The driving force behind local growth of one of the world’s most challenging shotgun games and a great family man, Stephen Imes, 68, of Columbus, left behind a host of legacies when he died unexpectedly July 31.
Invented in Europe early in the last century, helice’s popularity has grown slowly but steadily. In the South, where the roots of quail hunting still tap deeply into tradition, helice has begun to grow and attract shooters from all across the country. Primarily at the insistence of Imes, Prairie Wildlife, near West Point, built and opened its first helice range in 2018.
“He and I went to Alabama one day to shoot helice and, all the way back, he talked about how much fun it had been,” Jimmy Bryan, Prairie Wildlife’s founder and owner, said. “After continuing to talk about it for five or six months, he talked me into partnering with him on helice here, and we set about building our first helice ring.”
Black Prairie Helice, located at Prairie Wildlife with Imes as managing partner, was the result.
“We were already doing wing shooting and five-stand,” Benny Atkinson, Prairie Wildlife’s general manager, said. “We went to work building our own helice facility from scratch.”
“Stephen was the prime motivation behind it,” Bryan said. “He was looking forward to having more time to pour into it, but time just didn’t work out.”
Partly because of its natural appeal, more significantly because of the ambassadorship demonstrated by Imes, both the game and its practice at Prairie Wildlife have flourished beyond all expectation.
“It’s very rare for us to see a facility be founded and grow at the pace Black Prairie Helice has,” Mimi Wilfong, of Dallas, says. She’s a past European and world champion helice shooter and past president of the United States Helice Association.
Prairie Wildlife opened its first helice ring three years ago. Its fourth is under construction now. This past weekend, Bryan and the team at Prairie Wildlife dedicated the thriving venture to their friend’s memory, naming the helice range Stephen Imes Field.
“Other places have taken decades to do what’s happened here in three years,” Wilfong said. “Stephen was the chief spark of growth of helice in this region. It’s really seen a big benefit from his drive.”
Unique among shooting disciplines, the science of addressing a bird or target moving through the air is a balance of form, function and reflex, blended into an expression of instinct only practice can refine. Consistent success can be elusive and fleeting. Helice is a game that highlights all of these. In its pursuit, more than a shooter’s ability is revealed. Along with what a shooter may do, helice demonstrates who a shooter to be. In both regards, Imes truly shone.
“For him, the hits and the misses were all part of the game, and he enjoyed playing it for the challenge and the joy it brings,” Eddie Briggs, a competitive shooter and past lieutenant governor of Mississippi, said. “I’ll miss his smile and his laugh. He was a fun guy to be with and do this with.”
“Personally, Stephen was just a joy to be around,” Xavier Fairley, director of shooting sports at Prairie Wildlife, said. “I’ll miss his gruff, boisterous laugh. He was basically a good, fun person. He was a pleasure to work for and to work with. He wasn’t just a boss, he was a friend. As an employee, I treasured the trust he placed in me to represent him and Mr. Bryan well.
“He liked this game so much because it’s instinctive, and he exemplified that, both as a shooter and as a man.”
In helice, targets fly very quickly and unpredictably, and the opportunity to shoot one successfully is brief. Virtually every helice practitioner, from the most newly introduced to the most seasoned champion, stands ready to shoot with his or her shotgun already mounted to their shoulder before calling for a target, reducing necessary motion to a minimum. Essentially everyone shooting helice does it this way and always has. But not Imes.
“He shot low-gun, and no one who watched him shoot could believe it,” Bryan said. “Nobody does that in this game. He said he’d shot that way all his life and wasn’t going to change now.”
In a style perfected by generations of excellent quail hunters but, in top-level competitive helice at least, a style unique to him, Imes held his shotgun even with his midriff as he called for a target, then would bring his shotgun up to his shoulder and his cheek to the gunstock’s comb, keeping his eye on the target and squeezing the trigger as all three intersected at a point chosen instinctively ahead of the target’s flight, reflexively and, in his case, expertly, breaking the target far more often than not. Two years after discovering the game, Imes placed third in his class in 2019’s helice world tournament in Rome.
“He was an instinctive shooter, and this is an instinctive game,” Bryan said. “That’s so fitting because he was a unique and instinctive guy.
“Anything that flew, he shot. We were fairly close friends for the last 15 to 20 years. The first time I was around him was on a dove field, where I was at a station just to one side of his, and my first impression of him was just that I didn’t want to sit next to him at a dove shoot again. Not many doves got past him coming my way.
“Not many new visitors here at Prairie Wildlife got by him without him speaking to them, making sure they knew they were welcome. I really doubt there was ever anyone who came here he didn’t speak warmly to, and that’s who Stephen really was. He was a really good family person. That’s about the only thing that interfered with his shooting.
“He was generous in all phases of his life. He never got in a hurry. We had a wonderful partnership.”
“I call myself a happy person, but his smile caused other people to smile, and his friendship warmed my heart,” said Becky Briggs, a fellow competitor who was often around Imes on the range. “He was the man out here. People loved him. He picked up the game and shot in his own style, and he did it masterfully. He is missed, and he will be missed. He was always grinning.”
For more about helice, the shotgun sports and the legacy Imes leaves behind, visit prairiewildlife.com.