Miramar Gun Club buddies teach me to shoot

A hunter at heart

Scot found a quiet spot on a knoll overlooking the southern edge of San Elijo Lagoon, and he stood there and thought about why he was hunting without Petey.
  • Scot found a quiet spot on a knoll overlooking the southern edge of San Elijo Lagoon, and he stood there and thought about why he was hunting without Petey.
  • Image by David Diaz

The problem with dogs, don’t you know, is we usually end up having to bury them. Petey died in May. The way Scot Harrison tells it, his dog was having a hell of a time getting around anymore, and the day before he had Petey put to sleep, he’d found his dog crying at the foot of the stairs leading down to Table Tops Reef in Solana Beach. That’s close to 300 stairs, and by the looks of Petey, he’d tumbled down most of them. Scot picked up Petey and carried him home. There were patches of bare skin on the tops of Petey’s hind paws, the hair worn away from dragging across the edge of stairs — and a lot of other things — since Petey’s hips went bad, but he was still able to get around okay. It was clear now, however, that Petey was just too damn old. Scot called the vet, and he made an appointment for the next day at three.

Scot could have done it himself. He’s got guns, all sorts of them, and he certainly knows how to use them. Scot Harrison is a heck of a shot. Lately, he’s been shooting international, or Olympic-style, skeet; and last year he placed in the top fifty in the nationals, the top twenty if you exclude military shooters.

Prior to skeet shooting, Scot used to hunt. Mostly he went after quail — and the quail hunting he did with Petey had been the absolute champagne of Scot’s sporting life, a career that has bridged the likes of motocross, cycle racing, and archery. Scot is a sportsman. He likes to know how he matches up against the competition. Yet hunting with Petey had nothing to do with competition, at least no more so than the competition with nature implied in the stalk and the kill.

But it really wasn’t competition at all. Scot loved to go into the bush with Petey, and he loved to watch his dog work hot on scent, outfox birds, and flush them into the swing of the sights of his shotgun.

Petey wasn’t what you’d call a hunting dog. Certainly not a bird dog, that elaborate refinement in canine bloodlines with its mysterious capacity to separate game birds from other creatures and which, in extreme cases, exhibits itself as a strong tendency toward vanity, flightiness, hyperactivity, and neurosis. Petey was short and squat, with a long, mangy coat reminiscent of a sheep dog, except it was blank. You would have been hard pressed, in fact, to delineate any sort of pedigree. Yet like most mongrels, Petey possessed that instinctual grasp on his situation in life which made him fully aware of whom he owed his existence to. He aimed to please.

Throw a stick, Petey fetched it. Throw a rock into a swimming pool, and Petey flung himself headlong into the water, fought his way to the bottom, and returned to the surface blowing bubbles from his nostrils, the rock held proudly in his muzzle. Scot is an electrician by trade, and on two-story construction sites, he had to ask carpenters to be careful about tossing two-by-four cut-offs to the ground. Petey would climb a ladder just to be in the thick of things, and his eagerness to retrieve could send him flying. He’d hit the dirt and snatch up that block of wood right now, suffering but a moment’s bewilderment before figuring out what exactly had happened and what his course of action should be to make it happen all again.

With quail, Scot had to train Petey not to chew his kills into oblivion. He filled a sock with thumb tacks, threw it — and pretty soon Petey got the idea. It’s called a “soft mouth.” Later Petey had the advantage of being practically toothless. Yet even then, which was when Scot was beginning to shoot clay pigeons, Petey’s bite would harden from playing games with sticks, rocks, and tennis balls; and on those less and less frequent occasions when Scot still went out after live birds, Petey was apt to gum down on the first couple of quail, so that they came back feeling like lumps of putty with feathers. Wounded game was an especial pitfall. You put a knocked-out bird in a dog’s mouth, even the toothless mouth of a wise old mutt, and when the bird comes back to life, wings beating furiously against canine chops, it’s awfully hard for any dog not to lose his cool.

But toward the end, there wasn’t much of anything for Petey to do except hang out in the back of Scot’s red Toyota pickup when the shotguns came out of their cases. Scot has a bunch of shotguns, all handsome and diligently maintained. On some of them, he’s customized the stocks to match his grip perfectly, to fit more snugly against his cheek, or to give him a better look at clay birds cutting through the air at something approaching a hundred miles per hour. None of these fine-tuned guns has ever killed a thing. They’re used, instead, exclusively at gun clubs, those obscure and utterly ordered tracts of land where shotgunners toe lines like basketball players spaced around the key in preparation for a free throw and where hidden machines explode rhythmically to life on command of that solemn utterance, “Pull!”

