The other four aimed to hit one of the local favorite greasy spoons along the way to load up on carbs, cholesterol and coffee -- the kind of meal that fell into the stick-to-your-ribs group of the Food Pyramid.
Unfortunately, the night before, Jeff B’s wife got slammed by a stomach bug. She regained her sea legs the next morning, but to play it safe he and Rob C. drove separately in Jeff’s tricked out Mercedes station wagon in case he had to high-tail it home. John B. rode shotgun in John W.’s Mercedes diesel.
I drove our Chevy SUV. My wife Deb occupied the passenger seat, with long-time military academy buddies Scott R. and Blaine C. in the back seat. The cargo area, filled to capacity, held our luggage for the overnight stay. With our shotguns, ammo, cold-cut spread (more on that in a moment), dinner attire and shooting clothes, the jammed space looked like a teenager’s closet. It immediately became apparent that attempts to organize our belongings were truly wasting precious shooting time. I slammed the rear hatch, leaving the stuff lay where the road gods deemed fit.
A Lovely Autumn Daybreak
The autumn rain never materialized as forecast -- giving us a morning that quickened the blood and celebrated the pumpkin, cherry and squash colored foliage. The geese flew high in their long flying wedge. With hard rains a few days before, we set out into a daybreak fragrant of sodden leaves and moldering grass.
The plan proposed that the four of us meet up with our other four companions at the M&M Hunting Preserve in Pennsville, New Jersey to shoot 100 rounds of sporting clays. The next stop would be about an hour south -- Owens Station Sporting Clays & Hunting Preserve in Greenwood, Delaware, for another 100 rounds. Afterwards, it was on to the Historic Tidewater Inn in Easton, Maryland, for cocktails, dinner and bed.
Saturday’s agenda called for breakfast, followed by a stop in Albright’s Gun Shop, diagonally across the street from the Tidewater. Albright’s is an Eastern Shore tradition -- a time-honored vestige of sage advice and courteous service. From Albright’s, we would drive about 15 miles north to Pintail Point in Queenstown, Maryland, for our final 100 targets of the outing.
But a more interesting option remained available…
Could We Squeeze in an Extra 100 Rounds?
If we felt hardy enough after Pintail, we would drive northeast to the town of Henderson -- hopefully squeezing in just one more round of 100 clays on the Eastern Shore at Schrader's Bridgetown Manor Hunting & Sporting Clays.
The question remained, were we up to it?
We arrived first at M&M, promptly checking in.
We got the key to our golf cart (that we would use for our bags), a clip board with pencil and scorecard, and a magnetic key card.
M&M installed automated stations, meaning you insert a key card at each station instead of having a trapper set up the shots. For us, this is a wonderful plus. A good trapper is invaluable, helping you figure out which target to shoot first in simos (when both targets are launched simultaneously); or identifying the best spot to shoot a target.
Unfortunately, too many sporting-clays courses employ young trappers with the skill and wit of a spent hull.
Great Sporting Clays Course
M&M’s automated stations present a bonus to a wonderful sporting clays course. The Matarese family, who owns M&M, is a clan of champion sporting clays shooters. And man, do they know how to set up presentations. The pride they take in the facility shows up in the details of freshly laid mulch trails, an immaculate clubhouse and courteous service. M&M is world class in every way -- including the targets.
But bear in mind that the hours are seasonal. Because of the summer mosquitoes, M&M is only open mid-October thru March. You can shoot clays and participate in organized mallard and pheasant hunts -- replete with a prime-rib dinner.
Just as we finished checking in our friends arrived. We all decided to split into two squads of four shooters each. The small squads expedited the shooting. Normally it wouldn’t matter that much if we had a big squad of eight, but we still had lunch to catch and about a one-hour drive to Owens Station afterwards. And we had to leave time to shoot 100 rounds there.
We Took the Hard Targets First
Our squad of four ended up in the parking lot closest to the entrance, which leads you directly to the harder targets (M&M laid out its course into hard and easy targets with clearly marked signs). So rather than cross the road and head into the woodsy easier targets, we started the hard way.
By hard, we’re talking mostly long, high and fast out on the flatlands. You’d almost need a laser-guided shotgun to hit some of those birds, but our squad performed admirably. Especially since we’re not real choke fiends -- the kind of shooters who pack three different chokes for every conceivable presentation.
