In Montana, the roots of hunting and shooting sports run deep, from the people who relied on the land to provide food to the gunslingers who performed extraordinary feats of shooting to entertain.
For many, these traditions start early, often learned from family members. In the Flathead, kids not only have the important lessons from hunter’s safety courses, but also the coaching and support from sport shooting leagues.
On Feb. 1, the Flathead Valley’s chapter of the Pheasants Forever Youth Clays Program starts its 18th year teaching the valley’s youth the intricacies and techniques involved in clay shooting.
There will be a valley-wide registration day taking place at Glacier High School on Sunday, Jan. 25, at 1 p.m. for those interested in the program.
“We have a lot of kids in this valley and they want to shoot. What this does is it gives the skills to be able to go hunt,” Wally Wilkinson, who has been involved with the program for 11 years, said. “Some don’t want to hunt; they just like shooting guns and enjoying competition.”
Pheasants Forever is a national nonprofit group dedicated to preserving pheasants, quail, and other wildlife through education, land management, habitat improvements, and general public awareness.
Part of the group’s goal is to reach out to the younger generations, to teach them about hunting and shooting clays.
In the Flathead, the Pheasants Forever branch usually has about 50 youths ages 12 to 18 participating in the program, which lasts for eight weeks in the early part of the year.
But the numbers tend to fluctuate on trends, Wilkinson said, and 50 tends to be the lowest amount of students.
“I’ve had as many as 81,” Wilkinson said.
The shooters meet at Scotty’s Shooting Ranch south of Kalispell on Sundays for instruction and team competition. The kids come up with inventive names, such as the Kalispell Klay Krushers or Flannel Fiesta, and learn not only about responsible shooting, but also about kinship with their fellow shooters.
Wilkinson said the kids involved may not have met had it not been for the shooting range, allowing them to make friends outside of their usual circles.
For Wilkinson, shooting clays has been a family tradition for generations. His father and grandfather were both decorated shooters, and he grew to love the sport as well.
“Clay target shooting is a passion of mine; I’ve shot competitively for 25 years,” Wilkinson said. “It’s my love, I love doing it.”
Shooting competitions reward those who work hard, he said, because though teams compete against one another, it really comes down to the individual shooter performing well.
“It’s a one-man sport; you’re only as good as much as you practice,” Wilkinson said. “When you’re competing, it’s just you.”
The local Pheasant Forever all-star team – made of some of the most-promising shooters from the club – has performed well in regional tournaments, he said, with the team doing “very, very well” in Montana competitions and placing well in Wyoming and Washington tournaments as well.
Anyone with an interest in shooting sports is welcome to join. Wilkinson said hand-eye coordination is the biggest asset in this sport, along with timing and the ability to focus on the target.
Families of the participants are also encouraged to get involved with the club, he said. Usually, this means parents showing up at the shooting range with lunches or hot chocolate and chatting with each other.
“We prefer that the parents be there and support the kids,” he said. “There’s a lot of parents that really get involved.”
Registration at Glacier High School starts at 1 p.m. on Jan. 25. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page or call 406-253-1225.
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