HILMAR -- The German shorthairs -- an 8-year-old mama and her 5-year-old son -- locked up on a small covey of quail. Sophie's right front leg pulled up to her chest. Shotgun's head hung low. The nub of his tail waved.
Robert Fernandes moved in, kicked, and the birds exploded up and out, low line drives 8 feet off the ground, screaming toward the confluence of the Merced and San Joaquin rivers at Rooster Ranch Wings & Clays. The Turlock contractor landed two northern bobwhites with his 12-gauge Browning 325. The dogs bounded out and back, birds in mouth, the tail nubs still waving.
Two hours later, the shooting was just as hot, but there were no dogs; the birds were clay. The sporting clays moved just like the bobwhites and Tennessee reds, low and high line drives stretching across the shooter's field of vision.
Sporting clays evolved out of 19th-century England, where hunters practiced marksmanship by releasing pigeons, which eventually were replaced with clay disks. From live bird to clay bird, an entire spectrum of shooting sports was born, but whereas the same targets are released time and again in trap and skeet, sporting clays aims to mimic nature's variety.
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There are quail, pheasant and grouse stations. Ducks at a distance, ducks landing, ducks taking off -- the duck stations are popular. Some shooting problems, as they are called, are entirely man-made, such as the chandelle, which can look more like the St. Louis arch than any game bird.
Fernandes spent a few hours with this reporter at Rooster Ranch on a recent afternoon hunt. Pheasants exploded from small clumps of grass, then broke 90 degrees -- straight up, then straight out. Chukars were taken that moved like the pheasants, but had paired up in the field -- they went up and then out in opposite directions. Again and again, the quail busted out in groups of twos and threes -- hard line drives, zipping away and fast.
On the sporting clays course, the closest one to Modesto, we burned more shells on clays that mirror, to some degree, those flight patterns. All told, between wings and clays, we burned about 150 shells in a few short hours.
"Fifteen, 20 years ago, (sporting clays) were designed strictly to simulate hunting," Rooster Ranch club manager Mike Tupper said. "It became so popular -- so many people got good -- they started making them more difficult. Most courses you'll find have targets that simulate ducks into a pond, or simulate quail flying away or a rabbit bouncing along the ground."
"Trapper, ready," Fernandes said.
Two line drives, low and high, rocketed out of the first station. Fernandes whacked the low target to dust with his 12-gauge Krieghoff over/under -- at 50 years old, like a classic car, the gun today could fetch close to $20,000 -- and swung the barrel up and left, toward 11 o'clock, and dusted the high target. Two "quail" whacked and nothing to clean.
Depending on the level of the shooter, the clays can be thrown one at a time or together. There's also a delay feature, so a solo shooter doesn't need a partner to press the "pull" switch. Stations are spread out and shooters walk or ride between them in golf carts. Sporting clays often is called golf with a shotgun.
Serious shooters, like Fernandes, who made it to the National Sporting Clays Association AA class, regularly change choke tubes and types of shells between stations just as a golfer would change clubs. When Fernandes competed regularly, almost 10 years ago, AA was the highest class, but since then a Masters Class has been added. Serious competitors use serious guns, but for the normal shooter, a field pump, autoloader or low-end over/under works fine.
"Most sporting shotguns or average hunting shotgun may shoot 500 rounds in the life of the gun or life of the hunter," Fernandes said. "Competition guns are sometimes shot 500 rounds a day."
Serious shooters come in all ages.
Louie Tavares Jr., 11, an Elim Elementary School student from Hilmar, regularly puts a hurt on the adults. His father, Louis Tavares, handled the dogs, Sophie and Shotgun, on our morning hunt. It's not uncommon for him to run five dogs on 70 or 80 birds on a weekend at Rooster Ranch.
"He knew his birds and hunting seasons before he knew the alphabet," father said of son, telling the boy: "Show this gentleman how you shoot."
Louie shouldered a Weatherby Orion while his father pulled skeet just for fun. He had spent the early afternoon on the sporting clays course.
In skeet, shooters hit high and low targets from five positions, much like trap. Louie smacked all of them. He often shoots 25 out of 25.
"It's fun. Kind of easy, but hard all the same," Louie said. "I know I'm too fast on the bird. I want to get them early, but I can't always, so I have to slow down."
You have to be fast on the "springing teal." Duck hunters know when a flock of teal come in; after that first shot, the whole group zips straight up as if they're riding an elevator. The springing teal station launches clay straight into the air. Getting it moving up isn't hard. Getting it falling is entirely different. Other stations mimic rabbits -- hard-edge clays bounce and roll along the ground.
No shooting discipline can mirror all the variation seen in nature, but sporting clays comes pretty close. From beginner to seasoned wingshot, it's a great way to keep sharp in the off-season.
"We didn't shoot the same target more than a few times during the day," Fernandes said after a round of clays. "Speeds, distance, flight trajectories, bouncing targets on the ground, looping targets, bottom targets, edge targets, surface targets. There was a lot of variation. Really, really nice target presentations."
As the sun set and our golf cart pulled to the clubhouse, the whole Rooster Ranch crew, some friends and regulars sat down for dinner by a campfire. Wild rabbit shot in New Mexico, pheasant and chukar from the club, sausage from a wild pig with rice -- a hunter's meal in a hunter's den.
The food, it turned out, was as good as the shooting.