Sporting Life // 6 min Read

Common Clay

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Oct 11, 2023

Photographs by Cameron Wilder Story by Alex Marvar
Left to right: Palmetto Bluff residents Cynthia Willet, Nancy Thomas, Donna South, and Michelle Solomon

On the bluff’s 120-acre sporting clays course, four friends find a winning combination of fresh air, calm, confidence, and camaraderie – but who’s keeping score?

Bright blue and yellow northern parulas, sweetsinging Carolina wrens, chipper vireos, and chickadees flit between the high branches of the mossy oaks and loblolly pines, unphased by the occasional boom ringing out from the barrel of Cynthia Willett’s shotgun. She leans against the rail in the elevated stand, a wild burst of bird feathers pinned to her rolled-brim felt hat. With her gun in position, she calls: “Pull.” 

Plink. Clack. An orange clay plate drops into place, and a metallic arm slings it across the grassy clearing. As it arcs toward the sky, Willett takes aim, tracking it with her gun barrel. In the split second that it seems frozen at its apex, she sees her lead and takes her shot. Pumpkin-colored clay shards scatter in the air. She kicks two spent Fiocchi 12-gauge shells and slips them into her vest pocket. 

At the foot of the shooting stand stairs, Donna South, Nancy Thomas, and Michelle Solomon let out a cheer. It’s early on a Friday morning at Palmetto Bluff Shooting Club, a wonderland of clay, trap, and skeet stands, archery hunting simulations, and ax throwing stations laid out across 120 acres of secluded forest with plantation pine and a hardwood bottom ecosystem, just a few turns from each of these four friends’ Palmetto Bluff homes. The ladies are decked in wing shooting gear: a smart camo vest with a bold pink blaze, ascots, mallard prints, handsome hunting satchels, and a diverse array of leather boots: from Chelsea, to riding, to studded cowgirl.

Willett and Thomas have each been shooting for upwards of twenty years. South and Solomon are newcomers, with just a couple of years each under their belts. “I love watching Cynthia because she goes out and touches the targets, almost,” says Solomon, whose family relocated from Michigan to become full-time Bluff residents during the pandemic. “It reminds me to use my body and follow through. That’s always something I admire about the way she shoots.”

“Well, don’t follow me,” Willett laughs. “I have some bad habits.” She breaks her shotgun and locks it into the stand in the back of their four-door Polaris Ranger cart, and they all load in to move to the next stand.

Just under a decade ago, Palmetto Bluff set up its first iteration of the clay course, an echo of the tradition of field hunting carried out on this lush, coastal property for some two centuries. Thirteen stands were plotted across a heavily wooded tract chosen for its natural sounds buffers and hardscape. The course was set up to have as little impact as possible, with biodegradable targets and solar-powered punch-card scanners to activate each station.

Thanks to its popularity, the amenity has grown into what it is today, the Palmetto Bluff Shooting Club, which includes the twenty stands the group will visit this morning, all situated along a dirt trail that splits from the main road and loops around like a lasso. A brand-new clubhouse opened its doors this past fall. “Cynthia introduced me to shooting,” says South, a tennis buff and long-time Savannah resident who moved to Palmetto Bluff nine years ago. “She said, ‘Why don’t you try it—you’d have a lot of fun.’” Willett was right. Not only did South love the experience of being outdoors, she loved the challenge. When she plays tennis, she’s often playing with a partner. But on the clay course, even in company, it’s solitary exercise. “It just gives me confidence in myself,” she says.

Now one of South’s daughters, Lorri, also a PalmettoBluff resident, is taking up the sport. She hopes her granddaughter will get involved one day. “They’re all very nice and helpful,” she says of her shooting coterie. “They’re not judging you. So if I go with them to compete, they dont look like, ‘Oh, gosh, she’s going to ruin our score.’” Thomas, Willett, and Solomon erupt with laughter. “We don’t talk about the scoring much,” Thomas affirms as the crew disembarks from the 4×4 and hops up the steps of the club’s five-stand. “It’s just more about fun for us.”

“I just compete against myself,” Solomon says. “I always try to beat my score from the last time—and I always try to make sure I beat my husband,” she laughs. South shoots with her husband, too. “He’s competitive. So he goes home, a lot of times, very disgusted.” More laughter echoes along the five-stand walkway. 

Soon the tone shifts: The group is deep in concentration. Solomon triggers the clays, demonstrating their trajectories as the women prepare to shoot. It’s not always just about fun. Thomas and Willett have done some serious good with their clay shoot pursuits, together co-chairing several tournaments with their regional shooting group, the Lowcountry Annie Oakleys, and raising more than one million dollars for various children’s causes, including Memorial Health’s Dwaine and Cynthia Willett Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Coastal Empire, America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, and CURE Childhood Cancer.

Back at the Bluff, these ladies participate in plenty of shooting-focues events too, from recurring Clay Camp group shoots to Shells and Charddonay (or, more accurately, Shells then Charddonay), a gals-with-guns safety and socializing event held every first Wednedsay for newcomers to learn skills, from cleaning a firearm to knocking out a true pair, while mingling with fellow shooters. “It’s so funny how it brings together like-minded people from all over,” Thomas says.

Solomon is just two years into what she imagines will be quite a long career of clays, and she’s proud of her thirteen-year-old daughter, Zoe, who took up the sport when they made their move to Palmetto Bluff and now competes in monthly tournaments with other students.

“We grew up in the North, hunting,” Solomon says. “When we were touring the school here, we were in a hallway and saw a picture of a girl shooting the sporting clays […] We took her to her first practice, and we were like, ‘This is awesome.’ We just fell in love with it. I love the empowerment of [being] a woman with a gun—that I know how to use it and that I can be safe using it. And I love that it’s Southern. Coming from the North, I love everything about it: all the fashion, the beauty of the outdoors—all of it.”

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