In the 4th installment of our series, “Sporting Clays on the Bourbon Trail,” we visit Rockcastle Shooting Center. Yes, we were there for the sporting clays, but owner Nick Noble is heck-bent on turning Rockcastle into a world-class attraction for all the shooting sports – and there’s a golf course, too. Sound like Candyland? Check out the story at http://www.shotgunlife.com
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This story originally appeared in Shotgun Life, the first online magazine dedicated to the best in wing and clay shooting. You can read Shotgun Life at www.shotgunlife.com.
by Cletus Fielding-Clapp
Here is the last email we received from Ops before our departure:
The Archbishop of Washington has blessed this hunt. The eyes of the Great Society are upon you.
The next morning, a few of us lads from the Georgetown Trout & Gun club would embark to an undisclosed location in Western Maryland known only to Ops and one other member.
Our quarry would be duck and Canada Geese. I anxiously awaited to bag my limit of 8 geese and 6 ducks. I would meet up at 5:00 am with the only three members able to get permission from their wives to go shooting. Ops had been scheduled to lead the expedition, but a death in the family obliged him to a more somber duty.
Long-suffering readers of Shotgun Life may recall my utter elation and horror at being inducted into this elite group of Washington insiders back in April 2008. The highly secretive Georgetown Trout & Club is the self-professed oldest shooting club in the country — and just being in their presence makes me stand tall.
Into the Watery Arena
But the hard part was still before me. As a traditional upland shooter, this was my first foray into the watery arena of ducks and geese, and I really wanted to cut the mustard with the lads. I would be teamed up with the veritable web-footed SWAT team of the Georgetown League: Member #283, Member #302 and Member #327. And although Ops wasn’t able to make it, his firm guiding hand was upon us.
Wanting to make a top-notch impression, I had spent weeks of preparation leading up to the hunt. This was something special that I did not intend to blow.
As a waterfowl neophyte, I took advantage of my intimate circle of fellow shooters. It became abundantly clear that I was under-equipped, and also lacked the proper apparatus. So I relied on my cohorts for their best counsel.
From my enduring associate FJ in South Carolina, I received advice on the best clothes to wear. He told me that all I needed was a proper Under Armour shirt and a multi-layered shooting jacket. A matching hat with fur-lined ear flaps would make a nice accessory. He further suggested I get a pair of bib overalls. For my hands, he recommended a pair of those little mittens with the finger pouch that flips back. And of course, a sturdy pair of hip waders.
My Grandpapa’s Cyclops
I asked him about fabric and he insisted on Mossy Oak. Lovely, I thought, since it was evocative of that musky fragrance I find so irresistible.
In short order I was all geared up. I did a couple of dress rehearsals in front of a full-length mirror, always pulling on my equipment to make sure it could withstand my high expectations.
Next, I needed a proper shotgun. For upland shooting, I preferred a very rare Cyclops side-by-side choked full/full, handed down from my great-great-great-grandpapa, Claymore Fielding-Clapp. It was as fine a 12-bore hammer gun as any man could desire. I had used my beloved Cyclops to bring down many a grouse, quail and chukar that I shared in the company of my original set of lads on the old sod. But now that I had new set of lads, I felt compelled to make a good impression in my long gun for waterfowl.
And so I turned to my chum RC, who lived in an ultra-posh gated community just north of Baltimore. RC was an awfully successful investment banker. He possessed an enormous collection of shotguns that he secured in his gun library right off his newly remodeled kitchen. As a prelude to introducing me to his shotgun of choice, he invited me to dinner at his mansion where he prepared a lovely Cornish hen with jasmine rice and baby carrots. A sparkling rosé made a fine compliment and before I knew it I was feeling quite heady.
Time for That Russian Shotgun
It was time to show me the gun he had in mind for my waterfowl expedition. He selected an MP-153 Semi-Automatic Shotgun For Practical Shooting made by the Russian giant, Baikal. It featured an impact-resistant polymer stock that could withstand the most rugged handling.
Since this was the same company that manufactured The “BAIKAL DDD” DDD-type Bilocular Implantable Telemetering Electric Pacemaker, I knew it would be extremely reliable. Now I was bound to impress the Georgetown lads with this big, black beauty.
Finally, the appointed morning arrived. I had set my alarm for 2:30 am to arrive at our 5:00 o’clock rendezvous. The first thing I did was check my iPhone for the coordinates for the meet up, which had hit my inbox at precisely 4:58 am. We were going to hunt in Ops’ super-secret shooting grounds with his crack team of outfitters. To prevent any leaks, he emailed us the meeting spot only that morning. It was at a place called Sheetz. Of course, with a name like that I could assume it was a cover for my real destination. Nonetheless, I had the address that I could punch into my GPS.
Packing Up the Old Safari Wagon
I donned my bespoke moleskin breeks, bespoke tweed gun stockings, bespoke garter flashes and bespoke burnished leather Brogues. Following FJ’s sage advice, I put on my Under Armour shirt that fit extremely tight. Indeed I cut a dashing figure in the tradition of a long line of Fielding-Clapps.