Just as Petey had accompanied Scot for more than a decade to construction sites all around North County, he rode in the bed of the red pickup to nearly every gun club in Southern California. Unlike construction workers, however, clay-bird shooters are fanatic about their concentration, and the last thing they want is a playful hound begging for fun at their feet. So even when Petey was still able to hop out of the back of the pickup truck, and especially when he could no longer make that jump without collapsing to his belly, he spent many a long hour waiting for Scot to conclude the 100 or 200 or more shots each day of practice or competition. He got to know some parking lots well.

The most recognizable one was, naturally enough, the parking lot of the Miramar Gun Club, our own local clay-bird shootery tucked between Highway 163 and 1-805 at the south end of Miramar Naval Air Station. It’s hard to say what Petey made of the place. The layout of the car lot, sidewalk, and picnic tables, combined with the adjacent trap and skeet fields, is not unlike an expanded, open-air version of a bowling alley. If the reader can picture the club-length spectator area as similar to the low-level, table-lined mezzanine above the bowling lanes that he must have known somewhere as a teen-ager, and, in the same light, he can picture small groups of sportsmen wielding shotguns instead of bowling balls as they move about within the circumscribed confines of individual, geometric approach points, he will be a long way toward seeing what kind of place this gun club is. Now, substitute the steady crack of gunfire for the echoic rumble of heavy balls striking wooden pins, and you are even closer to an image of just what it is we’re talking about — a shotgun range. Is that clear?

There are two games that shotgunners play: trap and skeet. Variations on each also exist, none of which I’ll go into. This is going to be hard enough.

Trapshooting originated in England toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, the name coming from the cages, or traps, from which live pigeons were released for the benefit of privileged, aristocratic sportsmen. Later, traps were exchanged for mechanical devices that could throw inanimate targets, and the birds evolved into clay discs, affording a more popular and humane system of targets scored “dead.” (There was a brief period, however, when targets took the form of glass balls filled with feathers, a curiously unique touch of realism.)

Today a round of trap consists of a total of twenty-five shots divided between each of five different shooting stations located on a semicircular walkway sixteen yards behind the trap house. The targets are thrown out from the house, flying away from the shooter at varying angles. There are limits to those angles, yet within these parameters, the flight of the target remains unknown until seen. All of which means the shooter has no more than two seconds to spot the target, swing the barrel of his shotgun onto the course of the target, aim, and fire. Do I also need to mention the necessity to lead the bird?

Skeet is a somewhat faster game. Invented in America in 1920 by a group of Massachusetts sportsmen who wanted to improve their aim before hunting season, skeet is a simulation of the flight patterns of live birds by the presentation of those same clay trap targets at a variety of sharper angles within a tighter shooting range. The shooter moves to eight different stations along a semicircle, calling for targets that are thrown either from the high house (ten feet) at the left of the field, the low house (not over three feet) at the right of the field, or both houses. I’m making a long story short. Depending on the station, the bird is flying either toward you or away from you, from your left or from your right, or, at station eight, directly over your head.

Obviously both games, trap and skeet, demand a certain flair for the handling of a shotgun. None of this, however, meant anything to Petey. Now that Scot was a clay-bird shooter and he wasn’t hunting anymore, shotguns promised nothing more for Petey than a lot of waiting around, infrequent visits from his beloved master, and, he hoped, a stop at a nearby taco shop on the way home. Petey craved Mexican food. The day he was put to sleep, Petey breakfasted on a plump, greasy machaca burrito Scot brought from the Solana Beach Roberto’s up the street from his house. Right up to the end, Roberto’s was a favorite of Petey’s; and it was always the first place Scot went looking when his dog wasn’t home when he should be.

Scot spent the rest of that morning — and the few short hours after that — alone with Petey. He wouldn’t talk to his wife, and he didn’t go out to the gun club, much as he counts on his Saturdays for a couple of hundred rounds of 'practice shots. Yet it was actually a day, as far as Petey was concerned, like countless others. For fourteen years, he’d been with Scot nearly every day — morning, noon, and night — excluding those times, in recent years, when Scot would be wiring a new house in Fairbanks Ranch, where construction workers aren’t allowed to bring a dog. If Petey had any inkling at all about what was up, it was only because he knew his master, and his master Scot was torn with pain.

