tiny alteration in the shape of the tone board — literally shaving off a single paper-thin curl of wood — can result in a huge change in the sound. It’s the difference, as Gray puts it, between a toy kazoo and a real duck or goose.
“It’s a complete crapshoot until the tone board is done,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get.”
His work bench is littered with wooden-handled chisels and files that he uses to shape both the barrel — which is turned on a lathe — and the tone board.
“There’s a lot of finely detailed finishing work involved with it,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in woodworking, so that really appealed to me.”
But these were skills that Gray had to hone.
Although he grew up working with a variety of tools on his family’s cattle ranch, and he took shop classes at Powder Valley, Gray said most of his previous constructions involved larger, less precise sorts of tasks.
“On the ranch you do things yourself, and I’ve never been afraid to frame a building or pour concrete,” he said. “But something I’d never done was fine finishing work.”
Once he perfected his duck and goose calls, Gray said he naturally moved into making calls that replicate the sounds of cow and bull elk.
“Elk hunting around here is really the main thing,” he said.
Gray, though, unlike many of his classmates, didn’t hunt much when he was a teenager.
During his first elk hunt, when he was 12, he said he made a poor shot that didn’t kill the cow immediately.
That experience soured him on elk hunting, and once he became immersed in high school sports — Gray was a multi-sport star for the Badgers — athletics occupied much of his time.
Then he served in the U.S. Army from 2010 to 2014.
But his interest in hunting was rekindled in 2014 when a childhood friend, Jake Weems, who now lives in Klamath Falls, invited Gray on an archery hunt for elk.
Gray said his dad, Jerry, had encouraged him to try archery hunting. The elder Gray thought his son’s personality was well-suited to the deliberate nature of archery hunting.
He was right.
“I figured I’d give it a try, and I’ve been addicted ever since,” Justus Gray said.
Many archery hunters use elk calls. The late summer archery season often coincides with the elk breeding season, when the animals are more likely to respond to calls.
Gray said it’s especially gratifying to use one of his own calls to lure an elk to within 30 or 40 yards.
Although Gray didn’t initially intend to start a business, his online enterprise has expanded well beyond simply selling the pieces he crafts in his shop.
He also partners with other companies, including makers of outdoor clothing, knife sharpeners and nutritional supplements, to sell their wares through his website — wolfcreekhunt.com
Gray also posts hunting videos on YouTube. He is a sponsor of, and has been featured on, the TV program “The Northwest Outdoorsmen,” which is hosted by Richy Harrod, a former North Powder resident.
But Gray still considers his game call creations a “side business.”
He scarcely has time for more.
Gray spends most of his time working on his family’s ranch. And he expects to start work later this year as a police officer with the La Grande Police Department.
Gray and his wife, Kali, have two young daughters — Elsie, who turns 2 later this month, and 3-month-old Emmerie.
“8 p.m. to midnight is about the only time I really have to sneak away and work on the calls,” he said.
Which is not to say Gray will turn down chances to continue growing his business.
“It doesn’t feel like work yet, and I’m happy with the level it is at now,” he said. “But I’m not fighting progress.”
Gray said he remains enthusiastic about his business in part because of the occasional email he receives from a hunter who used one of his calls during a successful hunt.
“It’s fun to make something that people actually want,” he said. “I’m starting to sell more and more calls, and they really speak for themselves.”