While we wanted to have the best possible scores, having fun this fine autumn day took precedent. So there were no choke-swaps, ammo tuning or complaining (well, almost no complaining). We took our best shots with what we had -- cheering the near-impossible shots when the targets broke.
Why We Crossed the Road
After four hard stations, we found ourselves by the road. We jumped at the opportunity for the easy targets.
At M&M, easy comes in the way of overheads and crossers zinging through open slivers in the woods. When the light is low (as in autumn) some of the targets disappear -- until the very last possible moment.
Under these conditions, it would be easy to recommend a skeet/improved cylinder configuration versus the IC/IC chokes we used. As we walked the course, a few of the presentations soared higher into the tree tops -- requiring a more surgical shot string provided by IC/IC.
M&M required a quick mount and lightning reactions for the first part of the course. The simos, and even some of the reports, were extremely challenging within the confines of the trees; but they inspire each shooter to rise to the challenge. It’s not a place to get discouraged; it’s a place to improve your skills.
As it turns out, the two best shooters of our squad under-performed, while the less experienced shooters rose to the occasion. In the end, three of us scored within one target of each other.
Again, that’s not to say we were competing. The scores represented a skill level for that particular day on that particular course. And when the numbers were tallied up, most of us felt pretty darn good about our shooting.
But we were starving, and it was lunch time.
We ambled back to the clubhouse, where we met up with our four friends.
This was an unusual departure of our routine at M&M.
Missed the Italian Kitchen
Had we been heading straight home instead of pressing on to Owen Station, the Italian Kitchen on North Hook Road in Pennsville is where we stop for lunch. Period. Their humongous subs are the next best thing to shooting a great round of clays.
The Italian Kitchen is actually a modest grocery. The shelves are stocked with imported delicacies and pastas. The bank of tall soda and beer coolers gives you a clue of why the lines can be so long.
Parmigianino any possible way, or mamma’s meatballs or the Italian cold-cut beauty served up by the DiMarco family has to be the best belly bombs within 50 miles. One of our regulars, Joe. M., even gets a few to go for his family. All of us squeeze into the two booths, unwrap our sandwiches, and scarf ‘em down like stevedores. It’s the only time we’re together when the one-line zingers and give way to a prayful kind of eating.
Scott Brings the Corned Beef
But today it was lunch in the M&M clubhouse. Scott kindly picked up a few pounds of corned beef and turkey at Lenny’s Deli in Owings Mills, Maryland (near his house), along with bread, pickles and some other condiments. The mission: stoke up, hit the road.
We occupied one of the large round tables and spread out -- passing around the food and slapping together our sandwiches. The conversation was light, funny and entertaining. We occasionally had to shoo away one of the two, big golden labs that would gently place his muzzle on your leg -- turning up the charm for a tidbit.
As the house pooches, they are big, friendly guys who greet you with a warm smile and twinkling eyes as they ask for a pat on the head. And don’t be surprised if they roll on their back, opening up for a vigorous belly rub.
We cleaned up, paid up, then packed up the cars.
Buy Shotguns -- No Taxes
After we merged onto U.S. 40, crossing from New Jersey into Delaware, we drove past Miller’s Gun Center in New Castle. With no sales taxes in Delaware, Scott likes to make the trek to load up on ammo.
Scott had introduced me to Miller’s after a day of shooting at M&M. It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, and Miller’s was packed. Miller’s specializes in Brownings, and they have a big selection of used Brownings, in addition to new shotguns by Krieghoff, Beretta, Perazzi and others. In some parts of the store, the lighting isn’t so great -- inhibiting that impulsive buy sparked by love-at-first-sight (a good thing I’m sure).
The guys behind the counters seemed like a bunch of ex-New Yorkers -- straightforward, informative with a bit of an edge. On that particular stopover, I stocked up on a few flats of Winchester AA #8, 1,300 fps handicaps. In addition to Scott’s big ammo buy, we barely jammed it all into the trunk of his silver Mercedes, and then continued south to Baltimore.
Today, we continued south to Greenwood, Delaware.
The gravel crunched under-tire when we pulled into the empty parking lot of Owen Station.
