On a humid summer day, Fritz Thistle is at a gun range near Sauk Prairie, hoping to squeeze in a good practice session before the looming black clouds give way to downpours and lightning.
“I actually got started shooting when I was really, really young,” Thistle said. “At my age, they taught us all to hunt, but nobody ever taught us how to shoot. So I hunted really well. I could find the stuff, but I couldn’t hit very much.”
During a twenty year career in the U.S. Navy, Thistle developed an interest in trap shooting, gun sports that involve shooting moving clay targets out of the air.
“I found a guy that I used to know in New Jersey. He took me out to a local trap club, and I broke three out of 25, and I said ‘I can do this!” Thistle said. “I found a Winchester gun club up there and started going there a little bit, and before I was out of Navy School, I ran my first 25 straight.”
After retiring from the Navy, Thistle moved home to Wisconsin and honed his shooting skills at a conservation club. In 1989, he decided to shoot competitively.
“I went to the Wisconsin state shoot in Waukesha,” Thistle said. “They shoot 100 targets in the morning, 100 targets in the afternoon, total of 200 singles for the singles championship. Well, I broke a 97 in the morning out of 100 and 97 in the afternoon out of 100. That didn’t win me anything, but that really got me hooked.”
Soon, Thistle began travelling with friends to competitions around the state. By the early 2000s, Thistle began winning more competitions.
“I won the all-around Wisconsin State Championship,” Thistle said. “I shot off in the singles, I shot off in the handicap, I ended up second in doubles, had them all together, had the all-around in Wisconsin too.”
As Thistle was hitting his peak performance, he travelled to Iowa for the Iowa State Trap Shoot.
“I was shooting a singles event with some friends of mine, and I missed my last target out for a 99,” Thistle said. “What they didn’t know was that I’d been having a heck of a headache, and all the way through it was getting worse and worse. I went back to the camper, and that’s the last thing I remember.”
Thistle had had a brain hemorrhage. He was flown by helicopter to the University of Iowa and awoke ten days later.
“I came out of the hospital paralyzed on my right side: no movement in my arm or leg,” Thistle said. “I laid in that hospital and I said ‘Move you buggers.” One day, my toes moved. I called my wife and said ‘I’m going to be alright.’”
Thistle also planned to take up shooting again.
“My first couple times (at the range) after my brain hemorrhage, I wanted to start shooting, and I can stand at Station 1, miss all five left-handed targets, and that was so frustrating,” Thistle said. “I started making targets again. A lot of hard work and I was back. That was in 2004, and I made the All-American team in 2007. In 2013, I was inducted into the Wisconsin Hall of Fame.”
Back at the shooting range, Thistle is preparing for practice. Instead of working on his own skills, he is preparing to help the members of the Sauk County Youth Trapshooting Association hone theirs. A few years ago, Thistle was asked to help coach their team.
“I knew most of the kids, but I never got into coaching with them until Vic Whalen came, and he’s heading up the coaching right now and said ‘We need somebody to help teach the kids doubles,’” Thistle said. “I can do that. Maybe I can’t shoot them quite as well at my age, but I can sure remember how to do it and teach them.”
Like Thistle, the members of this team are champion shooters, often wining cash prizes for an endowment. Thistle believes the lessons he teaches the team members about shooting also apply to other areas of life.
“You know, setting goals, accomplishing goals, readjusting your goals, that’s everyday life stuff,” Thistle said. “Whether it’s coming back from a brain hemorrhage or shooting trap, if you think you can do it, that’s half the battle.”