SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. – Rain cascaded down Sophie Johnson’s face as she aimed the shotgun. She held her breath, trying not to fog up her glasses, then curled an icy finger around the trigger and pulled.
Across the field, the bird exploded in a hail of neon green shards.
“It was amazing that I was able to hit the target because I couldn’t see anything,” Johnson said after the round. “But once you got past the cold, it was pretty easy to concentrate. Once it was your turn, you just had to stop shaking to shoot.”
WHY GUN OWNERSHIP IS SPIKING AMONG THIS DEMOGRAPHIC
Johnson was one of 55 high school students competing at a Future Farmers of America district trap shooting championship in late October in Skagit County, Washington.
Clay target shooting is currently one of the fastest-growing high school sports, but not long ago the pastime teetered on the edge of obscurity.
From bust to boom
In Newport, Washington, a town of about 2,000 nestled along the Idaho border, the local sportsmen’s club struggled with a shrinking — and rapidly aging — membership.
“‘If we don’t do something to get the younger generation involved and younger families involved, our club and our shooting sports around here, they’re going to die,'” local high school teacher David Bradbury recalled one club member telling him around five years ago.
So Newport followed the lead of another Eastern Washington town and formed a high school trap team. Fewer than 10 students signed up that first year, Bradbury said. Last year, they had 35.
“It’s largely a grassroots effort for folks in a generation similar to mine who grew up experiencing and enjoying certain things that in today’s environment are becoming more and more restrictive,” Bradbury said. “If there’s not a proactive effort to embrace and encourage and reestablish so many of these awesome things, they’ll dwindle away.”
WATCH: WHY TRAP SHOOTING IS ONE OF THE FASTEST-GROWING HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS:
WATCH MORE FOX NEWS DIGITAL ORIGINALS HERE
Around the end of the 20th century, much of the U.S. started seeing a decline in hunting and shooting sports participation, USA Clay Target League President John Nelson said. He helped launch the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League to try to recruit the next generation of trap shooters.
It was a tough sell.
“‘Hey, we have a great sport that all your kids should participate in, and everyone can be included,'” Nelson remembered telling school administrators. “‘Oh, by the way, it involves a gun.'”
Most conversations ended there. But slowly, they convinced a handful of Minnesota schools to start teams in the early 2000s. Soon, neighboring states “wanted to join the party,” Nelson told Fox News.
The USA High School Clay Target League has now grown to include tens of thousands of students across 34 states.
“You don’t have to be a jock,” Nelson said, adding that around a third of clay target league participants don’t play any other sport. “Kids that participate in school-sponsored sports are more likely to go to college, typically get better grades and stay away from alcohol and drugs.”
US ARMY OLYMPIAN AMBER ENGLISH TAKES HOME GOLD MEDAL IN SKEET SHOOTING
Eric Thompson, father of three competitive trap shooters, said there are “no benchwarmers” in target shooting.
“So many times you find kids that are on sports teams that spend all the time sitting on the bench,” he said. “Here, there is no second-string. Everybody shoots, everybody competes, everybody has the same chances.”
His son Roland has competed across the country and was the top shooter in the state last spring with a 24.2 average (out of 25) as a freshman at Burlington-Edison High School.
“It’s a lot about focus and I think it shapes how hard I work,” Roland said, adding that he has poured hours into practicing. “That dedication, I think that’s definitely branched out from just shooting into life, working hard and getting it done.”
There’s no benchwarmers here … Everybody shoots, everybody competes, everybody has the same chances.
Despite the surge in popularity, clay target enthusiasts often find themselves at odds with political sentiment. The most recent Gallup poll on American attitudes toward firearms found that 56% of respondents favor stricter gun laws. Gallup also found a heavy partisan divide in attitudes — 59% of Democrats say guns make homes more dangerous, while 86% of Republicans think they increase safety.
“I love living in the Pacific Northwest,” Bradbury said. “There are some very distinct political differences, however, from state to state. Washington is a state where there are some challenges when it comes to issues regarding firearms and school districts.”
Burlington-Edison’s Brian Raupp has “seen it all” in his nearly 30 years coaching young trap shooters.
“We have a lot of groups that sponsor the kids for their shooting and sponsor shells and sweatshirts and all kinds of stuff,” he said. “And we’ve had groups try to shut us down.”
WASHINGTON GOV SIGNS BIG GUN CONTROL PACKAGE, INCLUDING ‘ASSAULT WEAPONS’ BAN: ‘NO ONE NEEDS AN AR-15’
While Washington’s trap teams tend to be located in more rural areas where hunting or target shooting aren’t unheard of hobbies, there can still be a stigma for students.
“A lot of times school and stuff is pretty taboo against guns,” Johnson said, adding that she supports her fellow high schoolers learning about gun safety so they can “go out into the world not having a fear of them.”
All prospective athletes have to pass a firearm safety certification program. The league hasn’t had a single injury reported since its inception in 2001.
“You got 100 kids here walking around with guns and there’s not a worry in the world about their abilities,” Thompson said. “Every one of these kids, it’s second nature to them.”
When it comes to the original goal of preserving shooting clubs, Nelson said the effort is paying off. Around 80% of shooting ranges that participate in the league have reported an increase, not just in youth participation, but all ages as kids get their families involved too, he said.
CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP
As their parents huddled under umbrellas and palmed paper cups of steaming coffee, the students at the Old Skagit Gun Club did their best to block out the storm.
“Having a clear mind and just not thinking about anything,” Roland Thompson said when asked what the secret is to shooting well. “Just focusing on one bird after the other.”
To hear more from trap participants and coaches, click here.
Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.