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Minnesota clay target league founder sees welcome turnaround

Jim Sable noticed when he retired in 2000 and began spending more time at his gun club in Plymouth, Minn., that members were becoming a bit long in the tooth.

Jim Sable noticed when he retired in 2000 and began spending more time at his gun club in Plymouth, Minn., that members were becoming a bit long in the tooth.

"I was one of the younger ones there, and I was retired," Sable, 74, said. "It occurred to me that if we didn't start attracting some young people, our future was behind us."

Sable crunched the numbers and discovered the average member of the Plymouth club was nearly 56 years old. He wanted to see how that compared with other clubs in the state, and when the Department of Natural Resources agreed to help him with a statewide survey, Sable found the average age was nearly 60.

"I said, 'This problem is a lot wider spread than just the Plymouth Gun Club,'" Sable said. "Instead of us trying to form a youth program, we need to find a way of attracting young people to the shooting sports."

That revelation set the stage for the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League, a nonprofit corporation that has grown from three youth teams in 2001, to 3,400 shooters and 115 teams from 215 schools across the state this year.

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Despite its similar name and rules, the clay target program isn't affiliated with the Minnesota State High School League. Largely through word of mouth, the league has expanded to include schools as far north as Thief River Falls, Crookston, Newfolden, Greenbush and Baudette, Minn.

Next year, Sable said, 14 more schools are set to join the league, and this year's state tournament, which is open to all shooters on a team regardless of their scores, is expected to attract about 2,000 students.

Sable said he's also been in contact with officials in North Dakota and South Dakota about expanding the program to neighboring states.

"This did snowball, but it started out the size of a pea, then got to golf ball size and baseball size, and from there, it's been picking up speed," Sable said.

Schools file their weekly scores online, and conferences are based on the number of shooters on a team rather than enrollment or geography. Students can join a team as early as sixth grade, providing they've completed firearms safety training, but the minimum age varies by school. As in MSHSL activities, shooters also have to keep up their grades to remain eligible.

"This is different from other sports in that it is not nearly as intense," Sable said. "We have three priorities: safety, fun and marksmanship -- in that order."

Sable said the league's growing popularity has helped reverse the aging membership of shooting clubs.

"Oh man, have we seen changes -- and it's not just in our gun club," he said. "It's in all the clubs around here facing the same thing. In 2001, the average age was 56 and today, it's 40, and we have entire families coming to shoot."

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mnclaytarget.com.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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