I quickly loaded my 1982 Land Rover Safari station wagon. She was an old battle wagon, but I loved her dearly, with her roof rack and spare tire on the hood. In fact, my ex-wife used to complain I loved that truck more than I loved her. But I always assured her, “No, dear, I love you both the same.”
I arrived at the Sheetz promptly at 5:00 — and much to my surprise it actually was called Sheetz. Of course I realized this was one of Ops’ hilarious malapropisms and I sat in the old girl laughing, as Ops surely pulled one over on me.
The frost was on the gourd that morning and I rushed into the Sheetz — starving for breakfast. Well, there were a bunch of burly gentlemen in camo and jeans with their construction boots unlaced; and bleary-eyed, naked-faced women who coughed up mighty lung-fulls of the hard life. They were all queued up for their lattés and croissants, but I swear that when I walked in there you’d think they’d never seen a chap in breeks before.
The Georgetown Lads
No sooner did I get in line than Member 302 and Member 327 arrived. They were in full camo, those Georgetown lads, always at the ready.
“Clapp,” they called, and we exchanged the secret handshake where you lock pinkies, index fingers and touch thumbs, in precisely that order and then count one-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three before holding open your palms to prove that in fact you did not lift a ring or watch.
There was a bit of chit-chat as we slowly moved toward the cluttered counter, when these two men in camo approached us. They were our outfitters. According to our strict code of secrecy, I can only refer to them as M and B. They were rangy sort of fellows, who looked like they could pluck a goose with their bare teeth. B inserted a hunk of chaw in his mouth and gave me a wicked, brown smile.
“What the hell you wearing?” he asked me.
I went on to explain the purpose of breeks to him in great detail, until that rude fellow cut me short and said “I gotta take a dump.”
It Goes Downhill Fast
Well, I have to admit, it all went downhill from there. The Sheetz was out of spinach quiche and so I ordered a donut with rainbow sprinkles and a latté with extra foam, which immediately collapsed. Worse, Member 283 arrived 45 minutes late — giving the feeble excuse that he couldn’t find his hunting jacket (ha, out in the Punjab us men would get all greased up against the elements and hunt naked). Member 283 was the only one Ops would entrust with the final destination, but at least now we could get on our way before the ducks left for their day-long feed in the nearby fields.
M and B had their own Jeeps that they used to tow skiffs. The rest of our convoy followed them into the darkness along narrow, serpentine roads.
All I can reveal is that after some 20 minutes of driving we crossed a trestle bridge over the Potomac River, then made an immediate hard right. We traversed a dirt road for several hundred yards when suddenly I saw the brake lights ahead.
We Launch the Skiffs
M and B jumped out of their Jeeps to quickly launch the skiffs, and loaded them up with decoys, ammo and other stock in trade of the world-class outfitters that Ops was known to keep in his little black book.
“Don’t diddle-dally boys, or we’ll miss those ducks,” M urged.
It was darker than dark and the darkness enveloped the dark all around us that seeped into every pore and crevice that themselves were dark since the beginning of darkness.
And it was very cold — very, very cold. The icy fingers of the coldness reached down into your breeks and into your privates, which themselves retreated into the darkness and into the darkest places that only a man himself knows as darkness.
I struggled with the bib overalls. I struggled with the jacket that had more zippers than any one man should have to fiddle with when wired on caffeine. Then came the hip waders. I slid my foot deep into the rubbery tube of each one.
I grabbed the MP-153 Semi-Automatic Shotgun For Practical Shooting and gear and then ran to the boat. M kindly helped me into the skiff and he pushed off. He yanked on the pull cord and the engine sputtered to that obnoxious two-stroke putter. I trained his spotlight onto the surface of the water, but we still kept scraping bottom until finally M killed the engine, jumped out of the skiff and pushed the boat.
Yes, I thought, this is just like being in the Punjab with my boy Ajeet joyfully laboring under my load.
M beached the skiff on an island, and soon the other lads arrived in B’s skiff. We were instructed to go to the log on the rocky shore and set up there.
Our First Ducks
Before long, M and B were laying out a spread of duck and Canada Goose decoys when four ducks took flight. Given that we were still unpacking, we missed them.
As the sun rose, we spotted several formations of geese, but they were too high. Still, M and B blew their kazoos in a vain and valiant attempt to turn around those lofty birds so we could blast them out of the sky.
The men kept reprimanding me to keep my head down, which is usually never a problem for me. But that particular bone-chilling morning I was especially uncomfortable. I stretched my legs when I realized that I put my waders on the wrong foot in the darkness of the parking lot. The lads got a good chuckle at my expense.
“I never had a client who couldn’t dress himself,” M said.
What was not funny, however, is that I found myself shivering uncontrollably in the cold. It must’ve been in the 20s and I have to admit that FJ’s advice about the Under Armour shirt and the jacket probably worked just fine where he lived in South Carolina, but here, nearly 600 miles north, I was freezing my cobblers off.
