by Joe Byers - Thursday, February 2, 2023
“Exciting,” “Adventurous,” “Thrilling,” “Inspiring” and “Educational” are just a few of the words attributed to the annual outdoor pilgrimage to Harrisburg, Pa., known as the NRA’s Great American Outdoor Show (GAOS) at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, Feb. 4-12. Celebrated as the world’s largest outdoor show, the nine-day event draws more than 1,000 exhibitors spanning 650,000 square feet of exhibit hall space. It’s like opening day of hunting season where just about every game animal in the world can be seen and hunters can work out their hunt details with outfitters firsthand. I’ve been attending the show for 40 years because it’s informative and downright fun. If you aren’t already planning to join me there, here are a few more reasons you’ll want to attend.
Nature is the best remedy for today’s crazy world and few places will immerse you in ways to enjoy the outdoors like the GAOS where you will find every hunt you can imagine. Want to stalk a brown bear in Alaska? Cape buffalo in Africa? Bag a giant whitetail in Montana or Canada? You will meet the people who can make it happen.
Traveling to adventure destinations can be challenging, and you can tap exhibiting outfitters’ personal knowledge for the best times to fly or drive and how to avoid pitfalls that can unexpectedly occur. I nearly froze on my very first night in an African bush camp and had to dress in every piece of clothing I’d brought. Heck, I thought Africa was hot. For more good advice, check out this recent NRAHLF.org article, “Why Due Diligence Is Critical When Booking an Hunt Overseas Hunt” that posted a couple weeks ago just in time for you to read it before attending GAOS.
Conversing with a guide or outfitter may open opportunities you hadn’t considered. Are there special seasons when prices are reduced? Additional animals to be hunted that can make a guided hunt more cost effective? Does the outfitter offer drop or spike camps where you can hunt without a guide? Having a personal conversation greatly expands your windows of opportunity, something outfitters’ website pages just can’t do.
Of course, part of the adventure outside of trying to take in the event’s more than 1,000 exhibitors is the fact GAOS also offers a packed schedule of events. Take part in archery competitions, visit with outdoor celebrities, and take advantage of seminars and demonstrations. Country music fans may want to attend GAOS’ 8th Annual NRA Country Concert as NRA Country presents platinum-selling country music artist Brantley Gilbert and special guest Jacob Bryant on Saturday, Feb. 11. Click here for tickets.
In a world of Internet misinformation and website hype, it is so refreshing to speak directly with the person offering a hunting or fishing trip. Often, outfitters have mounted specimens of the animals you plan to hunt or catch, frequently life-size, which they display in their booths.
GAOS provides a format to learn much about the hunt of your dreams as outfitters provide guidance on the gear you will need, the physical requirements of the trip, which seasons are best and the likelihood of success.
Due to the length of the show, you have plenty of time to make an informed decision. Let’s say you have always wanted to hunt elk in Colorado, and you meet an outfitter who has a hunt in your price range. After speaking with him or her, you can take literature with you on Monday, check out the website, talk with your friends and perhaps recruit a party and return on Wednesday to seal the deal. In the meantime, you will have thought of additional questions to be answered before a trip is finalized. From my experience, you will leave the show counting the days until the hunt arrives—fully confident that you will be well prepared for the hunting conditions you expect.
I began hunting elk in Colorado in the early 1970s and often heard locals speak of “trophy units” where participants killed huge bulls. For years, I would scratch my head scouring the Colorado regulations booklet looking for “trophy units.” With experience, I learned that they aren’t labeled as such and only a thorough knowledge of the state’s elk population will reveal where the bigger and more mature bulls live. This is exactly the kind of information you can learn from those who hunt the state, province or country you are considering.
Most states have big-game lottery licensing systems in which hunters must apply and rely on luck to have their name drawn. Most also have “bonus” or “preference point” systems that increase the odds of your name being drawn. For example, I hope to hunt elk in Wyoming next year, a hunt that requires a minimum of three preference points to draw a license. The outfitter I work with told me the best area and advised me about the process of drawing the license.