After making the appointment with the vet the day before, Scot had gone out hunting for a gravesite. It had to be on the coast, because that had always been Petey’s home. Scot found a quiet spot on a knoll overlooking the southern edge of San Elijo Lagoon, and he stood there and thought about why he was hunting without Petey. He planted a shovel and broke open the earth.

But today Scot didn’t feel so strong. Still, he helped Petey into the pickup, and he made it to the vet at the appointed hour in one piece. He was told to hold his dog with both arms, and he was told it would be over in moments. The vet stuck Petey with a needle. Petey kept quiet, the way he always did when he knew Scot was doing what was best for him. This certainly wasn’t anywhere near as bad as having a tick dug out of his ear, a foxtail yanked out of his nose, or even choking down some kind of lousy pill. Then Petey was breathing deeply, then not at all — and Scot went all to pieces, holding his dog dead in his arms.

Shotguns, for those who aren’t aware of it, are beautiful things. I say that without denying the dangers they impose upon wildlife, road signs, and people. But frankly, the hell with that. In the history of technology, few goods can claim the longevity of shotguns, and the best ones today remain the epitome of craftsmanship, faultless examples of Old World traditions borne of savvy, art, and love.

The very best shotguns can run in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $20,000. These would be products of European gunsmiths, members of families that have been in the trade for generations reaching back before the discovery of America. Such a gun may take up to three years to finish, much of the work going into its exquisite engravings, fanciful depictions of timeless hunting scenes. Yet this sort of a shotgun might never be shot. Its fate, instead, is commonly a private vault, for safekeeping as an investment in the manner of paintings, old coins, or bottles of fine wine.

The shotgun in the $1000 to $2000 range will definitely see action, although most of it will generally be in the form of competitive target shooting. Other than the artwork, there isn’t really much to separate a top-notch trap or skeet gun from those of investment stature. On the other hand, it’s not the sort of shotgun one would want to beat up in the field. That’s the role of the hunting gun, which can be acquired for about the price of a personal computer and which, if the hunter is fortunate, will be used enough to take on that pleasantly worn aspect of a pair of old Levi’s.

1 know of a fellow who owned a vintage 28-gauge Parker side-by- side that he used for both hunting and shooting targets, despite its resale value as a handsome, hard- to-obtain classic. One day he left the gun standing in a rack at a gun club while he went to the clubhouse for a cup of coffee, and he watched with horror as a young kid ran out to the rack, grabbed his gun, and took off in a car. A week later the Parker turned up at the scene of a holdup. The buttstock had been cut down to nothing, the double barrels sawed off short. It was truly a crime. A priceless shotgun was now worth nothing, while some punk got canned for blowing a quick-buck, liquor store heist.

Like a lot of sons before me, I got my shotgun as a birthday gift from my father. The similarities, I suspect, end right there. I was turning an age when it had been a long, long time since anybody had considered me a youngster; and I'd never shot a shotgun, with my father or anyone else.

The gun was my request — and it surprised the heck out of my dad. After pheasant in Nebraska com fields, and duck and geese along the North Platte River, any shotgun game in Southern California had seemed entirely too pale for my father's notions of hunting. He kept his gun — an old 12-gauge Remington pump — in his closet, never once removing it from its case, much less teaching me how to use it. But I knew the gun was there. I phoned my dad and asked him to give it to me because, out of the blue, I’d been figuring it was time I learned about shotguns, in case I ever made it to a little house in God’s country, with nearby game birds running thick in the fall.

My father brought over the gun. and he took it out of its ragged canvas case and showed me how to put it up. Immediately I had a strong sense of my father's love for that gun. He handled it with the care of a veteran ballplayer slipping on a favorite glove; and when he finally handed it over to me, I knew it wasn’t without some regrets. “It’s yours,’’ he said, “under one condition. Don’t you ever sell it.”

The gun actually belonged to my grandfather. At least it did until Grandpa died this spring. The day we buried him, the family stood around Grandpa's house drinking the last of his Hamm’s beer; and as such things happen on these occasions, we got to tracing the whereabouts of Pop’s guns. Now I had the 12-gauge. The little .410, which to hunters is what a fly rod is to fishermen, had been given away, along with Grandpa’s pointer, to a hunting buddy back in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when Grandpa was making ready to move out West to California. And Uncle Dick, my dad’s brother, said he had the 20-gauge. “Got it right by my bed,” he announced. “I hung up feed sacks all along the fence, and from my front door, I know the pattern the gun throws around every inch of my property. They're running dope all over Riverside.”

