Journey to the Great American Outdoor Show
The Great American Outdoor Show is my Mecca.
Showcasing all things hunting and fishing, the annual show in Harrisburg is big. We’re talking big big. But how big is big? It boasts 650,000 square feet of space. To compare, it’s about as large as Disneyland. It’s about three times as big as The United States Capitol or Grand Central Station. The space could hold 120 football fields.
Nine exhibit halls and 1,101 exhibitors. From guns and knives, to a hall full of boats, if you’re looking for anything related to sportsmen’s activities, this is where you want to be. And so, I take the trek to Harrisburg in the middle of winter like it’s a tropical vacation.
It’s a routine: My husband and I wake up before dawn, drive almost three hours to the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and park in a lot off-site. Get on a bus from there with around 60 other people and take a 10-minute ride. The bus driver reminds everyone of how big (big big) this place is and makes sure everyone knows which lot we all came from. Then, we all get off the bus and line up. It’s still 10 minutes before the doors open, and the line ahead of us is a couple hundred people long. Pay for the admission, and through the gate.
By the time we make it in, the complex is in full swing. We start in the hunting outfitter hall. There are 22 aisles of outfitters with about 400 different booths to check out. From alligators to zebra, if you want to travel to hunt, you’ll be able to find someone here who offers it. These booths aren’t just full of pamphlets and pictures. The majority of them show off previous trophies, taxidermied and displayed with pride. The guides are always great to talk with, whether they’re from as close as Ohio or as far away as New Zealand.
Though hunting in New Zealand seems like a great time, I move on. There’s too much to see to stand and talk all day. We head to the small arena next, where the 11 a.m. “Raptors Up Close” is just starting. Jason & Howard Caldwell of Berkeley Springs, WV champion the phrase “Conservation through Education.” Judging by the “oohhs” and “ahhhs” of the crowd, I’d say they did a great job.
From there, we walked into the Outdoor Product Hall East. I’m on a mission to find a certain knife booth that I remembered from last year. Since I couldn’t remember the name of the vendor, I couldn’t check the map or the app that the show provides. We wandered through the place while I kept an eye out for the knife guy. Into the boat hall: pontoon boats and bass boats, boats with shooting platforms, boats with deep hulls and even some that looked like they could have a giant fan attached if you were interested in traversing a bayou.
From there, we made a left and wandered into the Fishing Hall. Just like in the Hunting Outfitter Hall, if you want to fish it, these guides know how. I talked with quite a few guides and charters for Lake Ontario and Pulaski. Since I’d been fishing there before without a guide, I was interested in finding out prices and services for my next salmon run. By the time I made it through eight aisles of guides and lures, I had enough pamphlets to read for a week. I also stopped to chat with a woman from PA’s Fish & Boat Commission. She gave me a new river and stream map for home, and a poster of all the species of fish in Pennsylvania. Those will both come in handy when the ice thaws and it’s time to explore new fishing holes.
From there, my nose lead me to the Outdoor Lifestyle Hall. It was about 12:30 p.m. and the smells from the wild game cooking booth were overwhelming. The crowd there was thick enough—and my stomach was grumbling loud enough—that I kept moving. Luckily—or cleverly placed—there was a booth with jerky an aisle away. I bought a few pieces and worked my way through the hall and into the large arena.
I sat on one of the bleachers and watched some kids climb a large rock wall on the other side. Between the kids having fun and where I was sitting was a very long pool of water with a long platform attached. It was time for the Dock Dog Big Air competition. I watched as the seventh wave of puppers each took their turn running down the 40-foot dock and trying to jump the farthest off the dock to catch their favorite toy. A good number of dogs made it between 12 and 18 feet, but a couple went out farther. To watch a video of a black lab making it to 21 feet visit bit.ly/dockdog.
I moved to the Shooting Sports Hall. If you know me at all, you know I like guns. Living in Pennsylvania allows me to purchase a variety of them for target shooting and hunting. At that point, it seemed that every other person who liked guns within a five-hour drive also wanted to be in the hall. Shoulder to shoulder, the crowds of people worked their way from booth to booth. Smith & Wesson had a great ballistics gel display in the front of the hall showing the different penetration abilities of calibers and loads. Two rows over, I stopped into say hello to the people at the Taylor Firearm booth. Their old-style revolvers and rifles are made to be faithful reproductions of Civil War, Old West, hunting and tactical guns from the 19th century, while integrating modern machinery techniques. We chatted about some mutual friends in West Virginia, and I went on my way to check out the laser training systems for indoor shooting.
I still hadn’t found my knife guy. I was beginning to lose hope. I skipped the Archery Hall and the Archery Range hall and went back to the Fishing Hall to check out the Hawg Tank demonstration—a 5,000-gallon fish tank filled with bass, catfish and blue gill. Travis Manson, professional fisherman in the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2011-12, was on top of the tank casting his line to pull in a bass. I was about to take a video of his cast when I heard a man next to me tell his wife the fish in the tank are “stunt fish.” I laughed and agreed. “These fish are trained professionals,” I said. “They know who is supposed to hit the bait. And the shows are short because the Fish Union doesn’t want them overworked.” I missed the catch on video, but the joke was worth it.
I headed back through the fishing hall, cut through the Small Arena and into Outdoor Product Hall West. This was my last hall for the day—87 booths to go. Tons of clothing and housewares were on display. I found a booth selling #rulethewoods and #rulethewater t-shirts for just $5. I wore mine to work Monday. I had about given up on my knife quest when I turned the corner and found it: Stone River Gear. The guy behind the counter looked at me and said, “I remember you!” I raised an eyebrow, not believing him with the more than 200,000 who attended the nine-day event a year ago. He nodded and said, “Yep. Not too many women with blue streaks in their hair know that much about knives… especially ceramic ones.” Hey, maybe he did remember me after all. We talked a little and I ended up bringing home a nice new ceramic pocket knife that will serve me for years to come.
My quest was complete and my mid-winter vacation was over.
To truly appreciate everything that this show has, you need more than one day. My ticket is good for a free re-entry on the last day of the show, February 10. So, maybe I’ll take another mini-vacation and check out the Archery Hall, the 3D Bowhunter Challenge and the kids zone (complete with casting contest).
That night when I got home, I checked my phone: 19,018 steps—a 9.8 mile walk that burned 916 calories. More than enough to cover the jerky I ate. Exhausted, I closed my eyes and dreamt of diving dogs, ceramic knives and Smith & Wesson. My paradise.
For more information on ticket prices, events, times and directions visit www.greatamericanoutdoorshow.org.