Over the years as I’ve manned this spot on the Herald Democrat’s Friday Outdoors page, the appearance of late summer on the calendar brings an automatic response from my writer’s brain.
And that response is to urge you, the reader, to recognize that September 1st is quickly approaching and with it the start of dove season.
Meaning that if you’re a Texomaland wingshooter, it’s time to start getting ready.
But don’t take my word for it. Instead, take the word of Sherman’s Jim Lillis, a gentleman who is certainly no stranger to locals, either in this written space or around town.
Having lived in Texomaland since the 1950s, Lillis was one of the founders of the Texoma Chapter of Ducks Unlimited in the 1970s.
That’s a group that Lillis went to work for in the late 1990s, eventually becoming DU’s senior regional director for this region, a position that he held until his retirement a couple of years ago.
For all of that notoriety, Lillis might be best known for arrowing the biggest typical whitetail buck that a bowhunter has ever tagged in Grayson County. As readers might remember, the Lillis buck was a huge Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge bruiser that he took in the fall of 2007, a typical deer that featured a net score of 175 2/8 inches.
But for all of his Mr. Duck and Mr. Buck recognition in local circles, what Lillis should be 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 resident scattergun experts, Lillis agrees wholeheartedly with the idea that the time is now to start getting your shooting skills ready for Sept. 1st.
“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.”
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 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 sporting clays has become so popular in the U.S., Lillis has seen a noticeable trend from shorter barrels back towards longer ones.
“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 pointing 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 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 clay pigeons 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 shooting 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 friendly rounds a couple of times each month with his Gainesville shooting pal Phil Bellows.
“I shoot a good bit and Phil shoots even more,” said Lillis. “Sometimes we shoot sporting clays at Fossil Point near Decatur, sometimes we shoot at the private gun club in Sanger and sometimes we go over to the Paris Gun Club.”
Lillis says that while plenty can be accomplished by a shotgunner venturing out onto the back 40 with a hand thrower and a box of clay pigeons, it often pays to shoot in a more structured setting.
“Most such gun clubs have experienced shooters on the premise 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’ recommendation over the next few weeks as dove season approaches?
“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, Dallas’ very own Jordan Spieth didn’t win the British Open last month thanks to being a couch potato, now did he?
“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 September 1 start of dove season is officially less than a month away.
And getting closer every day.