Jeff Foiles was a rock star in the world of waterfowl hunting -- until the feds drew a target on his back

Jeff Foiles was a rock star in the world of waterfowl hunting -- until the feds drew a target on his back
Jennifer Silverberg
Jeff Foiles

Dawn burns pink into Canada on September 10, 2007, and a duck is about to get its head blown off.

Rock-star waterfowl hunter Jeff Foiles and three buddies lie on their backs in a stubbly hay field. They're wrapped in layout blinds, which resemble straw-covered sleeping bags. As they peek their heads out and quack with calls, beckoning to the birds above, three ducks respond and glide within range.

Foiles lets loose his signature command: "KILL 'EM!"

Jennifer Silverberg
Jeff Foiles revisiting his former duck club near Pleasant Hill, Illinois.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jeff Foiles revisiting his former duck club near Pleasant Hill, Illinois.

He blasts his shotgun at the middle bird, spraying guts and feathers into the morning light. The duck's head helicopters away while the body sails down with a thwump. One hunter giggles.

Foiles addresses his clip-on microphone. "Folks," he intones, "Fallin' Skies 5 has just begun." This was exactly the footage he wanted.

Over the past decade, 54-year-old Jeff Foiles of rural Illinois minted his own style of whack-em-and-stack-em hunting DVDs. He makes them to create buzz for his most lucrative products: Duck and goose calls, or reeded whistles that sportsmen blow to attract winged migrators. (Some Foiles calls sell for as much as $170.)

Foiles isn't the only call-maker to market himself thus. Phil "The Duck Commander" Robertson of Louisiana and Fred Zink in Ohio both produce videos, which might include a severed head or limb — after all, shotguns aren't gentle tools. All such entertainment amounts to avian-death porn, at bottom. But there are degrees. Jeff Foiles and his fans unapologetically favor hard-core.

Fallin' Skies 5, released in May 2008, was a three-hour murder fest set to crunching heavy metal. Earlier volumes of the series introduced Foiles as an earnest outdoorsman. By this fifth volume, the transformation was complete: He'd become a brash, hard-driving, all-American badass bird assassin.

"We're gonna see if we can't shoot their beaks off," Foiles boasts to the camera at one point, his chiseled, goateed face streaked with camo paint. Later, he quips that an upcoming hunt "will be a bloodbath, and you'll need blood goggles."

Seasoned hunters will admit that they, too, laugh after a kill — less in mockery than as a relief valve for the tension that builds before an ambush. To some, Foiles' laughter in Fallin' Skies 5 seems darker. He amuses himself by shooting wounded birds already on their way down. He even taunts his prey — some dead, others still alive.

And that's only the footage selected for the DVD. Certain parts were edited out. Such as the end of that hunt in Canada. On camera, Foiles tallied up the bodies. "Got eight," he said, acknowledging that he can't shoot more by Canadian law. But he wasn't ready to stop.

He asked his cameraman, Paul Sawyer: "Do you want to shoot?"

"You keep going," said Sawyer, who didn't possess a hunting license. "We'll make some good movies." And good movies they made. With the camera rolling, Foiles proceeded to kill eight more ducks that day — twice his legal bag limit.

About a week after the DVD's release, federal agents raided Foiles' shop in Pittsfield, Illinois, seizing that footage and more like it. They soon managed to convince many of his closest associates to testify against him in exchange for immunity.

By January 2011 Foiles had been indicted in the United States on 23 felony counts and in Canada on additional criminal charges, including cruelty to animals. All of the charges stemmed from his hunting activities. Much of the evidence against him had been captured on film, unwittingly, by his own crews.

"Basically, the way the government has portrayed Jeff is that he is the spawn of Satan," Foiles' attorney, Ed Fanning, said in early September. "They're setting an example. He's become the Martha Stewart of duck hunting."

Indeed, Foiles' many supporters insist he's the victim of a federal witch-hunt, which has overshadowed his good deeds: He's donated his merchandise to soldiers overseas, his time to youth waterfowl camps and his money to Ducks Unlimited — a conservation nonprofit.

But even by his own admission, Jeff Foiles screwed up. Now he's facing the consequences.

Says his former business partner, Denny Marschuetz: "Wherein this tragedy lies, 99 percent of the time he hunted legal. There were definitely violations. But in the end, what got him was his bold arrogance."

In hunting, men may change tactics, but nature never does.

Each autumn, frigid weather in Canada drives waterfowl south along four broad "flyways" through the United States. One route follows the Mississippi River. In the heart of this flyway, right before the Illinois River drops into her mighty sister, the waters carve out a narrow peninsula above St. Louis that's rippled with ridges and forest. Here, three generations of Foiles men looked skyward for sport, and for supper.

A century ago, when Jeff Foiles' grandfather Merlin tramped across these hills and riverbanks, folks referred to a plump harvest of birds as "the strait meat."

These days, Foiles uses "Strait Meat" as his own personal brand (he sells "Strait Meat" calls, hats, shirts). But for him it's more than just a description of a good day in the field. It's an attitude. "Strait meat" hunting eschews fancy tactics in favor of bread-and-butter fundamentals — skills he had to master in the geography of his youth.

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