Last year I reported on a survey showing that most hunters in Pennsylvania like the new if controversial Saturday start to the firearms deer season. For many years, the Penn. gun season started the Monday after Thanksgiving, but that was changed to the Saturday opener in 2021.

The study found that some 60% of hunters preferred the Saturday opening day. Top reasons cited included more opportunity to hunt since most people are off work that day, and kids are out of school so it’s easier for them to go with a parent on Saturday.

Lancaster Online has conducted 3 polls since the season was changed, and all three times the majority of respondents favored the Saturday opener by a wide margin.

On the flip side, studies and polls show that some 27% to 30% of hunters, especially those who hunt out of mountain camps, oppose the Saturday opener, and passionately so.

I got this thoughtful and well-written email recently from Rebecca Latini, a 26-year-old female hunter whose family has a deer camp in the mountains of Benezette, Pa. She wrote:

“The biggest and perhaps most controversial issue that has divided hunters in the state was the change of the opening day of rifle season. For 60 plus years, opening day was always on a Monday. It was about comradery, tradition and the memories made. As my dad says, ‘It has very little to do with the kill. It is about the memories and the moments to look back on.’

We would arrive to our camp on a Friday, making sure to stop and support the local businesses, especially the mom & pop shops, taverns, grocery stores and restaurants. We and other hunters provided a ton of business, and opening weekend of deer season was what brought a large majority of their money for the year.

We would spend Saturday hanging stands, scouting the land, and making sure we were shooting straight. On Sundays, we would enjoy a large dinner, and spend the evening with fellow hunters, neighbors and friends, rekindling old memories of years past, telling hunting stories and anticipating Monday. This was where as youth hunters we learned from our elders and spent so much time together. It was a way of life.

In 2019, the Pennsylvania Game Commission decided to change opening day to the Saturday after Thanksgiving for “more opportunity.” This, in return, meant everyone had to rush to get to camp and frantically get ready to hunt on Saturday.

A local gun shop in Clearfield County, Pa. has suffered a drastic loss in sales in the last 4 years. No one has time to stop in any restaurants, or grocery stores and many establishments closed their doors. It has caused an economic decline in the state for these small businesses, which were hit with COVID-19 that same year.

On Saturday January 28th, 2023, I traveled 3 1/2 hours to Harrisburg to show support for bringing back the Monday opener. What happened in that (game commission) meeting was appalling. I saw men, well into their mid-80s with tears in their eyes, crying and pleading for their tradition back as commissioners yawned, texted and sat stone faced with no expression or empathy. Their reasoning for changing the date of the opening day was for ‘more opportunities’ and to ‘increase license sales.’”

I am reaching out to hunters and conservationists far and wide to please understand us, we need as much support as we can get as we try to spread our word.”

Rebecca Latini

Becca, I truly appreciate your email and passion. The fact that we are losing many of our hunting traditions, like your mountain deer camps, is troubling and sad to me.

I also understand the “more opportunity” and “more license sales” messages that the Penn. Game Commission and most other wildlife departments are pushing across the country. It is a fact that hunter numbers, while boosted a bit during COVID, have been declining across America for years. We need more hunting days and opportunities for new and young hunters, and game departments need every extra dollar of license revenue they can get to manage the land and the resource.

In a way this issue reminds me of the “crossbow in archery season” conflict of the 1990s, which I wrote extensively about for Outdoor Life. Old-school and passionate recurve and compound hunters fought hard to keep the modern crossbow out of early archery seasons; “we’ll lose our traditions and they’ll kill all the deer,” opponents of the crossbow said.

The growing number of crossbow hunters wanted to hunt in September and October for more days to hunt and a better chance to kill a deer. Game departments largely sided with this group because it would encourage more people to hunt and buy more archery licenses.

Now, 30 years later, that controversy is virtually nonexistent, and vertical and crossbow hunters in every state get along fine for the most part. I believe the same will happen with the Penn. Rifle Opener debate. The Saturday opener seems here to stay. The mountain-camp hunters and other opponents will sadly lose precious traditions, but they’ll adapt and change their schedules and hunting vacations to and through the weekend after Thanksgiving.

I predict this issue will simmer for a few more years.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Smith recently said he wants to change opening day back to the Monday after Thanksgiving.