HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Game Commission is standing still in moving the opening day of the statewide firearms hunting season from the Saturday after Thanksgiving to Monday.
During its quarterly meeting on Jan. 28, the board voted unanimously to keep Saturday’s opening. The preliminary application was incorporated into a proposal that established all seasons and catch limits for the 2023-2024 hunting season. Final approval is expected at the April 15 board meeting.
None of the commissioners commented ahead of the vote on the opening day of deer season, but the board heard plenty of feedback from hunters early in the session. Hunters filled the auditorium at the Game Commission’s headquarters, and seating was added in the lobby where more people thronged to watch a live stream of the meeting.
Of the 32 people who commented on the start of deer season, 26 told the board they would prefer a change back to Monday. Among them was State Assemblyman Brian Smith, R-Punxsutawney, who previously announced he would introduce legislation to change the season back to a Monday start. Smith told the board his office has received a significant amount of feedback since revealing his intention to introduce legislation, with 80% supporting a return by Monday. Smith said Saturday’s opener contributed to a “devastating” loss of revenue for small businesses and volunteer organizations, hampered family time during the Thanksgiving holiday and simply did not support a large percentage of Hunters, based on the feedback he gave had received.
“As state legislators, it is our job to bring these high-level issues to the forefront of discussion in Harrisburg. If we don’t listen to our constituents, we’re not doing our job,” Smith said.
Smith’s legislation would maintain the same season length and number of weekend days, opening on the Monday after Thanksgiving and adding a second Sunday running continuously for 14 days, including four weekend days.
While Smith said it was the lawmakers’ responsibility to discuss the issue, another lawmaker in attendance said lawmakers should not interfere.
State Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, defended Saturday’s opening day and told Monday supporters in attendance that nothing was taken away from them when the 2019 season start was changed by the Wildlife Commission. Laughlin also focused on those chasing Deer Camps, who said Saturday’s opener ruined the traditional weekend build-up to opening day.
“Nothing stops you from continuing these cherished traditions except an irrational fear of missing opening day,” Laughlin said.
Saturday’s opener will benefit college students who are home this weekend, he said, offering that more hunting opportunities are needed in today’s busy lifestyle.
However, Laughlin told the board he was not opposed to moving the start of deer season to the Saturday or Monday before Thanksgiving.
He also referred to Smith’s bill and cautioned against the state legislature’s involvement in hunting matters, with the exception of his bill giving the Hunting Commission power to hunt on Sundays.
“If you want the Legislature involved in your deer season — other than my advocacy for Sundays, which I really don’t poke my nose in but rather allow (the Game Commission) to do its job — is the last thing we want the legislature to poke its nose into the way the Gaming Commission does its job,” Laughlin said.
Among those in favor of Monday’s opener was former Gaming Commission Commissioner Jim Daley, who originally made the request to switch to a Saturday in 2019. Daley recounted the events of that time that caused him to change course and try to get the board to stick to the Monday opener. Ultimately, Daley resigned from the board after other commissioners refused to step down from the change to Saturday.
He said all agency data before the change showed it wasn’t a good idea, as the move would result in a negligible gain in license sales while negatively impacting hunters, nonprofits and those who have to work the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
“I believe that continuing to push for a stag opener on Saturday will cause long-term and irreparable damage to the PGC. I’m really sorry I ever brought it up,” he said.
Among the few speakers who expressed support for Saturday’s opener was Lancaster County’s Randy Stevens. He told the board that those who hunt from camps are the minority and an open day on Monday takes time away from other hunters.
Saturday’s opener and the following Sunday’s away game increased the opportunity, Stevens said.
“It was the first time I’ve been able to hunt with my kids in many years,” he said.
Harold Daub, who said he represents the Hunter Nation organization, said rock musician Ted Nugent supports a Saturday opener for Pennsylvania. Daub added that Saturday’s opener will increase attendance and give all Chasers a choice.
However, based on the number of speakers, a Monday opening day was the most popular choice.
David Leedy, 27, said youth participation in the Chase continued to decline after the change in the opening game on Saturday and he implored the board to find other ways to increase participation without “tooting the generations before us alienate”.
Ahead of the voting portion of the session, Chief Executive Mike Mitrick said the commissioners had received and read many emails about the opening day issue.
“We are grateful that you all made the effort to come and speak to us,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious that you’re all very passionate.”