I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear it any more than I wanted to hear my little sister tell about the dozen or so handguns her husband, a cop, has stashed around their house in Long Beach. It took me thirty years to find out even how to load a gun, and now some of my family was just stinking with them. My father looked at his brother and said, ‘If you think it’s that bad why the hell do you live there?”

Because I knew Scot Harrison and trusted him, I asked him to teach me to shoot. He was more than happy to oblige. He’s got his circle of gun club pals, whom he jokingly refers to as “shootin’ buddies”, but he’s always trying to enlist new blood, especially if he feels it’s someone who’s a real sportsman. Well, I'm at least that. I come by it honestly enough, through lineage I can't deny. (There's even a story — entirely undocumented — that contends my great-grandfather emigrated after being run out of Bohemia for poaching game on royal lands.) Anyway, Scot invited me out to Miramar, and I showed up one Saturday with a box of dusty shells and my sixty-year-old Remington, which I still hadn’t shot and still didn’t know if it was safe to do so.

Scot gave my gun the once-over, smiling the way gun lovers will when handling a classic — or even a dated, workingman's relic. He remarked that the gun had certainly seen some use. But there wasn’t a spot of rust on it, and after a thorough spraying with WD-40, Scot had the pump moving freely, the click of secret mechanisms ringing sweetly in my ears. Scot loaded the gun and pointed it toward the horizon, where navy jets roared down from the sky. He gave the trigger a squeeze.

Anybody who is new to guns, especially shotguns, cannot help but be shaken by the first, up-close blast of gunpowder exploding inside a hand-held metal barrel. I felt, for a moment, that I might be wading in over my head. But then I shot the gun myself, and I eventually got used to the noise, the jolting kick, the smell of spent shells, the mechanics of reloading. I understood that this was something done commonly by men, women and children.

Now it was time to shoot at something. Scot picked up a chunk of a broken clay target, and he had me stand next to him and point the gun safely away. He tossed the clay chip into the air. I watched it reach its apex, and I aimed and fired. The target fell untouched to the ground.

We tried it again. And again. The piece of clay kept landing unscathed, never more than spitting distance from my feet. Scot remained patient, telling me that this was actually not the easiest of shots, my gun and shell pattern being designed to hit birds at least fifty yards away. I was hardly consoled.

Of course, I did finally connect. Then we went to one of the- trap fields, and I shot at flying targets until my shoulder was sore. On my last round, I scored thirteen out of twenty-five. We shot skeet, too; and with one of Scot's old 20-gauges — the gun, in fact, with which he used to hunt quail — I turned a few of those clay pigeons into dust.

You hit them that way — dead center with the heart of your pattern — and the four-inch clay disc disappears in a puff, the impact as terse as a good fast ball meeting the fat of a bat. Scot said I was doing pretty well. On my last round of the day, I tallied a double; and when we finally packed it up, I felt with practice I could make a fairly decent trap or skeet shooter.

I haven't shot a gun since.

This is Scot Harrison the last time he went hunting: he had a number of reasons to feel out of sorts. Petey wasn’t with him. His buddies, across from him at a pond out Anza Borrego way, were drinking beer and blasting away at doves. The birds, as quail never are, were thick as gulls around a public beach, and all it took to nail them was a quick gun and a good eye.

Then, when the doves got smart — or at least as smart as doves ever get — they kept cutting short their approach to their water hole. And like the lowest kind of dry-gulch hunter, Scot poked his gun out of the tall desert brush, ambushing birds one by one. “It was easy,”

Scot now says, recounting a day he’d rather forget. “I didn’t have to do anything except wait there and shoot. But shooting isn’t hunting.”

Shooting clay pigeons isn’t hunting, either. So if you’re counting, that’s two reasons why I haven’t fired a shotgun since that first and only time.

Shooting without hunting seems, to me, a rather strong sub-instance of putting the cart before the horse.

I admit an instinctual prejudice. At the same time, it would be wrong to assume I maintain a wholesale distaste for killing. I raise chickens, and when their good laying days are over, I can start them on their way to the stewing pot with my bare hands.

It’s simply a matter of available game — or, in this case, the lack of it. Here in San Diego, where, for now, I'm making my stand, game for hunters has become scarce indeed.

