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Golf, with shotguns

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MERLIN — Mark Aker leans into his shotgun just as a bird zips away from him through the top of a madrone while a second darts out of the brush not 8 feet off the ground.

Aker swings toward one and fires a single shot that melts the bird in the air, then drops the second before it can escape into the trees.

“Ah, a true pair,” pipes in friend Jim Barfield.

Aker and Barfield leave the orange carcasses in the field and head off to the next station knowing full well that no animals were harmed in the making of this moment.

This is sporting clays, a sort of hunting-without-hunting exercise that swaps out pigeon feathers for clay discs to simulate real in-the-field shooting opportunities.

It’s like a virtual reality game, only with real guns, shells and orange targets that require no attention once they’re shot.

“It’s like bird hunting, but you don’t have to pluck the bird,” laughs Barfield. “You can boil them for an hour, but you still can’t eat them.”

Barfield and Aker are members of the Rogue Valley Sporting Clays club at the Josephine County Sportsman Association’s Sportsman Park range outside of Merlin, one of the top such courses on the West Coast and host of several shooting events over the past few years, including this year’s Oregon State Sporting Clays Championship.

But most days it generates regular interest from shotgunners who find sporting clays somewhat akin to golf with guns.

Courses typically have 14 to 16 stations — this range has 15 — that offer multiple shooting opportunities. Clay pigeons are thrown from stations ranging from on the ground to high up in towers and even rolled on the ground to simulate shooting rabbits.

Shooters fire six shots per station, two at a time, then move on to the next station. Most use modified baby buggies to transport their shotguns and shells between stations as if they were golf club bags.

And like groundskeepers changing hole locations on golfing greens, course managers change the locations and angles of various stations so the clay pigeons fly a bit differently each week.

“It’s always a surprise,” Barfield says. “They’ll set them up for a week, then change them.”

That’s different from trap and skeet shooting, which have targets flying from specific stations at fixed angles.

The association’s sporting clays range is set in the scrub oak and madrone forest typical of these parts of Josephine County, so it’s as close to the real thing as you can get, but with clay.

And the atmosphere is vastly different on an average day at this range compared to tense shooting championships.

“We like to shoot birds, but we don’t keep score,” says Chris Schantz, a club member and regular shooter. “We just want to have fun, enjoy it and learn. If we didn’t treat it this way, we’d become different people.”

Sporting clays traces its roots to England. It’s a way for hunters to tune up before the hunting season and provides a chance to shoot year-round.

Sporting clays is distinctly different from target shooting with rifles or pistols, right down to how to aim.

“With a rifle or a pistol, you usually do a hard focus on the front site,” Schantz says. “With a shotgun, you do a hard focus, if you can manage it, on the lead edge of the bird and you leave the barrel in your peripheral vision.”

The Rogue Valley Sporting Clays is one of 11 clubs shooting at various indoor and outdoor ranges at the Sportsman Park, which sprawls over 320 acres and is home to 30 RV spaces with electrical hookups.

Association members pay $25 for 110 birds, $30 for nonmembers. The course is open Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays in winter but seven days a week in summer.

The trap machines are operated electronically and include a delay so shooters can work the course alone. Otherwise, shooters take turns launching birds on command for each other.

Barfield, who is the sporting clay’s club director at large, no longer hunts.

“I’ve lost that urge,” says Barfield, 68. “Not even bird hunting.”

But he typically shoots the sporting clays twice a week.

“We have so much fun laughing at each other, sometimes so hard we can’t even shoot,” Barfield says. “I love that. And the walk in the woods is always beautiful, and every station is a surprise.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Jack Jones, left, shoots at the sporting clays range at the Josephine County Sportsman’s Association.
120519 MT OO Shooting Clays in Grant's PassThumbnail