Like colored currents of air through a wind tunnel in an aerodynamics lab, the gray smoke wound its way up and out of the bottom barrel of my over-under shotgun. I watched as the wafting darkness gave way to the shimmering green and yellow colors of the first dandelions of the season reflecting up the smooth side of the cylinder from the sun-drenched grass of the trap house at the local gun club.
My numbers for each round rose like the slow-climbing smoke as I broke in a recommended Improved Modified choke on the little hunting gun that has quickly become my companion of choice in the field. From 11, to 16, to 19 the rust shook loose from my swing and the pattern of lean, look and launch with the shout of “Pull!” began to feel familiar again after my first three rounds of the season.
With the tighter pattern, the clays could get out a little farther, but after a long winter off it took some time to figure that out with no recent rounds to compare the season’s first trio to. Additionally, recalling cheek position on the stock and getting comfortable with a new shooting vest explained the less-than-stellar tally of Xs and Os on the scoresheet and the time it took to relearn the routine which seemed so automatic by the end of last summer. But with each snap of the little 20 gauge, it became more familiar, like shaking hands with an old friend and then falling back into a pattern of hanging out again.
It was a routine I had watched become re-established over the past three weeks, as the local high school kids made the same climb through the pre-season shoots as part of the state’s high school clay target league. Some shot for the first time this season and others, who had taken advantage of the mild winter, were logging well over their hundredth rounds of the year. Some were trying out new shotguns, and others, like me, were experimenting with new chokes, while novices took to the range for their first taste of competitive trapshooting. No matter where they were in the experience scale, they all were making the climb as the team average went up each week heading into league competition which starts in just a few days.
As many of them set their pre-season averages at 20 or better in the first three weeks of the new season, there was little I could do to improve on what they were doing, as I leave the fine-tuning of each participant’s form and mechanics to the experts on our team of volunteer coaches who have far more rounds, years, competitions and championships under their belts than me. Instead, it is my role to serve as cheerleader, psychologist and mentor and help keep that positive mental attitude in each participant, even through the stretches of misses – or for many of them just a couple unbusted birds – which can get them off track. After all, that’s what it took for me – along with the same guidance from the very same coaches – to stick with it, no matter how many single-digit rounds I logged in seasons past.
In those moments where a shooter’s roll is slowed by a few off-target shots, a suddenly-absent follow-through, or some of the harder-to-hit clays coming in a row, frustration can set in quickly. I know because I’ve been there, but the easiest thing to do is take a step back, put the last clay in the past, and focus on what comes next, one clay at a time.
After a particularly unsuccessful start to my final round on Saturday morning, I thought back to a new shooter who had been on a solid hot streak, but was derailed by three straight misses and wore his frustration on his sleeve. I gave him the ultimate words of wisdom which I have to share in most cases with young shooters who are (or soon will be) far better than me:
“Deep breath, put those behind you; focus on what you need to do to get the next one,” I said loud enough so we could both hear through our foam earplugs before he lined up and crushed the next clay into a black powder, and take out eight of his final nine birds.
With that moment in mind, I focused on each remaining target in my last tune-up round, ultimately going 19 for my next 22. For the three I missed on those stations, I knew exactly where I was off and how to correct what cost me each lost bird. Whether it was form or follow-through, I was able to adjust and figure out the bigger picture by taking it one clay at a time…in our outdoors.