Game Fair includes an ex-con sent up for hunting violations, but guilt comes in various packages.
He looks fitter now, in good shape. But a year of working out every day, or nearly every day, will do that for you. That and long walks around the yard of the federal penitentiary at Marion, Ill.
Meet Jeff Foiles, manufacturer and promoter of duck calls and other waterfowl hunting gear who will appear today through Sunday at Game Fair at Armstrong Ranch Kennels in Ramsey, near Anoka.
Foiles, 56, of Pleasant Hill, Ill., was recently released after serving a 13-month sentence for violating two relatively minor duck hunting regulations (both misdemeanors), including exceeding his bag limit.
His sentence, which included a year’s probation, a $100,000 fine and no hunting for three years (one voluntary), was part of a deal cut with federal prosecutors after Foiles was indicted on 23 hunting-related felonies.
In conversation last weekend at Game Fair, Foiles, who is still held in high regard by some waterfowlers, declined to discuss the charges specifically, noting he’s on probation and implying he wants to be respectful of that process. He did say, however, “I was guilty of what I pled guilty to. I was not guilty of 23 felonies.’’
Those who want to paint Foiles as a blight on waterfowl hunting likely can’t be swayed to other points of view. But say this about him: He’s straight up about what he’s done, and now that he’s served his time he’s trying to put the past behind him. His Fallin Skies Straight Meat Duck Club in southern Illinois, which was also pinched by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, has been sold, and he’s opened a new, 5,000-square-foot warehouse, shop and retail store in O’Fallon, Mo., in the heart of mid-latitude duck hunting country.
“In prison you have a lot of time to think,’’ Foiles said, conveying by his tone and demeanor he has no intention to return to the lockup in Marion, Ill., or any other city. “I also read a lot. I read the Bible all the way through, and halfway again. I also read a lot about athletes and sports figures who had troubles in their lives and got through them.’’
Foiles’ big mistake leading up to his arrest was portraying himself in waterfowl hunting videos as a highly efficient duck and goose killer. That the videos were set to heavy metal music and treated ducks and geese as feathered targets only added to what many believe was their grotesqueness — unless, of course, you were a waterfowler of a certain age, say 16 to 35.
Then you bought every Foiles “Straight Meat’’ video you could get your hands on. Why? Because unlike hunters who grew up believing duck and goose hunting was tantamount to a religious pilgrimage involving friends, family, retrieving dogs and a highly proscribed framework of self-governance, they grew up thinking ducks and geese were nothing more than, well, feathered targets.
Whether Foiles helped to develop this market, or only served it, is arguable. Either way, “outdoor’’ TV remains rife with knuckleheads whose self-portrayals as duck and goose slayers, and whose piles of birds at day’s end — particularly from spring snow goose hunting — must have entire legions of now-past conservationists doing cartwheels in their graves.
Of course, hypocrisy rears its ugly head here as well, because unspoken among even the highest-minded waterfowler is the simple fact that the biggest duck and goose killers of all are those who hunt every day, or nearly so. Add to those the professional waterfowl biologists whose degrees are little more than fronts for duck- and goose- killing obsessions, professional waterfowl managers who with a straight face say flooded corn isn’t baiting, wealthy guys who shoot from one end of the flyway to the other, and, of course, outdoor writers who swap publicity for access, and pretty soon everyone, or most everyone, can rightly call a glass house a home.
Yet a benchmark exists by which we can all measure our exploitations. And that’s whether, on balance, we return more than we take. Some might do it by joining Ducks Unlimited (DU), the Minnesota Waterfowler Association, the Izaak Walton League, Pheasants Forever or another conservation group. Others develop habitat on their land or, as valuably, take a kid hunting. Or volunteer in some other capacity, not least staffing the many tents of exhibiting conservation groups that appear at Game Fair.
I asked Foiles what he gives back to waterfowling.
“I’m a DU sponsor, and have been a long time,’’ he said. “I also give calls and other products to local wildlife groups, or give them a break on the price. But in truth, I probably give more to our troops, and help support them, than I do to conservation.’’
Pausing, and scanning the vast product display tent he and his company have at Game Fair, Foiles added: “Isn’t this giving back? I employ people interested in duck and goose hunting. We promote duck and goose hunting, and serve duck and goose hunters.
“This year alone we have five new duck and goose calls coming out, and a new layout blind. I don’t know whether that’s giving back or not. It’s what I do.’’
About then, a man and his young son interrupted our conversation. The boy appeared to be an up-and-coming waterfowl hunter, and he wanted an autograph.
Foiles was happy to oblige.
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Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?