Going Live: A Gal’s First Fire At World-Class Sporting Clays
I was flying down Highway 62, so focused on not missing my turn that I almost missed the indigo hues streaking across the horizon. The flat roads of Albany, Ga., framed by towering pines and rows of green farmland, formed a vignette for a vibrant sunset.
After an approximate three-and-a-half hour drive from Atlanta, I made a left turn at the Wynfield Plantation entrance, passing the 2005 “Orvis Wingshooting Lodge of the Year” sign and was met by an equally satisfying sound of gravel beneath my car’s tires. In the distance, dogs barked eagerly.
For those familiar with our state’s grand reputation for quail, those sights and sounds trigger memories that surpass any specific place — they signify a lifestyle. As for me, having only heard stories of what happens beyond the brambles, shrubs, meadows and woody draws, it signaled the start of an unforgettable and undeniably Georgian experience.
While Wynfield’s 2,000 acres do not constitute the largest plantation in Albany, it is one of only a few that is open to the public and provides the modern conveniences necessary for a quintessential hunt. For beginner and seasoned shooters alike, this list includes veteran guides, hard-charging bird dogs, classic shotguns, fully equipped Jeeps and perhaps most surprisingly, well-appointed cabins that can sleep up to 14 people as well as a handsome lodge that serves gourmet meals.
The morning following my arrival, I enjoyed a peaceful cup of coffee and a plate of eggs Benedict for breakfast in the lodge’s near-empty dining hall – a rare sight during much of the year. Each hunting season, from the beginning of October through the end of March, the cabins and lodge remain steadily busy with those that grew up around this tradition as well as those that are curious enough to enter its world. Just hearing the rave reviews of the chef’s three preparations of quail, one with Tabasco, one with glazed peaches and another wrapped in bacon might do the trick for some. Others come to see the well-trained bird dogs do their thing (Wynfield has close to 80 on property), while others come to rub elbows with the country’s elite business class that arrive at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport by private planes to participate in the cherished pastime.
Regardless of what pulls you in and when, Wynfield’s sporting clays has its own appeal. Not restricted to a season, the clay target shooting gives loyalists a way to practice their aim year-round – and gives novices a chance to learn the basics, which is how I found myself staring down the barrel of a 20-gauge shotgun.
After a cautiously thorough review of safety procedures and a pair of earplugs, I felt adrenaline, but no fear, as I followed instructions, placing one hand at a time on the gun. The nervous excitement of challenging myself to try something new rivaled the sensation previously felt on a zip-line platform before stepping off, a ski lift above a beginner’s slope, a yoga mat before lifting my lower body into a headstand or a raft ripping across roaring rapids. And just like those adventures, each with its own serious safety precautions, this sport easily appeals to a variety of ages, with participants starting as early as 10 years old.
Actually, a sporting clays course is often compared to golf. Although terms like “clays,” “trap” and “skeet” shooting are seemingly used interchangeably, I was quickly corrected that these are three distinct disciplines. A quick rundown: trap refers to targets launched from a single “house” or machine, generally away from the shooter whereas skeet refers to targets launched from two “houses” in sideways paths that intersect in front of the shooter. No matter where you are in the world, trap and skeet are set up the same way.
Sporting clays involve a more complex course with many launch points. Wynfield’s course isn’t only unique from other plantations, but also can be changed frequently, particularly from competition to competition. At each station, the shooter has a chance to see the clay pigeon’s path of flight before, on his or her call of “Pull!”, taking the allotted number of chances to point and fire.
Before too long, my group was getting the hang of the hand-eye coordination, and so followed the high-fives, tallied counts of consecutive hits and sore shoulders. It wasn’t that I lost that sense of adrenaline, but that it was met with comfort and confidence from our guide, who drove the Jeep, released the clays and stood by our sides to refill each shell, coaching us to keep our chins in the right place, flip the safety lock before anyone went “live.” Not unlike a harness, helmet or life vest in previous outdoor adventures, he offered a sense of security. More than that, he kept us laughing with amusing antics, anecdotes insisting women had a natural knack for the sport and was the first to congratulate us with the small, neon orange Frisbee-like “pigeon” shattered to the ground.