Had I a notion otherwise, Scot put me off the idea of hunting doves. Mammals I won’t even talk about, for reasons that go far beyond the fact that hunting them demands a rifle instead of a shotgun. Ducks and geese, which used to be hunted locally from, among other places, blinds along manmade ponds you can still see in San Elijo Lagoon, remain something I’ll consider only if I find myself on flyways a long, long way north of here. I’ve heard pheasant have been introduced to farmlands out toward El Centro, but that’s the sort of private-property hunting that requires connections, hobnobbing, or money. Which leaves me with quail, the treasured game of Scot Harrison, and a lot of other local hunters besides.

Now, quail hunting I can get excited about. At least conceptually. There’s the walking, the stalking, the necessary intimacy with both terrain and game, the few select shots on which hinge a day’s success or failure. I wouldn’t mind a meal or two of quail, either, the little breasts braised in butter and garlic and ginger root, the legs deep-fried in oil with a flour and curry spice coating. And I’d love to hunt with a dog, watching that intensity which has been bred into it, following it as it works tirelessly in the bush, trailing scent, finding birds, pointing, retrieving — doing all of those dog things for the pure pleasure of hunting, and for the pleasure of pleasing its master I’d especially like hunting with a dog.

Not long ago, I saw Scot Harrison out at a construction site where I was pounding nails for my daily bread. He was on his way to Miramar for some serious practice for the upcoming skeet nationals. He asked me if I’d like to join him. I was embarrassed to confess that I hadn’t shot my gun since that first day of learning. I wasn’t even sure where I’d stashed it. Scot laughed, then said it didn’t matter; he always had an extra gun with him. What about it?

I said I didn’t know. Scot took it as a tacit refusal, and he tossed his tool belt into the back of his pickup, a brand-new Nissan, and he hopped in up front. He swung the truck out onto the street, only to pull to the curb and lean his head out the window. “You wanna go hunting this year?”

Scot’s old tool box was in the bed of the new pickup, along with his usual assortment of big rolls of wire, lengths of PVC conduit, milk crates piled high with electrical boxes, and, stacked one atop the other, two briefcase-like shotgun cases. The only real difference was that Petey wasn’t there.

“Go hunting for what?” I asked.

“Quail. Rustle yourself up a 20-gauge, and do it right now. You don’t want to be practicing when birds are in the air.”

I went home and uncovered the Remington, and I found I still knew how to put it up and load it. I assumed it still fired too. But it’s an awfully big gun, big enough to whip you if you tried lugging it around through thick desert sage in search of quick little quail. Now it’s back in its tattered case, re-oiled and waiting for some distant, promised land.

Though a sentimental notion. I’ve come to see in recent years why the quail is our state bird. More than that, it’s the bird of the Southland, broadly defined as chaparral, and my particular home since day one. From the windswept coast to the hot, dry hills, the live oak canyons to the sage-sweet deserts, quail are an icon, an animate symbol of something right when it seems, more and more, that the territory is all shot to hell. I love quail — and lately I’ve been hunting them every chance I get.

I hunt quail from my pickup truck, on foot in public nature reserves, at the edge of housing tracts and sordid building developments where we as Californians are helping the republic really to pour on the coals. Sometimes I first see them scurrying through the brush or perched atop a yucca or fence post. Sometimes I hear them, that comical call of “Chi-ca-go, Chi-ca- go,” or “Where are you? Where are you?” I hunt quail, coming as close to them as I can to indulge myself in their elaborate beauty: the forward-curving plume, creamy forehead and black throat, the grayish-blue breast and softly mottled nape, the plump belly scaled with markings as sharp as miniature arrowheads. Eventually the quail flush at my approach. Yet if I’ve hunted well, I can actually hear the furious beating of their wings; and as the birds peel off in one direction or the other, gaining speed in their distinctive up-tilted flight, I swing on them with an imaginary shotgun, making sure to lead them that ever so slight amount.

“Bang!” I say. And “Bang!” again if I feel I would have needed the second barrel and if the hellbent quail are still in range of my secret over-and-under 20-gauge.

I’d do better if I had a dog. Perhaps, say, a young Brittany spaniel, behind which I’d have to hunt close because, my regard for discipline what it is, I wouldn’t have trained it to hold a point. But unless I get into quail for real, it’ll have to remain an imaginary dog. I can think of few things lower than having a dog hunt up birds and then playing make-believe to salve your own uneasy heart. It just wouldn’t be fair.

Scot stopped hunting quail, I see now, because Petey had grown too old to join him. Leaving his dog behind would have been as absurd as hunting without a gun. Petey loved hunting, and Scot loved hunting with Petey. We’ll see what happens now. There are quail still running in the brush, and Scot is still a hunter at heart. When he buried Petey, he buried a big portion of his past.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about, too.

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