Joe Heeger is two times blessed this year.

Heeger is a dove hunter. Like most of us who long for dogs and fields and fresh crisp air through the oppressive summer, he spends a lot of time staring at the calendar.

This time it bears good news.

"Friday," said Heeger. "The season starts on a Friday." He pointed to the figures on the wall. They say that Sept. 1, the traditional start of dove season, is a Friday this year.

And Friday is Heeger's day off. That's blessing No.1.

Heeger runs the Prince George's Public Shooting Center. He took the operation over two years ago and now he's a good enough skeet shooter to average 24 birds out of a round of 25. That means he'll probably hit a few fast-flying doves this year, while the rest of us shoot of double sawbucks worth of shells and come home with a half a bird. Or none at all.

"I don't believe in that any more," said Heeger. "I take two boxes of shells when I go for doves. Other guys need a wheelbarrow to carry their ammunition. If I have to open the second box before I have my limit, it's a bad day."

Easy for him to say. He can walk out the front door any time and sharpen his eye. For us working folks it's not so easy.

Still, anyone who takes his bird hunting seriously is a fool if he dosen't spend at least a few days over the next six weeks getting ready by blasting moderately expensive clay pigeons away with high-priced ammunition.

Skeet and trap shooting are weird sports. "We're nothing but a glorified bowling alley," said Heeger. Instead of pins, he had little saucers of cheap clay. Instead of bowling balls, fancy shotguns and scatter shot.

But the Thursday night leagues, the handicapping, the long waits while one's opponents shoot, all bear striking resemblance to life on the lanes.

I've never been skeet or trap shooting when I didn't feel a little silly. The puller - the guy who sends the targets winging into the sky on your order - directs you from one concrete square to another . At each stop you scrunch over into ready position, holler "pull it," draw a bead on the sorry little soaring target and try to blast it into powder.

Not everyone think it's so silly. Some of the shooters in the leagues at Heeger's place would rather shoot skeet than hunt. To me it's just another chance to throw money away. But you've got to walk before you run, and if you want to hit live birds, you'd better be able to hit clay ones first.

Somelocal spots to warm up for dove season: