Sporting a camouflage cap and a Miami Dolphins sweatshirt, which keeps him warm on this chilly Saturday morning, Tobin is taking in a round of sporting clays with three other shooters. Their aim: blast away at the flying saucer-shaped targets launched from various spots on the wooded course. The "traps," hidden from view, fling the clays in various ways: "Bunnies" scoot along the ground, and "birds" fly left to right, right to left, or in a wide arc through the air.
This simulated hunting setup, which calls for keen eyesight and quick reflexes, is very popular among the target-shooting crowd. Part of the attraction is the illusion created on the courses. Barbed wire fences are posted with "No Hunting" signs, for example, and wooden cutouts are painted and shaped to look like hunting dogs. When those "birds" fly, you may as well be aiming at the real thing.
Tobin confirms just how nonviolent the sport is as he carries his 12-gauge Beretta 682 shotgun over his shoulder. Per safety rules, which demand that guns be loaded immediately before shooting, the shotgun's breach is open, revealing two empty barrels. Suddenly Tobin thrusts the gun into my hands and gives instructions on how to shoot the fluorescent orange, five-inch-wide targets.
"Don't think of it as aiming," he advises, putting bullets in the barrels. "Just point your finger down the barrel, and point at your target."
Easy enough. When the "bunnies" come hopping out of the underbrush, I track them across a clearing, point, and shoot -- way too late. But I'm starting to get the feel of it.
Luckily Tobin and his fellow shooters are patient men. They offer the use of their guns, an endless supply of shotgun shells, and plenty of encouraging advice as we wind our way along the mile-long course. I'm also lucky I didn't have to pay $27.50, the admission fee for the two-hour trek, and that I'm not on the scorecard. Among the twelve stations along the wood-chip trail, shooters are allowed a total of 100 shots. Each time a shooter hits a target, he scores one point. Tobin and the others -- James Knox, Peter Forrest, and George Martin -- are trying to top their best scores. (In monthly tournaments the shooter with the top score takes home a trophy.) The group's referee, who keeps score and enforces the rules, is Dave Kirwan.
Shotguns are not semiautomatics, so after the first two shots, I crack open the gun to reload. Smoke pours from the barrels, its sulfur smell filling my nostrils. I pop in two more shells and raise the gun to my shoulder. "Pull!" I yell, and trapper Gerard Geick, hidden in the woods, lets loose the clays. I spot the orange flashes, point, and pull the trigger. Blam! One of the two clays disintegrates a split second after the earplug-muffled explosion of the shot. Finally I've hit something.
"We got Pe-e-e-ter, and Adam on deck," Kirwan shouts, to keep the group moving. Forrest takes aim and calmly blows away more than half of his eight targets, which are released two at a time. After Tobin shoots even better than Forrest, we thread our way through a stand of Australian pines overlooking a marsh. Each station looks like a backyard deck, complete with railings. Some of the stations lie along the marsh, others face shallow ravines and clearings, places where real-life bunnies and birds might appear.
"You've got to make these courses realistic," says Kirwan, who's been a referee at the course since it opened three years ago.
Sporting clays has been around for decades. The sport originated in Europe, where it served as hunting practice. But in the '80s, soon after it was imported to the U.S., it was seen more as sport than practice. Today the National Sporting Clays Association estimates that there are about 300,000 sporting clay enthusiasts in the U.S.
Like Tobin, Knox prefers the competition and camaraderie of sporting clays to real-life hunting. They also like to walk the course, rather than ride in the golf cart driven by Kirwan. Tobin, in fact, uses a golf pull-cart that's been modified to carry guns. As he and Knox walk, they jaw about the last set of shots and their equipment. They may as well be on a golf course.
As someone who used to play golf, Knox can appreciate the comparison. For him shooting clays is a lot like playing eighteen holes. "You hit that last good shot," he says, "and it makes you want to come back out."
-- John Ferri
The sporting clays course at Markham Park (16001 W. State Rd. 84, Sunrise) is open every weekend, and reservations are required. Groups of up to five people go out every hour from9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Shooters must provide their own guns. The next National Sporting Clays Association sanctioned tournament takes place March 29. Call 954-389-2005.