Also similar to golf, this is a sport that can involve competition among friends, but ultimately is a repeated challenge to beat one’s personal best. Between the increasing heat of the midday summer sun in South Georgia and my increasing awareness of my need to tone some upper-arm strength, we called it a win-win when we temporarily traded shotguns for serenity. Next stop was north to Adairsville, where Barnsley Resort’s SpringBank Plantation and the hope of a cooler mountain breeze awaited.
Located one hour north of Atlanta, there are a handful of reasons Barnsley Resort should also be on any local bird hunter’s bucket list. SpringBank Plantation encompasses 1,800 acres that comprise 12 large zones, ranging from rolling hills to flat lands, dense cover grasses to large feed strips filled with sunflowers, corn and pearl top millet to create the ideal, upland quail habitat. There are picture-perfect scenics, cozy cottages recognized as part of Southern Living’s Hotel Collection, fine dining with recognition from Wine Spectator and – perhaps the rarest to come by – dedicated instructors.
An Adairsville local, Manager Lyle McClure knows the land like the back of his hand, as he cares for it as well as the dozens of dogs on property and heads the hunts for dove, quail, pheasant and turkey each season. However, before I could even consider being let loose in the fall, I scheduled further instruction with Director Skip Smith at the SpringBank Sporting Club.
Perhaps for him, shooting becomes more like riding a bike. But as I approached a shotgun for the second time in my life, I still felt the healthy dose of apprehension. Smith’s impressive accolades acquired by 30 years of teaching, his certification via the National Sporting Clays Association as a Level III instructor – one of approximately 70 in the country – and calm, steady voice giving direction reassured me that I was up for another challenge.
Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, Smith started his career with the Remington Arms Co., developing firearm designs and traveling as the chief instructor for the company’s shooting school before working with Orvis. The latter brought him to Barnsley in 2006, where he is more than qualified to teach beginner lessons, yet does so with much passion for sharing his knowledge – particularly with women and teens, who comprise the fastest growing category of the sport.
In addition to overseeing other outdoor activities for resort guests, Smith now oversees the country’s only Caesar Guerini Wings & Clay School at SpringBank Sporting Club. With this sponsorship from the leading manufacturer of Italian-made over and under shotguns and Smith’s personal approach, SpringBank has gained a reputation as a world-class shooting experience for newcomers and experts alike. Sessions are available year-round and can be held in half-day (recommended for newcomers), one- or two-day sessions to fit guests’ varying schedules and skill levels; regardless of length, each emphasizes an instinct-driven style and coaches fundamentals in a relaxed setting tailored to match each student’s pace.
With Smith’s coaching, I watched in pleasant surprise as my second and third shots were successful hits. A few tries later, thunder broke out and with safety always forefront, we ended the lesson early. Next time, I’ll be ready to try my hand at their course’s diverse layout of shots – some under a natural forest canopy or covered five-stand overlooking a larger pond, which allows for shooting in hot sun or light rain.
BR sidebarLast but far from least, there’s the backdrop of Barnsley Resort’s romantic history adding to its allure. During a stroll down the tree-lined lanes or a detour through hidden gardens leading to ruins of the original manor, the English-inspired village setting hints at its storybook origins.
Not unlike a color-streaked sunset that stops you in your tracks, a chance to shoot clays channels your focus. For first-timers, it’s a chance to step into a world utterly apart, whether for a single, memorable weekend or a stepping stone to a lifelong hobby. When the rush of adrenaline shifts to a sense of accomplishment, I could also now see the forest beyond the trees of sporting clays’ increasing popularity and its lasting appeal.
[written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photography by BARNSLEY RESORT; WYNFIELD PLANTATION | A version of this article originally appeared in Points North Atlanta magazine]