With Durant High School, Southeastern Oklahoma State University and other area football teams taking to the practice field this week, pigskins are once again sailing through the surprisingly cool late summer air here in Bryan County.
As they do, those footballs serve as a reminder that the fall gridiron season, in all of its glory, is just around the corner.
Don’t look now, but the start of football practice also signals that we’re now T-minus less than a month away and counting from the September 1st season opener for Oklahoma’s 2017 dove hunting campaign.
And like local football players dreaming of wins, championships and rivalry success with the fuel of hard-core pre-season practice, wingshooters would be well advised to do the same over the next couple of weeks, working to sharpen skills that have probably grown rusty.
But don’t take my word for it. Instead, take the word of Jim Lillis, a longtime resident of Sherman, Texas and a gentleman who is no stranger to the Texomaland area after having served for many years as a regional director for both Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Having lived in the region since the late 1950s, Lillis is also well known as the archer who arrowed Grayson County’s biggest bowhunter harvested typical whitetail buck, a bruiser of a deer that net scored 175 2/8-inches after Lillis tagged it in late November 2007 while hunting at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.
But for all of his recognition as a longtime conservation worker and an avid bowhunter, what Lillis should be best known for is his prowess with a shotgun, having shot trap in the 1970s and 1980s and sporting clays since the early 1990s.
As one of the area’s top scattergun experts, Lillis agrees wholeheartedly with the idea that the time is now to start getting your shooting skills ready for opening day.
“Nothing helps you get ready for dove season more than getting out and pulling the trigger,” said Lillis. “It helps you knock the cobwebs out and the rust off of your shooting skills, which for many people, have laid dormant since last fall.”
Keep in mind that as the old adage goes, it isn’t practice that makes perfect, it’s perfect practice that makes perfect.
For the Sherman resident, that means starting off with the right shotgun for the dove hunting field.
“For the perfect dove gun, I’d take a 20-gauge over-and-under, something like the Beretta 687, which is an older model gun,” said Lillis. “Today, a lot of shooters opt for the Beretta Silver Pigeon. And Browning, they certainly have some good over-and-under shotguns too.”
Lillis knows that in this day and age of semi-autoloaders and pump shotguns, not everyone will share his affinity for the stack-barrel shotgun as a dove hunting tool.
And with many good repeating shotguns on the market today, he certainly understands that sentiment.
“What you ultimately want is a gun that really fits you well, one that you can handle easily and one that doesn’t punish you with recoil,” said Lillis. “Plus, you’re looking for something that is smooth swinging, has a good balance and something that feels good in your hands.”
In the quarter of a century that the sporting clays game has become popular in the U.S., Lillis has seen a noticeable shotgun trend taking place.
“It used to be that 26-inch barrels were really popular, but now the trend is back towards the longer barreled shotguns becoming more popular again,” said Lillis.
“As gun manufacturers have improved their products, the balance of longer guns has improved and they aren’t as whippy as a short barreled shotgun can be,” he added.
“That can really help on crossing shots and on passing shots since a longer barrel helps to give a shooter a better sight plane and a good, smooth (swinging) shotgun.”
If you’ve noticed the frequent use of the term sporting clays here, there’s a reason for that.
“Sporting clays is a really good way to duplicate a hunting situation with a shotgun,” said Lillis. “Sporting clays challenges a shooter’s ability by throwing the clay pigeons at different angles, the same kind that you are likely to get when you’re bird hunting.
“If you can practice on (sporting) clay pigeons and consistently break them, then you’re probably going to do pretty decent out in the field on doves,” he added.
“Now it’s true that doves don’t fly straight like a clay pigeon might since they’ll drop and dip, slow down and speed up. But you’ve certainly got more of an advantage by practicing on (sporting clays) than the guy who doesn’t.”
To help a shooter gain that advantage, Lillis urges wingshooters not to only practice on the easy stuff.
“Practice the same kind of shots that you expect to find in a dove field,” said Lillis. “That’s mostly going to be crossing shots, not really the quail type of shots that are going away.
“Whether it’s a hand thrower, a spring-type thrower that you’ve got mounted on a tire or a fancy electric thrower, you want to spend plenty of time practicing the kind of shots now that will help you do better in a dove field in September.”
If it sounds like Lillis practices his shotgunning skills a lot, that’s correct. In fact, he shoots something on the order of eight to 10 sporting clays tournaments a year, not to mention a few friendly rounds each month with several of his hunting and shooting buddies.
Lillis notes that despite his regular attendance at sporting clays ranges around the Red River Valley, plenty can be accomplished by a shotgunner venturing out onto the back 40 with a hand thrower and a box of clay pigeons.
That being said, he also indicates that it never hurts to practice around serious shotgunning enthusiasts who can watch a person shoot.
“Most (sporting clays ranges) and gun clubs have experienced shooters on the premises who can act as a coach, helping you identify and correct common mistakes,” said Lillis. “Just as in golf or some other sport, someone in the role of a coach can help you get better a lot more quickly.”
What is Lillis’ prescribed practice regimen in coming days?
“I’d say that you might want to get out and practice your shooting once a week, shooting a couple of boxes of shells and about 50 clay pigeons each time,” he said. “Nothing is going to help you more come September 1st than by getting out now and dedicating some time to shooting practice.”
After all, a local team wouldn’t dream of skipping practice, then playing a game, now would they?
“You don’t go play golf once a year and expect to shoot seven under par,” said Lillis. “And you don’t go bowling one night a year and expect to roll a perfect game.
“Just like in golf, bowling and other sports, you’ve got to practice your shotgun shooting skills to keep them sharp.”
Especially now that the Sooner State’s dove season is officially less than a month away, and getting closer every single day.
Lynn Burkhead is Senior Writer for the Outdoor Channel, World Fishing Network and Sportsman Channel and lives in Denison, Texas