By Nick Simonson
Fall is a busy time. Even more so if you’re a hunter ready to hit the field after several months off, or an angler looking to squeeze in a few last trips on the water before the season’s chill locks things away until next spring. On top of that, there is a return to school, Friday night lights, practices, and seasonal routine of sorts that is anything but. This fall – and particularly in the warmth of Sunday’s shift in the weather – I found myself in a familiar setting, falling back into a rhythm that once was reserved just for spring.
This autumn continues the surge of popularity in the USA Clay Target League, and a flood of participants into the ranks of shooting sports. But beyond that, the league brings with it a connection to the outdoors, not just in the fact that the kids are standing outside, breathing in the gunpowder-laced breezes of early autumn, but also that so many of them are ready to take their skills to the field and build on their success at the range, but that is not where the success of the league ends.
In a new locale with a burgeoning new team of 48 shooters, I found myself walking behind the four open houses, backlit by sun that came out just in the nick of time after a weekend of wind, rain and cold, getting a feel for the participants and their abilities. As I walked, I picked out the things I noticed about the form, motion and shot of the new shooters in the bunch and in between their turns gave them a quick pointer while keeping it positive. When it appeared the issue was beyond my limited sphere of knowledge, I was quick to bring a fellow coach in to observe and provide more technical advice to the young shooter. It was easy to see the experienced participants in the bunch, with their lock-step preparation and pattern before every shot, but it was probably more fun to watch the new kids get the hang of the process, in a step-by-step manner, developing their own way of getting ready.
Some of them wore shell pouches, others had shooting vests, but the ones that put the biggest smile on my face were dressed in their blaze orange upland vests, as if they were ready to go straight out into the field for grouse or partridge after logging their rounds for the day. Their pockets bulged with the dump of shells to start the round, and would slowly thin as they approached their twenty-fifth target. When off stand, we’d trade quick stories about their hunting plans, though some were in a rush, as they had to log a couple extra rounds ahead of a big goose hunt the following week, or hopefully catch that wary buck before the day was out as part of the youth deer season. I could feel the excitement, the pride and the pure enjoyment from each kid, from the experienced son of an avid trapshooter and local gun shop owner who logged the season’s first perfect round, down to the sixth grader who, as chance would have it on the sign-up sheet, ended up leading his squad. He did so with a big smile as he checked their readiness, looking down the line at sophomores and juniors before he checked with me and called “Pull!”
As I dropped the scoresheets for the afternoon off with the team manager, she introduced me to Steve, a visiting member of a Pheasants Forever chapter from nearly 75 miles away, who had explained at the organization’s summer meeting that every group in attendance was encouraged to support the growing program in North Dakota, stressing “look at the number of kids in Minnesota who shoot as a result.”
With a laugh, I told him my backstory, my involvement in PF and the team I helped start, which remains dear to my heart and crosses my mind every time I set out to shoot. While a good chunk of those kids and the ones shooting before us were avid hunters, there were many that were not, and never planned to be, and that was fine too. I explained that the real win was just getting kids out there – being safe, having fun, and getting confident in their aim with the help of volunteer coaches and classmates – not just for conservation but also for saving countless gun clubs and the shooting sports tradition from the trajectory of a slow extinction both were on just a decade ago. But the biggest win of the many that come with participation in the league I opined, was the confidence that wells up in those shooters who find their place, their aim and their passion as part of the program and develop a routine all their own…in our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: The USA Clay Target League helps new shooters get an introduction to trap shooting, safety and form while giving those experienced and passionate young shooters a place to hone their talents and find out what’s possible. Simonson Photo)