By DAVE REESE
The sound of shotgun fire pops continuously under the fluorescent glow of lights at the Flathead Valley Clay Target Club.
Dozens of shotgun shooters line up along a line in the snow and shout “Pull!” — a command that sends bright orange clay pigeons flushing into the black night sky.
Some of the targets break on impact from the shots, while others float gently back to the ground, safe from a missed shot.
They gather in a pile of orange bones atop the snow about 50 yards from the shooters. Spent shells lie scattered in the snow.
For 26 years, shotgunners have gathered on Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Flathead Valley Clay Target Club north of Kalispell for their weekly trap league. Eighty teams of six people each (mostly men) gather to compete against each other in snow or brittle cold in the nation’s largest winter trap league. Each shooter gets 50 clay pigeon targets at two different distances.
Shooters, in teams of six, are handicapped similar to bowling or golf. The best shooters compete against the best shooters, and the beginners go up against those of similar ability. All shooters shoot at their first 25 targets from 16 yards, then they drop back to varying distances, depending on their handicap classification. The best shooters, those in the AAA division, shoot from 27 yards.
With 480 shooters competing two nights a week, “it’s like putting on a state meet every week,” Rick Craig, a board member of the clay target club and a top-notch shooter, said
Last Wednesday night, under a clear, starry sky, shooters stomped their feet in the squeaky snow to keep warm, as the night brought temperatures of 10 degrees below-zero.
The trap operator sits on a tall stool behind the lineup of shooters. Using a remote control the operator lets the clay pigeons fly when the shooter commands “Pull!” Each shooter has his own distinct method of barking this command. Some men utter the command nearly under their breaths, while other shooters give it a hearty “PULL!” or “GO!” Watching the shooters you quickly get an idea of who is good and who is well, just learning. The best shooters lean slightly forward, weight on their front foot. With these shooters, the shotgun barely moves as the buckshot is sent along its scattered path toward the flying target. Out of 50 targets, the best shooters miss only one or two targets a night. Other, less talented shooters, might miss half theirs on a given night of competition. Their frustration is often vocalized.
Craig’s team, one of the top in the league, has hit 1,168 out 1200 birds so far.
The league brings out shooters of all abilities. Some shooters show up with $12,000 Krieghoff guns, precision guns made in Germany, while others carry guns that look as if they’ve been hanging in the gun rack in their truck since bird season last fall.
“There really is a wide array of talent,” says Craig. The league has attracted the attention of the well-heeled folks from out of town. “We have a very diverse crowd. It’s not just hunters.”
The expensive shotguns are sleek, with chrome ribs and delicate triggers that release with almost a breath of air. The more expensive guns cost more because of the quality of wood used in the stocks, and for their trigger technology. Better guns have faster lock times, which correlates to how fast a shot is fired after the trigger is pulled. While the difference may seem nominal to a novice shooter, “It’s extremely noticeable,” said Craig, who shoots more than 20,000 targets a year. “The shot hits the target before your finger even hits the back of the trigger guard.”
Craig’s team, sponsored by the Bulldog Pub and Steakhouse, has over $50,000 invested in their guns, Craig said. “But a lot of teams are shooting $200 Wingmasters that they’ve had for 20 years.”
There is a feeling of camaraderie at the league, but as with most gatherings of competitive human males, there is also an underlying tension.
After their rounds, the shooters retire to the adjacent clubhouse for a bit of food, fun and male bonding. Some teams gather at their long table for a game of cards, while others watch the scores being put up on the large white scoreboard and talk about those things that guys do when they gather away from their domestic lives. Burgers sizzle on the grill and there is an overall feeling of celebration.
The winter trap league was formed in 1980, and is a strong institution in the Flathead Valley. The league is just one component of the clay target club, which purchased 40 acres west of the Flathead County landfill in 1976.
Children’s shooting leagues, associated with Pheasants Forever, are offered and will begin March 4 for 10 weeks. A spring trap league for adults begins the third week in April. There is also an indoor rifle range. The club is run entirely by volunteers. In the winter trap league, teams pay $150 each, plus a $150 fee from a sponsor. It costs $9 to shoot each night per shooter. “It’s pretty cheap entertainment,” Craig said.
All of the money that’s paid by the teams goes into awards. In fact, the league spends $12,000 year just for trophies, Craig said. While the winter league fills up quickly and is limited to 80 teams, new teams can get in when the call is put out for teams each fall. “We end up turning away a few teams,” said Cory Izett, a board member of the club and member of the Mountain Trader trap team.
The league is now in its eighth week of its 14-week season. That means for several more weeks this year, you’ll be able to see the white glow of lights on Wednesday and Thursday nights just west of U.S. 93 behind the county landfill.
Roll down your windows and listen for the sound. You’ll hear the pop of gunfire and perhaps the occasional “Pull!”