We sat there on the rock-strewn, frigid, filthy ground for 5½ hours without firing a single shot. Finally I asked B “Where are the beaters?”
He gave me a blank look.
“Beaters,” I said, “you know young, strong boys beating their drums that chase the quarry into the open. Like in the Punjab.”
B contemptuously spit a wad of tobacco juice in my direction. “What the hell’s the Poonjub?”
“Oh never mind,” I said.
I Make a Confession
The lads certainly didn’t appreciate my stomping around to stay warm and that’s when I finally had to confess that I was freezing to death. Finally, at around 11:30 we broke for lunch and M and B knew of a local general store where I could buy a proper undergarment before we shot again in the afternoon.
Once again, we formed our little convoy. We continued driving for about 15 minutes when we started descending into a valley where you could see a town that remained in the shadows of the 19th century. Forlorn train whistles echoed through the wintry hills — the entire experience hungering for a harmonica.
Unfortunately, I cannot reveal the name of this historic place for fear of a prolonged paddling from Ops. But I subsequently discovered it was the location of some horror-movie pants-wetter called The Blair Witch Project.
Our guides led us into the parking lot of what looked like a double-wide trailer. The sign read “Konnie’s Kountry Kitchen.” I started to remove my camo bib overalls so I could dine in the comfort of my breeks, when M approached me and asked if I could keep the overalls on.
“It’s for your own safety,” he advised.
“Yes, I think you’re right. There still is a bit of a nip in the air.”
Inside, M was greeted like royalty by the proprietors. The father, mother and daughter all looked like a family of Russian nesting dolls, one bigger and rounder than the next in a way that they could fit inside each other. With their high blood pressure glow and wide gummy grins they were ever so charming in a rustic kind of way.
With the coffee served promptly, I began to thaw. We all took the opportunity to get acquainted with our outfitters. Member 327 confessed to B that he barely got out of the house to shoot anymore because he and his wife had a 2-year-old.
As Member 327 talked about his domestic duties, B stuck another wad of chaw in his mouth then leaned across the table. “Who wears the pants in that family of yours?” he asked.
“Well, we both do,” said Member 327.
“That ain’t the way it is in my house. Not over my dead body.”
Member 327 looked unsettled for a moment, then raised his empty cup. “Miss, more coffee, please.”
Saved by the General Store
After a hearty lunch of eggs up and a grizzled sirloin grilled in bacon fat, I was ready to make a pit stop at the general story for that important layer of undergarment. All the lads joined me and when we entered the cramped, musty general store you could tell the owners were glad to see this preponderance of camo masculinity enter through the narrow door.
Going down the basement level with the lads I was directed to a modest rack that displayed exactly what I needed: a camo fleece jacket with a Nehru collar that would protect my neck against the cold.
Soon, we were back in the skiffs — this time further up river. It was still shallow and M pulled me across to an even smaller island that was about the size of the steam baths in the Prince of Wales Club.
The island provided sufficient cover for us to scrunch under it, hidden from the eagle-eyed geese and ducks. As I lay hunched up on the hard, cold ground only one word kept going through my mind: Arthritis.
Into the Heart of Madness
For hour upon hour we saw not a single bird. Occasionally, the gurgling water would trick us into actually believing it was the distant cry of the goose on the wing, and that’s when I began to ask myself “Are us lads going mad?”
I was slipping deeper and deeper into a duckless funk. We had no beaters, no dogs, nothing to drive the birds toward us.
Suddenly M cried: “Ducks at 11:00 o’clock.”
Before I could get off a single shot, I was hit by the concussion of shotguns fired behind me. The next thing I saw were feathers gently floating down directly in front of me, and then I spotted one duck flying up river.
M ran into the water and returned with a single Black Duck held firmly by its limp neck.
Yes, indeed, it was cause for celebration. The lads performed a little jig as the sun dipped below the tree line.
“They’ll start comin’ now by God,” said B, spitting tobacco juice.
They reloaded and we hunkered down under the driftwood and scrub.
“Look, there’s geese,” M said. It was a courageous formation, flying straight toward us. Our guides whipped out their handsome kazoos and blew them, but the geese turned up river.
We were all counting the minutes to sunset — the end to our legal shooting hours. So far, I had not fired a single shot all day. M and B waded out into the water to get their decoys, when B called in a harried whisper “Here they come, boys.”
Our guides left a few goose decoys and scrambled back to the island for their shotguns. There, over the trees, I saw six geese heading straight toward us. Lower and lower they came, right into our front yard.
I was ready to pull the trigger but B kept whispering in my ear “Wait, wait, wait.”
The geese were descending, their feet dropping and wings spread, and now the birds were about 10 feet away.
“Fire,” B yelled, in the kind of war cry that makes a man’s heart pound.
I knew for certain that I hit one in the breast, then emptied my gun with another two quick shots as the geese attempted to escape. When the smoke cleared, we got three of them — a good day in the end.
Cletus Fielding-Clapp is an official correspondent for Shotgun Life. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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