In Waterman’s Country
Dusk was rolling down -- the sky and stretch clouds the shades of Sweetheart candies.
We were on the western edge of waterman country -- where generations ventured into the Chesapeake Bay for crabs, oysters and rockfish. The land appeared as a tidal basin -- flat and virtually free of trees.
The bright moon rose full over the horizon.
Quiet, chilly and vast, it felt like we arrived at an outpost.
The clubhouse evoked a stagecoach stop. Inside, the two young trappers looked as blasé as the space itself. Once we all piled in, though, they livened up -- as though saving their best for the last shoot of the day.
We broke off into the same squads of four. Our young trapper turned out to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He also had a great sense of humor. He was stoked, since he was taking the next day off to go goose hunting.
Seductive and Elusive
Owen Station is a folksy place. The station cages are assembled of white PVC pipe. Some of the stations are jammed together (although we passed plenty to reach the trapper’s choice). It certainly seemed less scientific and corporate than M&M, but as we would discover equally as challenging.
Just about every target was slow-moving, but the subtleties of the dips, turns and trajectories threw you almost every time…
Quite seductive but pretty elusive.
You establish the target, track it for a while, mount the gun, pull the trigger and then miss the darn thing.
The dusk light and flat landscape certainly gave the advantage to the clay birds.
It wasn’t the encroaching darkness, precisely, but the pastel hues of sunset that seemed to suck the orange out of the targets. The clay birds got harder to spot because they took on the colors of the sky. And without the contrasts of trees, marsh reeds or hills to add perspective, we shot at targets that moved like tiny bits of sky against the tidal-basin horizon.
The first station is directly off the parking lot. Stepping into the PVC cage, the moon was moving up full and painfully gorgeous -- meaning that you just wanted to live forever. There, with wonderful company, a great gun at hand, an Eastern Shore sunset and the musky scent of the waterman’s life, it could be your epitaph given the proper biblical flourish. In the moments it took for the targets to approach, time stretched like taffy and you were blessed with the awareness of eternal bliss.
And that’s the way our shoot unfolded at Owen Station. Because coming full circle, the last station was next to the first, and by the time we reached it the full moon suspended right before us in the last vestige of daylight. The target was two report pairs and simo pair of crossers coming from the low scrub off to the right.
These were not mere clay targets that took flight when you called pull. They were mystical birds that made you giddy on their patient incoming trajectory as they hooked past the moon. There was plenty of time to establish the target, mount the gun, and ultimately shatter something exquisite.
In the end, we wished our trapper good luck on his goose hunting and made our way past strip malls and farmland to the Historic Tidewater Inn.
Shotguns and Bird Dogs Welcome
When I first talked with Scott about our reservations there, I told him I’d pack our guns in takedown cases, and then put them into a big duffel bag so we could sneak them into the hotel. He said not to worry. And boy was he right.
The Tidewater is in the heart of Eastern Shore waterfowl country. Read: bird dogs and shotguns welcome.
And sure enough, Deb and I walked straight into the lobby with our gun cases. Not even the blue-haired ladies in minks attending a benefit that night gave us a second look. I even left Deb there a few minutes with the guns as I parked in the free lot behind the building.
But my real lesson in Eastern Shore shooting culture took place as I walked back to the lobby.
They Smelled of Money
I caught up with a very handsome elderly couple -- who literally smelled of money. I don’t know what kind of seductive scents they wore, but it was the first time I met people who smelled rich (and of course they looked wealthy in their black-tie finery). The fragrance mingled honeysuckle, glazed ham and single-barrel bourbon into a very expensive and lovely perfume.
So we chatted along the way, and since I still wore my shooting jacket and looked quite grubby the conversation turned to hunting. The woman asked me, somewhat enthusiastically, if I’d been goose hunting. When I replied clays, she actually appeared disappointed. Her husband picked up the thread and said he planned on goose hunting the next day. I held the door open for them (they seemed accustomed to the courtesy) and we parted ways in the lobby with a pleasant farewell.
While the dramatically lit brick façade of the Tidewater gives Easton’s square elegance and gravitas, the lobby is a bit long in the tooth -- the kind of 1970’s interpretation of colonial décor that whispers Daughters of the American Revolution.
