Dennis Anderson
See more of the story

– Here’s today’s brain-teaser: When is a problem not a problem?

Answer: When the solution is obvious.

Such was my thinking here Thursday while attending the 2018 Minnesota State High School Clay Target League Trap Shooting Championship. I wasn’t alone: Perhaps 2,000 other observers were in attendance to watch as many as 1,000 kids from grades 6 through 12 yell “Pull” before attempting to break orange discs flying at various angles from trap houses.

The championship this year will attract more than 8,000 students over nine days, up from 700 during its inaugural run in 2012. More than 1 million clay targets will be thrown, making it the largest shooting-sports event in the world.

Some of the young shooters are top guns: On Wednesday, Cole Girtz of Park Rapids and Jack Sueker of Wayzata tied for high-overall, with both breaking 100x100.

Others are in the process of developing their skills. Twins Bauston and Savannah Lenarz, for example, are in their first year of shooting for South St. Paul High School. The 16-year-olds will be seniors this fall.

“They were hesitant at first,” said Tammy Lenarz, their mom, who like other parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends had come to root for her favorite shooters. “But both their dad and grandfather are hunters, and they encouraged them to give it a try.”

Also a high school senior, Destiny Merchlewitz is in her first year of shooting as a member of the Dover-Eyota High School team, along with her younger brother, Dylan, who is in eighth grade.

“I love shooting,” she said. “My brother and I grew up in a hunting family.”

Founded in 2001 by Jim Sable of the Twin Cities, a retired ad executive, competitive prep trap shooting has become by far the fastest-growing high school sport in the state — and probably the nation.

In part this is because girls and boys — physically able and physically challenged alike — compete on the same teams, and in part because everyone gets to shoot. Meaning, in high school trap shooting, there are no benchwarmers.

During the spring trap shooting season, teams are ranked by the number of clays their top shooters break. Thus, among team members, there is continuous jostling for the highest scores in three categories: novice (for shooters who average 0-14.9 broken clays per 25); junior varsity (15-18.9); and varsity, 19-25.

“On Wednesday, the top five varsity shooters from Park Rapids broke 488 out of 500 clays, and the top five from Wayzata broke 491 out of 500,” Sable said. “That’s outstanding shooting.”

Sable couldn’t have imagined the sport’s meteoric rise in popularity. As a member of Plymouth Gun Club, his primary concern now nearly two decades ago was that the state’s older trap shooters weren’t being replaced by younger ones.

“Trap ranges around the state were shutting down because of a lack of interest,” he said.

Sable first pitched a trap-team proposal to Orono schools. Remarkably, they bought in.

“Then I went to Wayzata and said, ‘We’ve got team in Orono, but they need someone to compete against. How about it?’ ”

From those first schools, prep trapshooting grew to 343 teams a year ago, before rising to 370 this year, representing more than 400 of the state’s approximately 500 schools.

Kids from California to New York also are shooting. Under the auspices of the USA High School Clay Target League, a nonprofit Sable and partner John Nelson formed, 26 states have organized prep leagues.

“We just concluded the South Dakota state tournament before we started here [in Alexandria],” Sable said. “We shot again in Aberdeen, and this year doubled the number of South Dakota kids participating to 563. The coaches there told me they will double the number of shooters again next year.”

Competitive youth trap shooting has grown fast for many reasons, including:

• Shooting is fun, and trying to hit a flying target even more fun.

• Participants don’t have to be big, as in football, or fast, as in track. Instead, hand-eye coordination is required, which can be improved with practice. Mental discipline, or the ability to be cool under pressure, is also a trait the best shooters possess.

• Kids can earn varsity letters shooting trap, and also have their team pictures in yearbooks.

“I had one superintendent tell me that in his school the reason most kids joined the trap team was the opportunity to make friends,” Sable said. “His school had gotten so big that kids essentially went all day seeing the same kids but never talking to them. Trap shooting gave them a chance to expand their circle of friends.”

•••

Dating back about 15 years, the Legislature and state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have fiddled with the idea of building a world-class shooting facility near the Twin Cities. The idea would be to provide the state’s young shooters a place to hold their state meet — they’re nearly outgrowing the Alexandria range — while also serving as host to national shooting events, including skeet and sporting clays, as well as trap.

Predictably, nothing has happened, even though — here’s the aforementioned problem — youth participation in bird hunting, deer hunting and, yes, fishing has been declining rapidly nationwide.

In response, the DNR, like state agencies elsewhere, as well as various conservation and wildlife NGOs, have attempted, with little success, to reverse the downward trends by introducing handfuls of kids at a time to the outdoors.

Meanwhile, kids by the thousands in Minnesota and across the nation are clamoring to participate in trap shooting. But they’re being turned away. Not for lack of volunteer coaches — Minnesota has 3,000 such mentors, with more waiting to help — but for a lack of facilities.

As if miraculously, trap shooting has arrived as counterpoint to hunting and fishing declines among kids. Yet in Minnesota, as elsewhere, policymakers and pubic officials have failed to leverage this opportunity by marketing to these young shooters the many opportunities that await them not just on shooting ranges but in the field. The Legislature, by its inaction, has similarly dropped the ball.

The solution is obvious:

Move the facility-shortage issue into the hands of a public-private task force made up of stakeholders with the most to lose (and gain) — think Cabela’s, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DNR, among others — and charge the group with proposing to the Legislature a way to fast-track construction of a shooting range in Minnesota.

Quick, before the opportunity is lost.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com