As birds descend the Mississippi flyway each hunting season, they grow hungry and exhausted. So they scan below for areas to rest and feed — particularly wetlands. If they find a honey hole, especially one already flush with their noisy peers, down they come.

When Foiles' father, Burdette, was born in 1926, sportsmen lured ducks down by "baiting" — scattering grain on the soil or water surface. Some hunters would even trot out a group of live, tame ducks — tethered to the river bottom — to simulate a flock in mid-feed.

But by 1935 the federal government had banned such methods. And shotguns, under the new law, could only be loaded with three rounds at a time. To bag a bird, you had to excel at three things: spreading out fake decoys, blowing a call and hitting a target before it flaps away.

Foiles pieces together a bird 
call at his workshop in Pittsfield.
Jennifer Silverberg
Foiles pieces together a bird call at his workshop in Pittsfield.
Flags and ducks in the Foiles 
Migrators show room.
Jennifer Silverberg
Flags and ducks in the Foiles Migrators show room.

Burdette Foiles taught his young son to wield a shotgun in the early 1960s by allotting him only one shell at a time. It sharpened the boy: On his first hunt, Jeff downed two canvasback ducks with a single round. He was six years old.

Blowing a call didn't come so easy. The quacks and feeding chuckles of real ducks are hard to mimic. Foiles also labored to heave out enough air to tickle the ears of migrators hundreds of feet up. So the old-timers he hunted with forced him to the back of the blind until he had the oomph to blow his primitive device.

During this dark age of waterfowling, an army-green jacket was the best you could do for camouflage, Foiles recalls. The rubber boots of the era, he swears, "made your feet colder."

Most crucially, the terrain was ill-suited for hunting. The publicly funded wildlife refuges that stud the river today didn't exist yet. Landowners couldn't afford to waste their fields of feed corn by flooding them up to the ears to attract travel-weary ducks.

Instead, Foiles and his mentors toughed it out on the banks of bristled river islands, huddled in blinds heated by bucket fires.

"It's a wonder I didn't end up hating it," Foiles muses.

For a brief moment in 1993, Jeff Foiles was dead.

It happened on a sweltering day at the Wood River Refinery, where Foiles, then 36, was toiling as an ironworker. His second wife, Andrea, and their infant son, Cole, were back at home near Hardin, Illinois, and Foiles was down in a hole tying rebar. He felt odd.

He staggered outside to his pickup and started driving through the parking lot but passed out from heat stroke. In the emergency room his breathing stopped completely. He woke up confused several days later in an Alton hospital.

He soon regained his senses, but something had stirred inside him. He decided to "get more serious" about the sport of his youth. As he convalesced, he began an informal apprenticeship at Horseshoe Lake near Cairo, Illinois. Duck club owner Greg Masterson schooled him in the arts of call making and guiding.

"He was willing to learn, and he was very aggressive," recalls Masterson. "He was quite the go-getter."

He resumed ironworking but started tinkering with his own calls, mixing and matching the best parts of his favorite models. Then he began taking orders, which led to more orders. Demand swelled so quickly, Foiles had to sacrifice lunch breaks and sleep just to keep up.

In 1999 he took the plunge: Leaving union work behind, he devoted himself full-time to his new call company, Foiles Migrators Inc. He and his wife ran it out of their damp stone basement, which they nicknamed "the dungeon." They dubbed the first two calls the "Strait Meat Mallard" and the "Strait Meat Honker."

Foiles yearned for his own duck club — a private farm with the land and crop set up to entice migrating flocks. Luckily he knew someone who did, too: Denny Marschuetz, a chatty south St. Louis native with a construction business and a fondness for cigars.

When Marschuetz voiced his interest in buying land, Foiles mentioned a 144-acre tract available in Pike County, Illinois, just off the Mississippi River. In 2002 they signed the papers, and the D&J Strait Meat Duck Club was established.

Marschuetz marveled at his friend's work ethic. Foiles was at full-throttle, darting to trade shows across the country. A tireless self-promoter, he soon back-slapped his way into sponsorship deals with big industry names such as Winchester Ammunition and Benelli.

In 2004 Foiles himself won a prestigious goose-calling contest in Katy, Texas, blowing on one of his own models.

"At that time, his calls were winning just about every contest you could think of," says Mike Niles, who holds a respected contest in Hoisington, Kansas, every five years. "It was a sound and style that was really popular."

Foiles Migrators Inc. had grown so large by 2004 that its owner built a 9,000-square-foot complex north of Pittsfield, complete with a show room and warehouse.

His timing was perfect. By 2005, the Mississippi Flyway was far and away the most active in the U.S. With more than a half-million active hunters bringing down about 6.5 million birds per year, it had reached roughly twice the magnitude of the Central Flyway, its closest rival, which runs along the Rocky Mountains.

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