A placard, though, thanked patrons for the patience as a renovation was under way. And if the bar and restaurant were any indication, the transformation could be as striking as when the original wood-frame hotel destroyed in a fire of 1891 was rebuilt in 1947.
The hotel had been acquired in 2005 by Josh Freeman, deceased CEO of the Carl M. Freeman Companies -- a Maryland real-estate developer that moved into boutique hotels, resorts and restaurants.
Under Mr. Freeman, the hotel’s design moved toward a young, hip crowd (the folks who prefer appletinis, tapas and text messaging).
Our room was an adequate size for $129 per night. The porter delivered our bags and then got down on his knees to turn on the old radiator. So, at first blush, while new paint brightened up the place, the infrastructure remained circa 1947.
That became glaringly evident in the bathroom too. New fixtures were Band-Aids to old grey tile, a cruddy shower and shower curtain and lack of an exhaust fan. There was another dinosaur of a radiator under the sink, but I could not for the life of me figure out how to turn it on.
We cleaned up, then met our friends down in the lobby bar.
Elegant and hip, the décor of the Decoy bar was a credible rendition of retro modern -- swanky and glamorous for the iPhone set. The verandah featured an inviting outdoor brick fireplace with plenty of tables.
In the bar, the sweet glow of cocktails and spirits brought out lively conversations, and then it was time for dinner in Local.
The hostess escorted us through the cozy restaurant (it had the feel of an elegant, candle-lit grotto) to a private dining area separated by a wall of glass -- the anticipation growing as the details of the gorgeous setting came closer to being ours.
Dinner in the Wine Library
I discovered later that this inviting space was called the Decanter Wine Room. It made sense, actually, since the dining area is enclosed on three sides by racks of temperature-controlled wine that ran floor to ceiling -- fully visible through glass walls.
The Decanter Wine Room successfully married the communal chef’s table usually reserved for the kitchen, with a post-modern wine library. Generous stemware punctuated the full intent of the room -- giving true wine snobs and aspiring connoisseurs a stage to hold forth on the eloquence of vinification (and the excellent food).
Our waitress was efficient, personable and professional. She went around the table taking orders from a menu that combined local fare with American cuisine in a modern interpretation.
My fried calamari arrived crispy and flavorful. It was accompanied by three sauces: sweet banana, pepper and a crazy sauce. As we passed around some appetizers, I got to taste the oysters and bruchetta from our end of the table -- all of it tasty.
A Sucker for a Brunello
Deb ordered a bottle of the 2004 Quivera Steelhead Red for $35. It was nice but tasted a bit fruity and young. She followed it with a 2001 Col d’Orcia, Brunello di Montalcino. After our trip to Tuscany a few years ago, she became a real sucker for a Brunello. And at $75, this bottle was fairly priced. (The wine was great, by the way.)
Come entrée time, our waitress was accompanied by a platoon of wait staff who served all us simultaneously with military precision.
Our main dishes encompassed the crab cakes (always a favorite of us locals), a monster-size flat-iron steak and the pork chops. I decided on the Elysian Fields rack of lamb from the “Just Protein” selections of the menu. I added a side of mac and cheese that was incredible. The lamb was presented quite rare, which I prefer. It proved tender, flavorful and just enough.
At $39, plus $5 for the mac and cheese, you’re looking at a $44 entrée. Was the food worth it? Considering it was boutique lamb (we got a history of the lamb from our waitress), and the incredible flavors of the mac and cheese, I’d have to say yes. But at the risk of sounding cheeky, it’s only worth it if you can afford it.
Deb and I split an epicurean carrot cake for dessert ($7) for dessert.
Afterwards, we occupied the comfortable furniture in the lobby -- sitting by the fireplace with after dinner drinks.
The Local Breakfast Joint
The next morning, most of us decided to forego the continental breakfast that came with the room, and headed for Darnell’s Grill just up the street.
The upscale sign belies the down-scale setting that the locals cherish. Unspoiled, it was a time capsule of the 1970s local coffee joint with some updated cheap furniture. I saw a table in the rear big enough to accommodate the six of us. But a portly elderly gentlemen with a plaid flannel shirt and wire-frame glasses gave me a look that said “You’re not from around here, are you?” Otherwise, I would’ve known that table was for the regulars who soon arrived.
