Opening day change is official for Pennsylvania deer hunters
The change — and it’s a big one — is official.
Opening day of Pennsylvania’s statewide firearms deer season is moving. It has been the Monday after Thanksgiving each year since 1963.
This year it will be the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Pennsylvania Game Commissioners on Tuesday — by a 5-3 vote — made the switch in setting hunting and trapping seasons and bag limits for the 2019-20 license year. It was just one of several changes adopted.
But it’s clearly the biggest one.
Whether it’s the right one is harder to predict. Answers about its impact on the future of hunting in the state — good or bad — likely won’t come for a few years.
In changing things, commissioners cited the possibility a Saturday opener could potentially boost hunting license sales and participation by making their sport more accessible to college students and working people.
There are no guarantees, though. The commission surveyed lapsed hunters — those who bought a license twice in a five-year span, but not in the last two — to see if a Saturday opener would convince them to hunt again. More than 60 percent said yes or at least maybe.
But, according to Coren Jagnow, the commission’s human dimensions specialist, it’s likely only a fraction — an unknown one at that — will follow through.
Other surveys, meanwhile, showed a majority of existing hunters oppose the change to a Saturday opener. The breakdown was about 2 to 1 against.
Hunters who operate from camps were the most vocal opponents. One was Randy Santucci of Pittsburgh. A past president of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, he testified before commissioners. He stressed he was representing himself and not any group.
But he said, like many camp owners, he values the entirety of opening weekend, from arriving at camp Friday to actually hunting Monday. The camaraderie of those few days — not just the hunting that ends it — are key to recruiting and retaining young people, he suggested.
“Pennsylvania has deep family ties,” Santucci said. “It is the invisible glue that holds the majority of our hunters together,”
Fred Brathchie of Butler agreed. A camp owner for the past seven years, he said camp owners are a “major recruiting tool” for future hunters. That’s being overlooked, he added.
Others, though, supported the change.
Wes Waldron, spokesman for the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania, said it may well “pose initial problems” for camp owners.
But prior to 1963, opening day was not tied to a day of the week. It always Dec. 1, so long as it didn’t fall on a Sunday.
“Those who hunted during those years adjusted to the change to a Monday opener, and we are confident that current and future hunters will also prove to be as adaptable,” Waldron said.
Sen. Dan Laughlin, the Erie County Republican who chairs the Senate game and fisheries committee, supported the change, too.
The board itself split.
The three commissioners who voted against moving opening day — president Tim Layton of Somerset County, Michael Mitrick of York and Jim Daley of Butler — cited the opposition of hunters as their reason for doing so.
Daley, one of the first champions of a Saturday opener, said there’s no biological reason for starting deer season on one day or another. That’s purely a “social decision,” he said.
And commission surveys showed most hunters prefer a Monday start, he said. What’s more, any gains in new hunters will likely be offset by the problems the change will cause existing ones, he added.
“It goes against all principles of first do no harm,” Daley said. “That’s the reason I changed my mind.”