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Reynolds Lake Oconee

Sports

American Hot Shots

Sporting clays courses across the country are one-upping each other with more stations, new technology, and more interesting surrounds to enhance the game and better trick your instincts into thinking you’re taking aim at the real thing.
SHAUN TOLSON

SOUTHERN SALUTE


To construct its Sandy Creek Sporting Grounds, Georgia’s Reynolds Lake Oconee sought the council of Justin Jones, an industry veteran who cut his teeth at age 19 managing the shooting school at Gleneagles Resort in Scotland. He’s since managed and/or designed shooting facilities at Georgia’s Sea Island Resort and The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Now with 800 acres at his disposal, Jones created a facility for shooters of every ability level. A covered five stand—luxuriously appointed with a fireplace, ceiling fans, and a viewing gallery—serves as a comforting venue of introduction; while a sprawling, 20-station sporting clays course features uniquely staged shooting areas. Station number nine, for example, is made of stone and grass and is affectionately called “the bunker.” The course’s signature station, number 15, includes a water feature and a water-skipping target (nicknamed “the flying fish”). When shooters fire at that target they’ll see the stream of pellets from their shotgun cartridge ripple the water’s surface. “They see that spread as it hits the water,” Jones says of novice shooters, “and it helps them to understand what’s coming out of the gun.” The mile-long, circular course and its affiliated customized shooting carts serve as the facility’s attempt to mimic the experience of playing a round of golf. Each station, equipped with three throwing machines, offers different challenges, and much like individual holes on a golf course, some stations are harder than others. “Not many courses can claim to have 60 machines on a 20-station course,” says Jones. “It allows us to throw a novice, intermediate, and advanced target on all 20 stations.” reynoldslakeoconee.com

LOW COUNTRY HIGHS


The shooting club at Montage Palmetto Bluff meanders through some 40 acres of Low Country terrain punctuated by majestic Southern live oaks. The maritime forest of Palmetto Bluff makes a memorable backdrop for resort guests learning the basics of shooting clays. Bart Chandler, the club’s manager, equates playing the course (13 stations; US-style layout) to playing golf with a shotgun. “A round is 100 targets,” he explains, “and you go from hole to hole, or stand to stand, and shoot a series of targets [accumulating points with each successful hit].”


Soon, the club will unveil a second course, built to international sporting clays standards, which includes FITASC shooting grounds. When complete, the club will be able to offer both a suitably challenging circuit to its more than 150 members and a less-intimidating environment for the many Montage guests who visit the club having never held a shotgun. “A lot of people walk in here with big eyes and hands shaking, but they walk out with the biggest smiles,” says Chandler. “A lot of barriers get broken, and most of them were just in their minds. They leave here with a totally different attitude about shotgun sports.” montagehotels.com

THE GREAT WIDE WEST


The 37,000 acres of ranchland and wilderness at Paws Up, a sprawling mountain resort in western Montana, delivers the feeling of having your own national park. Grassy plains and rolling hills are dotted with ponderosa pines and cottonwoods; the shooting club is set on the periphery of that valley, and spreads out over land that transitions up into the low mountains, “which are snow-capped, even in July,” says Caleb Melzer-Roush, the resort’s lead sporting clays instructor. The facility features an all-season five stand, as well as a 10-station walking course that is open from late spring to early fall. On the walking course loop, which is about .75 miles long, throwers launch different-sized clays to represent different bird species. Choose a guided tour to try the course with a shooting club instructor, who can provide constructive criticism after every shot. “Even experienced shooters appreciate that second set of eyes,” Melzer-Roush acknowledges. For the majority of participants—resort guests with minimal (if any) shotgun experience—expert guidance is necessary. “When people come to Montana,” he says, “everyone wants to shoot a gun, ride a horse, and catch a fish. I’ve been here almost six years and I’ve seen every guest who tries this hit at least one clay by the end of the day.” pawsup.com

ROCKY MOUNTAIN MAJESTY


New Mexico’s Vermejo covers 558,000 acres in the southern Rocky Mountains. One of three Ted Turner Reserves, the resort centers on connecting visitors with nature; its 10-station, mile-long sporting clays course traverses a dramatic canyon, home to elk, bison, and wild turkeys. “It’s a spectacular, private, exclusive environment,” says Managing Director Jade McBride, “and you feel like you have the whole place to yourself.” The shooting facility’s staging area is home to a five stand, as well as a wobble deck that releases clays at random so the shooter, positioned above, doesn’t know in which direction or how clays will fly. According to McBride, the technology really simulates the challenge of flushing a bird from its roost on a driven hunt. tedturnerreserves.com

OUT OF THE OZARKS


Opened to the public in 2018, the Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy at Missouri’s massive Big Cedar Lodge covers 920 acres and features two five-stand areas, a wobble deck, traditional skeet and trap courses, and a 13-station sporting clays course, the latter of which challenges shooters with 26 different target presentations in three distinct hunting environments. “Some targets are thrown in and among the trees,” says Assistant Manager Landry Weston. “Some are thrown almost as if you’re on a prairie. And others are thrown from the side of a hill that brings the mountain background into play.” Set atop an expansive ridgeline, the academy looks onto far-reaching panoramic vistas. “When you’re at your station and looking out in 180 degrees, you can see mountains in northwest Arkansas and Table Rock Lake,” Weston says. He’s quick to acknowledge that those views elevate the academy’s trap and skeet course too. bigcedar.com

PRIM TERRITORY


Primland Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia is best known for its championship-caliber golf course and stellar hunting opportunities during the fall, winter, and spring. But long before the golf course was built—even before the resort existed—the site housed an Orvis-endorsed wingshooting lodge and one of the country’s first sporting clays courses, which visitors who rented local mountain homes used to hone their skills before a hunt. Today, the 14-station course, which covers about a mile of ground, offers a series of divergent shots and distinctive environments for shooters to test their marksmanship. One station might imitate a driven pheasant shot, while another features “rabbits,” which are larger clays thrown at ground level so they roll quickly just above the terrain. “We went in to make our course feel more like a hunt in the woods,” explains Steve Helms, the resort’s vice president. “[At one station] there’s firewood stacked around you, so you’re shooting from behind a wood pile. [At another] you’re shooting from a hole, and there is a couple in the field where you come upon an old wooden rail fence. We’ve tried to make it feel as natural as possible.”

NEW ENGLAND JOURNEY


Once a members-only shooting club, Rhode Island’s Preserve Sporting Club & Residences has opened its gates to the public, expanding its footprint to 3,500 acres; lengthening its list of outdoor activities; building out its portfolio of suites, cottages, and standalone homes; and benefiting from governance by Ocean House Management. Conceptualized by Paul Mihailides, a real estate developer who grew up hunting and also shooting clays, the Preserve is home to a sporting clays course defined by more than 150 elevation changes and 19 shooting stations, each one equipped with six throwers. That isn’t overkill; instead, the multitude of throwers allows the course to easily adapt to any shooter’s skill level. The property also features a 12-station compact clays course, where manicured shooting stations are strategically placed among tall-grass fields. Yet, the crown jewel is the 10-station five stand, a regal covered and heated shooting stand that resembles a rustic hunting lodge and operates year-round, challenging shooters with more than 300 target presentations. The club’s affiliation with Ocean House Management has created a reciprocity program with the nearby Ocean House resort, allowing beachgoers a day trip to shoot clays (and vice versa). The club’s two private helipads enhance its accessibility for outdoors enthusiasts commuting from New York City and Boston. preservesportingclub.com

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