So instead, we pushed together a few tables. Our waitress finally showed up -- the embodiment of heroine chic. Big breakfasts all around of bacon and eggs or some variation on that theme. The food was serviceable and cheap, -- healthy does of cholesterol, protein and carbs to keep us going for our next 100 rounds at Pintail Point.
Finally, Albright’s Gun Shop
But before returning to the hotel to check out, we made a pilgrimage to Albright’s Gun Shop. In fact, a few us arrived a few minutes before 9:00 -- with noses pressed against the window of the charming storefront.
Albright’s is the first gun store I’ve seen that didn’t have bars on the windows. A fixture on the square, it must merit special dispensation. With its divided light window panes and Colonial style shingle, Albright’s storefront looked more like a local hardware establishment than a gun store.
Once inside, the folks at Albright’s are very friendly. I leaned over the counter to check out their side-by-sides and was invited to handle the guns. Everyone spread out and actually ended up buying clothes. Albright’s is an authorized dealer for Orvis, Beretta and Under Armour clothes, and at least half the store was devoted to hunting and shooting garments. (Albright’s also operates a women’s clothing store in the lobby of the Tidewater, but it didn’t open until 10:00.)
During our visit to Albright’s, Deb bought a pair of over-the-knee, lamb’s wool socks that earned a place in her must-have inventory of shooting apparel.
We malingered in Albright’s long enough -- to the point that we scrambled to checkout at the Tidewater.
What We Found at Pintail Point
About 30 minutes later, we arrived at Pintail Point, in Queenstown, Maryland.
Turn into the long driveway and the first thing you’ll see is a grand equestrian facility. It’s brand new -- the centerpiece a sprawling white barn accompanied topped by a classic cupola. Surrounding the barn are paddocks and a ring.
The day we visited Pintail we saw a trotter warming up in the ring.
It’s a beautiful addition for Pintail Point’s sporting set, since the place also features wingshooting, five-stand, wobble trap, fly fishing, nearby golf and two B&Bs.
Continue driving, and on your left is the elegant shooting clubhouse.
We’d never seen the parking lot so full, and sure enough there was a wait for a trapper (you can’t shoot without one). An unusual number of large parties set out early that day, and as they came in we saw entire families riding in the six-passenger golf carts.
The warm morning made it inviting to wait outside.
28-Gauge for Sporting Clays?
On an impulse, I decided to shoot the course with my 28-gauge barrel set. I’d recently traded my 12 gauge for a Caesar Guerini Magnus Sporting Ltd. combo with 20- and 28-gauge barrels. (Yes, I should’ve told you sooner, but I shot M&M and Owen Station with a 20 gauge.)
Shooting a 28-gauge at Pintail is not for sissies. While Owen Station is a perfect 28-gauge course, my experience at Pintail told me that some of the shots were too long. But I was having a good time and with friends who I didn’t really mind embarrassing myself in front of, so I swapped out the barrels.
My Caesar Guerini was still relatively new, and the only other time I’d shot 28-gauge sporting clays was a few weeks earlier at the Prince George’s County Trap and Skeet Center. I’d gone with my new friend, Rick C. -- a very experienced shooter and 28-gauge aficionado.
I ended the day shooting the exact same score on that course as I’d done with my 12 gauge. So I was stoked to try it again. And if I made a fool of myself at Pintail with it -- oh well.
We Run Into Gary Phillips
As I was changing barrels in the parking lot, our good friend Gary Phillips pulled in. Deb and I had taken some sporting clays lessons with Gary. Not only is the guy a world-class shooting champ, but he’s a hoot to hang out with.
Gary has won many coveted honors, including the prestigious British Open, NSCA HOA and a silver in the World Championships. Even though Gary is British, he was the first shooter to break a perfect 100 consecutive targets.
Gary hadn’t seen my Caesar Guerini before and I asked his advice about chokes for shooting 28-gauge on this course. He’d advised two light-modifieds. Of the six chokes that came with the gun, only one was a LM. So he suggested LM on top and modified on bottom. (I subsequently ordered a second LM choke from the manufacturer.)