States offer special firearm and archery seasons, too. An Arizona rifle elk unit can take nearly a lifetime of tries to draw a license but may be much more attainable during a muzzleloading or youth season. Late seasons also can offer increased odds of drawing a tag as colder temperatures, snow accumulation and difficulty with accessing certain areas deter some other hunters from applying. By speaking with an outfitter in person, he or she can unlock these fewer known avenues to success.
The GAOS is the biggest gun and bow shop in the world. Looking for a new rifle, shotgun, crossbow or compound bow? Here’s a chance to hold it in your hands and get a feel for it. Undecided about a firearm make or model? Many of the major firearm manufacturers share their latest products side-by-side.
Factory reps are there to answer your questions and help you select the right bow or firearm for you. When my wife wanted a pistol for self-protection, for example, she tried several brands and models. Learning that she had difficulty working the slide on a semi-automatic, she opted for a revolver. No website or magazine ad would have helped her make this decision. A hands-on experience is always best.
Archers can see the latest compounds and crossbows—and shoot them. Major bow manufacturers have booths set up in the back of the archery arena where you can test which bow works best for you. A crossbow demonstration at an outdoor show led me to buying a new crossbow that took a nice 8-point whitetail and a 200-pound wild boar a few weeks later.
Not only can you make informed choices about purchases, but many manufacturers offer “show specials” on gear. Are you interested in a box blind? Climb in, try it out and see if you like it. Thinking of a new tree stand or hunting with a saddle, or a sling-style swing seat anchored to the tree with a tether rope? Test one or watch a demonstration.
If you enjoy calling game like deer, elk, turkeys, predators or waterfowl, the show has an entire arena dedicated to this alluring practice. Speaking of outdoor celebrities, last year, I heard Eddie Salter, known as the “Turkey Man,” work a new gobble box call that was amazing, and he autographed it for me. Now I have a dynamite turkey call and a cherished keepsake that will become a family heirloom.
Since the NRA sponsors this event, one might expect that shooting and hunting will be more prevalent than fishing, yet anglers get a full arena dedicated to the catch. Don’t be surprised to see a tub of freshly caught steelhead as noted anglers share details on how to catch them. Want to catch a king salmon or giant halibut? Look for the 100-pound halibut mount hanging from a scale at the Island Point Lodge booth. Owner Frank Stelmach will explain how you can take a weeklong Alaska adventure where you can fish to your heart’s delight. My biggest was 115 pounds taken from a 17-foot Lund skiff—the catch of a lifetime.
The largemouth bass is America’s favorite warm-water game fish, and you will see plenty in the huge fish tank on display. Nationally known anglers will teach you how to catch them while demonstrating favorite lures and fishing tactics. Professional anglers cast hookless lures, enticing real fish to strike in real time. It’s entertaining and educational.
For years, I’ve dreamed of taking my family, including three grandsons, to Africa for a plains game safari. I’m a retired teacher so how in the heck would someone of my means swing five hunts-of-a-lifetime? In 2019, I met Ed Rymut of EAI Outdoors at GAOS, who advertised a “Family Special” in which the entire family could hunt for one set price that included all lodging, guiding and six animals.
Suddenly, impossible seemed possible. I employed all the tips mentioned above, and he agreed to open his camp a week early so that my grandkids could hunt over spring break. And because we planned to fly to Africa in the month of March instead of at a peak time of year, our airfare was nearly half the usual price. Then COVID-19 hit, and we had to postpone the adventure for three years. Fortunately, Rymut agreed to honor the “show special” price. I told a few friends about my upcoming trip, and they are now also interested, so they’ll be joining me when I meet with Rymut again this weekend in preparation for the March trip. Now, I’ll safari with both family and friends. Instead of relying on email and text messages, GAOS gave me the opportunity to review and confirm all the details of my hunt of a lifetime with the satisfaction of a flesh-to-flesh handshake. I love this show.
Trust me: You won’t want to miss the NRA Great American Outdoor Show as it kicks off this Saturday at Harrisburg’s Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, Feb. 4-12. Can you imagine experiencing a nine-day celebration of hunting, fishing and outdoor traditions treasured by millions of Americans and their families? It’s easy to spend a full day there—or two or three. Click here to find all the details.
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