Sporting Clays Prove Real Test for Top Guns


Written by Bob Brister

Houston Chronicle
Sunday, May 24, 1987

Bob Brister
Outdoors Editor

Sporting Clays is the hunter’s game that’s supposed to simulate the great variety of angles, speeds, and distances of game-bird shooting.

Some competitors in the U.S. Sporting Clays Championship here today are wryly suggesting that a few “birds” at Highland Bend Shooting Grounds may be even just a mite over-simulated.  Any real duck flying as high and as fast as the 120 mph clay targets launched from a 126-foot “duck tower” might suffer wing shear or nosebleed before he got into range.

But it’s all in good fun, and that’s how the majority of the shooters from 23 states, England, Canada, and Jamaica are taking their hits and misses on a course famous for its surprises and change-of-pace targets that range from sizzlers to fluffers, some of the later looking easy as little orange pies and getting missed for much the same reason a good fastball hitter may trip over his own feet on a changeup.

This is the U.S. Sporting Clays Championship, with $10,000 in cash and merchandise prizes including six Ruger over-under shotguns equipped with Briley interchangeable chokes.  Sturm Ruger Inc. is principal sponsor and other supporters are Federal, Winchester, and Estate Cartridge companies and Briley Mfg. Co. Today is the final 40 targets of 100 and will take until about 4 p.m. mainly because, as in the game of shooting, contestants have to walk from one test to the next, each offering a different set of difficulties.

Some of the shooters have never even shot Sporting Clays before, others are among the best in the world, and the one common trait they share is good sportsmanship.  Because if you can’t take missing a few shots in stride, you don’t last long at “Sporting.”  So far in the United States, nobody has ever hit them all in a 100-bird Sporting championship.  And nobody will in this one.  There are more zeroes flying around Fulshear, this weekend than in any shoot since World War II.

Leading the pack after the first 60 targets Saturday is the smooth-swinging Englishman named Martin Reynolds who has definitely done this game before (it started in England about 1927) and who crisply smoked a 55 X 60.  But just two targets behind him is Gale Davis, a friendly quail hunter from Albany, Ga., who is brand new to the game, just shooting them he says, the same way he shoots birds.  Today’s course, some of it in fairly dense woods, may be more like quail shooting than the targets Davis had to handle Saturday and he is definitely a contender for the championship.

In the third spot with 48 targets is defending U.S. champion, Jim Juhl, of Katy who is not out of this yet, either.  He can hit many of these targets from the hip.

Since shooters who can smash one type of bird often falter on another, anything can happen today because it is a brand-new series of tests.

The English shooters who have dealt with tricky targets such as the “springing teal’ and “rabbits” (the latter roll across the ground appearing briefly in an opening) have a definite advantage over some of the Americans who’ve never seen such things before.  But this is truly the U.S. Open Championship, open to the shooter who fires the top score, and it is interesting to see how closely some of the American shooters are hanging in there on sheer game-shooting experience.

It is also interesting to see that even the greatest of shooters can get into trouble in a hurry, just as a moment’s broken concentration can put a pro golfer into a deep sand trap.  And like golf courses, Sporting Clays courses all have their little quirks and optical illusions.

For example, A.J. “Smoker” Smith of England is among the best in the world, has won championships all over Europe, and in practice Friday amazed onlookers by almost casually smashing targets off the “Big Ben” tower like so many black aspirin tablets.  But today, A.J. is down in the ranks of comeback hopefuls with a 47.

“I got a bit careless, and you just can’t do that in this game,” Smoker told me Saturday, perspiring in the unaccustomed Houston humidity.  “By English standards this is really not too difficult a course. But it has some slow targets we rarely see in the U.K. and any target can be missed if you don’t mind what you’re doing.  It’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm here, you have some great natural shooters and you’re just seeing the start of the spread of this game in America.”

One of the things we’re seeing is tight competition developing within various class levels, one reason being tht the winner of each class in this shoot receives a beautiful Ruger over-under shotgun equipped with Briley interchangeable chokes.  In Class B, Graham Hamilton of Cuero made a strong comeback to hit 44, a one-target lead over Gil Ash of Houston and Mike Jordon of Moro, Ill.  Al Klomparens of Houston has 42.  In Class C, Ron Hill of Austin has 39 followed by Mark Brownlee of Columbia, Mo, with 35 and Tim Brown and Rick Hinton of Houston with 34s.  Young Mark Mullins of Houston is the only former U.S. champion leading his class; he smashed 42 to open a comfortable lead over Bray Vincent of Houston at 30. NS Fil Stroube of Corsicana with 20.

In the women’s division Sandi Nail of Houston is in the lead with 39 followed by Vicki Ash of Houston with 32 and Katherine Sumpter of Needham, Mass with 31.

Just to sort of get the feel of what this is all about, here are some typical tests of this championship.

Imagine you’re duck shooting and a teal with a blue norther behind him comes over about 45 yards high with wings splitting the sky. There are trees on both sides and you have time to make just one upward swing, bending backward to keep the barrel coming and pull away, way out in front and touch the trigger.  That’s what they call “High Duck,” the one that comes off a 126-foot tower doing better than 120 mph and is just cruising at canvasback warp speed when it passes over the shooter.

Defending U.S. Sporting Clays Champion Jim Juhl of Katy, left, coaches his young teammate Mark Mullins, defending U.S. Junior Champion and a member of the U.S. team that will compete at the Beretta World Sporting Clays Championship in England next week. Others on the USSCA team are Gil Ash, Andy Banks, and Cyril Adams.

Nobody hit all of those Saturday, and today it will be an entirely different test with the trap lowered to a different launch position and shooting positions changed.  Nobody other than the shoot director knows exactly how any of the stations will be set up until shooting starts at 9 a.m.

But it was common talk around the grounds Saturday that today we’ll see some new woods and a couple of simulated “springing teal” that go almost straight up, and probably some tiny little “mini” targets about half normal size simulating snipe over the treetops, and a big rabbit target that rolls on its side like a slice out of a bowling ball and is every bit as easy to break.  I’m not giving away any secrets here, since I don’t know any actually, and because all shooters have a chance to watch the preceding shooters “give it a go” as the English say.

It is the difficulty, the fact that everybody misses, and the tremendous improvement that can be made in one’s game shooting that has made this sport the world’s fastest shotgun game.

Since the U.S. version of Sporting Clays kicked off at this same grounds in 1985, it has spread nationwide.  Bob Davis of Houston, president of the U.S. Sporting Clays Association, estimates that about 200 new ranges are currently under construction.

The international (FITASC) version is going great guns in Europe, and in England the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association is gaining between 100 and 200 new shooters a week. And that comes straight from a couple of honored English guests at this shoot, James Green chairman of the (British) CPSA, and Brian Hammond, development officer.

“Sporting has grown tremendously the past six years,” Green said.  “It hasn’t taken shooters away from trap or skeet, in fact seems to be adding shooters to those disciplines from the ranks of game shooters.”  If you’d like to see what it’s all about-there’s no admission fee-take Westheimer Road to Fulshear, turn left (south) across from Womack’s Café, and follow the Highland Bend signs.  Competition ends at 4 p.m., tiebreaker shoot-offs thereafter.

The ultimate winners will be game birds taken more cleanly, with fewer cripples, next fall.


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