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Keeping Shooting Skills Honed in the Off-Season
We require our gun dogs to stay sharp between seasons, so why not maintain our end of the bargain?
There is a decent amount of talk about training once hunting seasons end. Oftentimes, that talk turns to dogs—honing skills or learning new ones. There are also discussions about their human counterparts staying sharp, specifically with our shooting. After all, we owe it to our dogs to be able to put birds down, maximizing their opportunities for success so they can fulfill what they were bred to do.
In the same way that we expect them to perform unfailingly with their scenting and points—or quartering and flushing in my case—we ought to strive for the same in our part of the pursuit: shooting.
The importance of shooting clays in the off-season
Shooting clays is a great way to keep our skills polished in the off-season. Not only is it a great excuse to get outside, but it’s an even better excuse to buy a case of shells and clay targets and spend time with friends and family. It’s also a lot of fun.
One of the challenges, however, is that not everyone lives close to skeet, trap, or sporting clays operations. Even still, paying between $40-60 per 100-target outing might not be your speed. Decidedly, almost $400 for a clays thrower might not be in your wheelhouse either, but I would argue that having a machine at your disposal for years is a much better investment. Considering the price of a deep cycle battery (those used in cars, ATVs, lawnmowers, etc.) is somewhere around $70 and a box of clays can be had for around $7, you’re looking at around $500 to be set up. Clay targets and shells will be recurring costs, so, going in on such a thrower with family or friends may be an advantageous solution to spread out the cost.
For those of us who don’t live near any clubs that have such courses, having a thrower is a solution to an issue of practice that otherwise wouldn’t have a remedy. I use the machine with friends who supply clay birds as a contribution. One issue that may arise if you get this far is where to use the thrower. Our local sportsman’s club permits the use of throwers, but beyond that, we would have to ask permission to use someone’s field. It may be important, if that is the case, to indicate that you would be using biodegradable targets (and cleaning up all of your empty hulls).
Target-throwing options for off-season shooting practice
There are several options for target throwers, and there is an option for every budget. The most affordable options would be hand throwers, but there are options up to more automated options that run off deep cycle batteries. As the automation increases, so does the consistency and power of the thrower.
Hand-powered clay throwers
Hand-powered throwers are just as they sound: a handled device shaped to hold a clay target. It operates by using the energy built up in the swinging of the thrower to sling the target for the waiting shooter. A lot of diversity in the shot opportunities here will result in the operator’s ability and comfort with the tool. These throwers can be under $10 if you look in the right places, and, depending on your interest, this may be all you ever need.
Manually-operated automated clay throwers
The slightly more automated throwers are pushed into the ground or installed on smaller diameter wheels to provide a steadier base. Also, they are relatively affordable and work rather well. The throwing speed from these throwers, as an example, is unlikely to scale with more experienced shooters. Additionally, if you choose to push the thrower into the ground you may find a couple of obstacles. If the ground is too hard, it will be difficult to get it seated well enough for a lot of throwers. The flipside of that is that if the ground is somewhat moist, the thrower will throw itself loose. These throwers also need to be cocked by hand. This is fairly easily done, but if you are shooting multiple boxes of shells and dozens of clays, repeated cocking can be tiring. While none of these obstacles are deal-breakers, they are important considerations, as these throwers run in the $30-40 range.
These manually operated throwers scale-up in features as well. Some have seats on which the operator can perch, which assist with cocking and comfort, while others are situated on tripods that provide stability, get them off the ground, and provide for different throwing angles. Note, those features increase the price of the thrower as well as its footprint when it comes time to store it.
Automated clay throwers
Next, throwers that run off deep cycle batteries vary in price. More basic options can be found around $400 depending on the model, and the prices increase from there with other options over $1,000. For the sake of this article, the lower-end models will be the topic here. These throwers, as stated, get their power from deep cycle batteries and are fully automated. These throwers are heavy—due to the mechanism that is capable of throwing clays over 50 yards with a good amount of speed—and are typically wheeled to facilitate movement. Further, these will throw clays very consistently. It is important to note here that safe operation of these machines is critical, as the force with which the throwing arm moves is capable of causing significant injuries.
Additionally, from cocking to launch, the entire process is automated. They’re cocked and released with the use of a foot pedal or, if you choose the upgrade, a wireless remote. Plus, the foot pedal cables tend to be quite long, which provides some flexibility if you are practicing solo. Operation is easier with a partner (and more fun with a crew), but it is doable if you are alone. Finally, they tend to boast a target magazine that holds up to 50 clays at a time, and the wheels help with relocation enabling you to create several diverse shot opportunities. Some even have an upgrade for an oscillating base that, operating off the same battery, provides vertical and horizontal movement to the thrower providing more randomized throwing angles.
Concluding thoughts regarding off-season shooting practice
Overall, we are responsible for making skilled, responsible shots to bring birds to the ground during our respective seasons. Practicing shooting out of season is a beneficial time investment, and all of the above options provide opportunities to hone that. Beyond that, it is a great recreational activity that can be shared with friends and family.
Johnathan Sliski is an educator by trade, Appalachian by upbringing, and bird hunter by sheer dumb luck. Born and raised in East Tennessee, he has long been enthusiastic about the outdoors. Moving to Central Pennsylvania allowed that passion to find a new outlet in hunting and fishing, but specifically in bird hunting with flushing dogs. Johnathan lives with his wife, Emily, and their two Springer Spaniels, Dixie and Fern.