EAST FALLOWFIELD TOWNSHIP — In the face of cold temperatures and windy snowfall, a group of around 20 hunters still headed out Saturday morning to hunt pheasants, shotguns in hand and dogs ready to scare up the birds.
After all, they had faced worse conditions before, serving in the military.
The second Hartstown Veterans Hunt was declared a success by organizers in spite of the less-than-ideal weather. The event brings together veterans in northwestern Pennsylvania and surrounding areas together for the chance to enjoy a free pheasant hunt.
Initially held in 2019, what was planned as a potential annual event was held off for the past few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hunt started as the idea of Kory Slye, a Warren County man and hunting enthusiast whose brother-in-law, Kevin Zaffino, served three tours overseas.
Knowing his brother-in-law was also a hunter, Slye said the hunting seasons Zaffino missed out on while serving in the military was something always in the back of his mind, as well as all the other events and activities he missed.
“I’ve seen (my wife’s) brother start the whole process of going through (Officer Candidate School), all the training, missing Christmases, birthdays and hunting seasons,” Slye said. “I can’t imagine missing all that time with my family.”
When he came across a group called Freedom Hunters, which arranges hunting opportunities for veterans, active service members and their family members, he organized the first hunt as a way to give back to his brother and other veterans.
“It was just a matter of making a few phone calls, finding a few people willing to give their time running the dogs,” Slye said.
Slye found many organizations willing to help. An Erie chapter of Pheasants Forever, a conservation and education group, contributed birds and dogs for the event, with many other businesses giving sponsorships or donating food.
“It takes a village and the village really comes together for this,” said Ryan Klink, one of the organizers of the hunt.
The first hunt was a success, leading Slye to begin planning for a second one. However, the hunt for 2020, which would have been held March 20, was scheduled roughly a week after COVID-19 shutdowns first came to the United States. A second attempt was tried in September of 2020 and March of 2021, but difficulties prevented them.
As such, being able to return this year was a great feeling for those involved. In between the two hunts, Slye joined Freedom Hunters, becoming an outreach coordinator.
“It feels good,” Slye said. “It’s been a two-year process and hopefully with that two years, we’re a lot more organized than the first time.”
Zaffino, who was among the veterans involved in the second hunt, certainly seemed thankful for the effort his brother-in-law and the other volunteers put in.
“I know every veteran here is appreciative,” he said.
As a hunter, Zaffino said the first day of hunting season was something of a ritual for himself and other woodsmen, a major part of their year. As such, it was something he would “always think about and miss” while serving.
But beyond just the love of hunting, Zaffino said the sense of camaraderie between the veterans was equally important.
“I think that’s the biggest takeaway today,” he said. “Getting the veterans together to talk about their experiences.”
The hunt took place on the property of Dr. Edward Osborne, a neighbor of Klinks who allowed the veterans to use the space for the event. The hunters were split into groups, with older veterans using slower hunting dogs for an easier time.
“Even with the weather the way that it was, there was nothing but smiles,” Slye said. “It went surprisingly well for how bad the weather was.”
In total, 150 pheasants were released for the hunt, as well as 11 chukars. Eric McCracken, a veteran from the Conneaut Lake area, received a free taxidermy from Lake Erie Taxidermy after he was the only one able to shoot down one of the three purple color phase pheasants available at the hunt.
As for whether the hunt will return, Slye expressed optimism about the prospect, having already received requests from veterans to see if they could participate. However, he does have at least one improvement in mind for next time.
“I don’t think we’ll have it in February again because of the weather in northwest PA,” he said. “Probably not the best idea to hold it in February again.”