KEVIN TATE: Targets on the fly touch a mystical instinct for shooters

By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer

As small children, we emulate the people we look up to, follow their actions and aspire to someday do what they do well, then earn their praise through our own similar success. Hopefully, if the people we’re following are already on a rewarding path, we’ll collect some treasures of our own along the way.
My earliest hunting memories come from the dove fields, wingshooting social events, one of the few times when outdoorsmen perform in front of a crowd. The best shooters stood out and I wanted to be one of those, of course, but there was always something more to the story.
It wasn’t long before I picked up the bird hunting tales of Gene Hill, Robert Ruark and others, and the indefinable part of wingshooting’s attraction was a common thread in what they wrote.
There’s an adage about sports literature that says the smaller the ball, the better the writing, presumably because stories about golf depend more on the reporter’s flair to communicate the heroics of the actors, whose struggle is internal and perceived rather than external and demonstrated.
I think much the same holds true in the outdoors, both in writing and in first-person experience, because the pursuit of small winged critters creates a different kind of expectant tension. There aren’t many compound fractures on the golf course and no one was ever trampled to death by a quail, but the stories compel us because they’re based on the private failures that place us all on common ground.
The mechanics of golf, and of wingshooting, can be neatly summed in a sentence or two, but we pursue them for a lifetime, only occasionally touching perfection.
The grey, migratory birds that stand a challenging target and acquit themselves so well in the frying pan connect us with the greater circle of life in their own way, and by hunting them honorably and using the resulting provender we ground ourselves in the grand scheme of things, but the magic of the shotgun swing connects it all in a way that refuses to be described.
A shooter spies his flying target, brings the gun to his shoulder and the comb of the stock to his cheek, swings from behind the crossing bird, past and through, shooting when the lead is right.
How does he know when it’s right? He doesn’t know so much as feel. Like a center fielder gloving a high, fly ball, closing his hand at just the right instant, if he waits to see the moment, it will pass before he can act. It can’t be seen, but only felt, then remembered after the fact.
Since it can’t be taught, practice sessions set up by mentors really only facilitate the magic’s discovery, which is what makes passing these lessons on all the more special.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.