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Generations cling to the tradition of deer season's opening day in Pa.

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 11:32 p.m.
Ken Wees and his son, Alex, of Hempfield prepare for opening day of deer season at Bouldin Sporting Equipment in Irwin on November 20, 2012. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Ken Wees and his son Alex Wees of Hempfield Township pose for a portrait at Bouldin Sporting Equipment on November 20, 2012 in Irwin. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review

By the time you read this, Ken and Alex Wees will be gone.

The father and son left their Hempfield home on Friday for Camp Coffee's On, a Forest County retreat, in preparation for Monday's opening day of deer season.

That's tradition.

Ken's grandfather started it more than a half-century ago, when trips meant staying in a wall tent heated by a wood-burning stove. The family began going to the camp in 1985, and the trip is not something to be messed with.

“My wife's cousin was thinking once of getting married on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and I wished them well. I said I'd tell them good luck in advance because they wouldn't see me there,” said Ken Wees, 45, who hasn't missed an opening day at camp since age 12.

“We don't hold too many weekends sacred, so to speak, but that's one.”

What Black Friday is to shoppers, the Monday after Thanksgiving is to hunters. It's opening day of Pennsylvania's statewide firearms deer season, when 750,000 or so sportsmen take to the woods. It is, by far, the single busiest day of the hunting year.

It resonates beyond the woods.

Churches, community centers and volunteer fire companies, such as those in Adamsburg in Westmoreland County and Coral Graceton in Indiana County, cater to orange-clad sportsmen early in the day, hosting hunters' breakfasts of pancakes, sausage and bacon, potatoes, toast and coffee.

Crowds as large as the one tied to opening day of deer season are hard to come by, said Tony Dellafiora, chief at Coral Graceton. The fire company tries to take advantage of it and raise some money by feeding hunters between 4 and 7 a.m.

“We did it for years and then, after a break, started back up four or five years ago. It keeps getting bigger and bigger every year now,” he said.

By evening, the hunters will flock to butcher shops, large and small.

Espey's Meat Market near Scottdale typically keeps four or five people on staff. That number will climb to 10 between Monday night and Tuesday morning, when about 20 percent of all the deer handled in a year's time arrive.

“Monday, we just try to get all of the deer skinned and hung in the cooler. Tuesday is our first chance to really start cutting them up,” said Chuck Keefer.

Things get equally busy at taxidermy shops.

“I get to hunt Monday, but then I come home first thing Tuesday morning, and that's pretty much my hunting season. By then, I have to be ready to go. Deer heads are the bread and butter of our business,” said Kevin Lane of Lane's Wildlife Images in New Brighton.

The season is all about fun and memories for hunters, though.

Alex Wees, 13, a seventh-grader at West Hempfield Middle School, shot his first deer, an 8-point buck, out of Camp Coffee's On two years ago. Like other hunters, he hopes for another buck this year.

Yet just being part of another generation at camp is fun, he said.

“We sit around and watch some TV, but mostly I'm outside all weekend shooting my .22 rifle. And sometimes we have a fire and sit around and gab,” he said.

Those memories are what make deer season so important, his dad said.

“We're all so darn busy these days that, other than the holidays, it's our time to get together. We just go up, sit around and tell the same stories we've been telling for 30 years,” Ken Wees said. “It's pretty neat.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or 724-838-5148.

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