By Nick Simonson
I nervously touched off the first shell of my ten-shot warm-up round and watched the bottom fall out of the orange dome, sending the remainder of the clay target skyward. I breathed a sigh of relief but was unable to exhale the nerves which still lingered in my chest as my fellow coaches and a young shooter cycled around me and between the snow banks melting in the afternoon sun in our effort to educate some new scorers for the start of the spring high school league the next day. My next shot smashed target number two, but the anticipation built up again with each round as we moved through the posts. My mark strayed left on the sixth and eighth bird, but I finished out with a perfect fifth post to close the teaching session.
I chalked the feeling up to being on stand for the first time in the season, remembering my stance and mount, and just trying not to O-for any of the posts to keep up with the more dedicated and skilled shooters in my coaching ranks. But even after the second eight-for-ten instructional and the gun action opened and headed to the truck through the muddy parking lot, the sensation lingered. It was then I started to realize the rush wasn’t for me, but for who and what was to come. When I woke up at 1:30 on the morning of our season’s start, it returned suddenly in the darkness, the way something forgotten at work the day before does. I instinctively rolled over, grabbed my phone and opened our clay target league email, found an unread message and confirmed a volunteer for a spot before uneasily drifting back to sleep.
When the first wave of kids came through the door at quarter to twelve, it subsided some, absorbed perhaps into their youthful energy which could not be contained by the jackets and coveralls that many sported to withstand the sudden cool down the start of the season predictably brought with it. After a short presentation, the adults in the room took the returning shooters to their posts and we rolled through our introductory week. With the kids’ experience in the fall and spring sessions before, the first three flights flowed smoothly. In between rounds on my house, we traded hunting stories from last fall, predicted the timing of the spring snow goose migration and did what we could to keep our minds off the face full of cold wind we were absorbing as high temperatures stalled in the upper 20s.
After the third flight, the sensation returned as our final group of the day – nearly four dozen new shooters (most of which had never lifted a gun behind a trap house, and some of whom who had never fired a shell outside of hunter’s education) – nervously came in to the clubhouse. I was feeling what they were feeling; that stirring mix of excitement, anticipation, and hope-I-don’t-do-something-stupid that I think most middle and high schoolers live with and should never be forgotten by us adults.
As the lead coach presented an extended instructional to the new shooters, I took heart as I scanned the room. Every set of eyes was on him, and as comments bounced around from other coaches and me, their gazes jumped from voice to voice like those of spectators at a tennis match. I felt the sensation subside again, just in time to head out and provide an on-stand tutorial before the new shooters began their first round.
By the fourth shot in our small group, an orange disc split in half and it wasn’t long until the kids were busting birds with regularity. With a little tweaking, even the most inexperienced shooters found their mark, and we worked to share our advice without overloading those that would need more fine tuning in the weeks to come. As one shooter turned to his buddy on the line, and said “I got three in a row,” all I could do was smile and finally feel normal after three days of anticipation and three months of preparing.
The clay target season had begun, and for the short squad of four on my house, their entire trapshooting experience was starting with it. Who knows what else would follow: a love of upland hunting, a passion for mornings in a marsh somewhere, or the future joy of listening for an approaching gobble on a riverine ridge, or maybe all of the above.
As much as I wished I could bottle up and save the fifty degrees from the day before to make things easier on the shooters, I wanted to capture this sensation ten times over as it burned beyond the cold and through the wind that tested us all; because it was the same feeling that had eked back into my psyche on stand in the warmth the day before, woke me from a dead sleep in the middle of the night, and steadied me in the early spring winds of our first sessions of trap. More importantly though, it had once again lit the way for yet another set of sportsmen and women to find their path into the world of shooting sports, and for many of them, a lifetime of experiences…in our outdoors.