He’d been waiting for a lesson to arrive, and she pulled up in a new BMW Alpina B7 that lists for about $115,000. Out steps a stunning blonde with a Krieghoff, and Gary sweeps her away in a golf cart.
You Want to Carry What?
Finally, when our trapper arrived, she didn’t have a cart. She kindly offered to carry our ammo, but frankly we didn’t think she was up to setting out with 16 boxes on her petite frame.
Deb, Blaine and I decided to shoot some wobble trap in the meantime -- and warm up for our 100 rounds.
The wobble at Pintail is actually a lot of fun. You climb a few steps into a gazebo (or you can shoot from a ground-level position), and the targets come flying out from under you in report pairs that cross a pond. The view from the gazebo is the dairy-farm barn and the equestrian facility
I shot two rounds of low 20s with my 28 gauge, which I felt was pretty darn good. I was cocky and ready to roll. Sure enough a cart became available and our squad of four set out.
Missing the Easy Ones
Pintail progresses from easiest to harder targets as you drive through its 20-odd stations.
The first station presents two report pair and a simo pair of outgoers over a pond. The targets are close and slow. Still, you’d be surprised how many people miss them.
Station one is easy for experienced shooters to take for granted. They walk up, mount the gun and shoot -- overlooking the subtle drop of the birds over the dark surface of the water. If you apply yourself, though, you’ll smash the targets.
From there, the targets grow more difficult. What do I mean? Well, Pintail’s landscaping is designed to truly simulate wingshooting in the Eastern Shore. Tall grasses, water, marsh weeds and sweeping expanses are integrated into the presentations. It’s not just a matter of hacking a path through some trees for you to see the target. The well-thought-out habitat seems to be part of the station’s DNA.
So you’ll have tower shots that gradually fall into tall marsh weeds, or a low crosser that skims across the high grass, or a high, far crosser over a stretch of flat terrain. The more difficult the target, the more active the landscaping in adding degrees of difficulty.
One station presented a close, slow-moving poison bird. If you’re not familiar with poison-bird presentations, it involves three closely placed targets, one of which is a different color. You have to hit the matched pair without even nicking the odd bird. If you do, it costs you one bird on your score. At Pintail, the poison bird was partially obscured by tall grass -- cutting the time it takes to establish the three birds.
Scott and Blaine thought that by shooting a 28-gauge with tight chokes, I could surgically shoot around the poison bird. Actually, I didn’t do so great on that station -- and Deb with her 12-gauge beat me.
As we circled back to the homestretch, everyone in the squad was pretty beat. We were running on empty.
When we finally got back to the club house, our friends in the other squad had already left. Scott got a phone call from John B. that they stopped for a cheap burger and afterwards were heading home.
Hitting The Narrows
Cheap burgers? Not on this trip. Our squad was going out with a repast.
So on the way home, we stopped at The Narrows. With its classic Eastern Shore architecture and décor, The Narrows restaurant is located on the Kent Narrows. We arrived well after lunch and were seated at a waterview table.
The interior is a blend of natural wood, royal blue and white -- creating an understated nautical feel.
Although the sky radiated the hard blue of autumn, calm waters and sunshine gave the impression of Indian Summer.
Our waitress was perky and competent.
Scott recommended the cream of crab soup, which proved to be a satisfying first course after 100 rounds in the invigorating Eastern Shore air. I ordered the oyster Caesar salad for an entrée. Like the mammoth burgers, crabcakes and salads that arrived after the soup, it was serviceable.
After lunch, yawns all around.
Our overnight excursion turned out to be one of the best shooting trips ever. It was pretty inexpensive, very interesting, challenging enough to keep you engaged, and lots of fun. Give it a try.
Irwin Greenstein is the Publisher of ShotgunLife.com
M&M Hunting Preserve
2 Winslow Rd.
Pennsville, NJ 08070
Owens Station Sporting Clays & Hunting Preserve
12613 Hunter's Cove Rd.
Greenwood, DE 19950
Historic Tidewater Inn
101 East Dover Street,
Easton, MD 21601
Albright's Gun Shop
36 East Dover Street
Easton, MD 21601
Pintail Point at The River Plantation
511 Pintail Point Lane
Queenstown, MD 21658
3023 Kent Narrows Way South
Grasonville, MD 21638