Shooting Clay Pigeons

Shooting Clay Pigeons

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Lucy Gardner shooting sporting clays at Orvis Sandanona in Millbrook, NY

The last time I went hunting it didn’t go well. I was aiming at a bird high in a tree with my BB gun. And I never expected to hit the thing. But hit it I did and it crashed through the foliage and struck the ground with a sickening thud.

I must have been twelve or thirteen at the time. And a wave of guilt so spontaneous and powerful washed over me that it made me believe that emotions such as guilt are hard-wired into our brains, threaded through our DNA.

The experience swore me off hunting, though I’m not against the sport, per se. Particularly if hunters are doing it for food. And I’m for anything that gives people an excuse to turn off their TV’s and ignore their cellphones and head off into the woods.

However, I’m not sure my visit to Orvis Sandanona a couple of weekends ago qualifies as nature. It’s outdoors, certainly. In Millbrook, NY. And it bills itself as the oldest permitted shooting club in the nation, originally built during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.

But it doesn’t quite conform to the notion of communing with nature, of listening to the music of birds and babbling creeks, of becoming one with the universe. In fact, earplugs are strongly advised.

I went there at the invitation of Idan Sims, a public relations executive, to shoot sporting clays. For those unfamiliar with the sport, as I was, it involves loading 12 gauge shells into an expensive shotgun, shouting “Pull” and blasting orange discs that resemble Frisbees, and ride the air in similar ways, out of the sky.

It sounded like fun and I was eager to try it. My only concern was that, as I mentioned, it involved shotguns.

I’m a great believer in gun safety. And there’s no better way to practice those beliefs than to avoid guns completely.

Safety is paramount at Orvis Sandanona, as it was among Mr. Sims and a group of a half dozen or so friends that meet many Saturday mornings to practice their aim.

Nonetheless, I had several concerns as I lifted one of several fancy shotguns offered to me to my eye. In no particular order, these included shooting myself in the foot, or shooting an innocent bystander. At a minimum, I was worried about nursing a deep bruise for several days, either to face or shoulder, from the weapon’s recoil.

And this coming approximately a year after I had shoulder surgery, followed by several months of rehabilitation. I’d prefer one of the byproducts of my adventure not be a second operation.

I’d also brought along my daughter Lucy. Lucy fancies herself something of a latter day Annie Oakley – as much for the sharpshooter’s “Anything you can do, I can do better” ethos as for her aim.

But Lucy looked nervous, too, as she stepped up to the shooting stand.

Fortunately, we had nothing to fear. Mr. Sims and his companions couldn’t have been more encouraging, generous or patient with us as we blasted away, initially hitting nothing.

In my mind’s eye, shooting clays involved walking through fields of high grass and aiming at birds, or bird-like objects, flushed by loyal and well-trained Labrador retrievers.

But that’s an altogether different sport – I think it’s called bird hunting — though one shooting clays can help to hone your skills.

The action at Orvis Sandanona was more about moving from one station to the next, some no more than a few dozen feet apart. Each featured slightly different terrain – a field, a stream, a gulch – and a trapper (that’s the guide that travels with you, offering shooting tips) who releases the clays when you shout “Pull!”

And the clays presented themselves slightly differently from station to station. They might come from different directions, fly above or below you, be released singly or in pairs, and in one case rolled along the ground simulating the movement of a rabbit.

I’ve heard clay shooting described as playing golf with a shotgun. But it felt more like mini golf where you face different features and obstacles in a confined space.

I wasn’t very good. But my hitting percentages improved when someone asked me my favorite sport and then compared blasting the clay to striking a tennis ball with a racquet.

You don’t wait until the ball is on top of you to judge its speed and distance. You follow it from the instant it leaves your opponent’s racquet. Approaching it that way, better prepares you to hit the target.

Lucy also improved over the course of the morning. It took place against grey skies, as well as good-natured ribbing among Mr. Sims and his friends, all of whom were excellent shots.

There was also much learned discussion about the beauty and virtues of various guns.

In the end, I wouldn’t quite call the experience bucolic, even though the grounds and Orvis’s lodge are rustically handsome.

But the ultimate purpose of such adventures is typically to give friends an excuse to hang out and to share an excellent lunch and beverages afterwards. Which is exactly what we did.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.


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