While the numbers of hunters and anglers nationwide may be on the decline, one would never know it based on membership levels at Ontelaunee Rod & Gun Club. This year, the New Tripoli-based sportsmen's organization set a new record for members, with more than 4,300 individuals now part of the club. That's testament to the first-class facilities and numerous events and activities the organization offers year-round to promote enjoyment and participation in the outdoors and shooting sports.
Founded in 1935, Ontelaunee features more than 175 acres of property that are home to archery, rifle and pistol ranges; eight trap ranges; a stocked trout pond and more. It also hosts numerous competitive shooting events throughout the year. This year, those included the International Confederation of Revolver Enthusiasts' East Coast Regional Revolver Championship, Ruger Rimfire Pennsylvania State Championship Match, the state International Defensive Pistol Association match and others. One of the club's facilities - its international trap bunkers - is a truly rare commodity. Club President Dorothy Sechler of Werleys Corner says they are one of only five international trap bunkers in the United States, and only three of those are open to the public.
"International trap is a different kind of competition than regular trap," Sechler says of the shooting format used in the Olympics and Olympic qualifying. "There are two birds thrown each time, they come out at almost any angle and they're twice the speed of regular trap."
In June Ontelaunee hosted the Can AM 250, an international trap meet that featured shooters from the United States and Canada. International trap shooters from the club have also taken part in shoots in Germany and hosted their German counterparts at Ontelaunee.
For those who want to enjoy shooting in a noncompetitive environment, Ontelaunee has Thursday night and Saturday trap shooting sessions that are open to the public. The club also offers a 100-, 200- and 300-yard rifle range, which is ideal for sportsmen who shoot longer distances or are planning for a trip out West or to Canada.
Like many sportsmen's clubs, one of Ontelaunee's primary goals is providing opportunities for young people to get involved with the outdoors and shooting sports. The club hosts a junior rifle team that shoots every Tuesday night and competes in local, state and even national competitions.
"I just enjoy it," says 16-year-old Tamaqua resident Briann Derr, one of approximately 20 members on the team. "It's just something that I think is fun and calming."
For Derr, participation on the junior team has opened doors for her to travel and compete in other parts of the country while standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the best shooters in her age group. Since she started shooting at age 12, she has participated in matches throughout Pennsylvania, as well as in Ohio, Maryland and Kentucky. This past summer, she traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., where she trained with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit.
Her coach, Ken Benyo, who was a member of Ontelaunee's junior rifle team some 28 years ago, says the club provides numerous opportunities for young people to participate in the outdoor sports that are popular in the area.
"Not only hunting, but also fishing, trap shooting, archery, the rifle team," Benyo says. "There's a large segment of the shooting sports and outdoor participation (available) right here at the club."
Other opportunities for youth to enjoy the outdoors at Ontelaunee include the annual children's trout contest held at the club's pond each spring, as well as the National Wild Turkey Federation's Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics and Sportsmanship (JAKES) Youth Field Day, a public event that attracts some 200 young people each summer to experience everything from archery and fishing to shooting and canoeing.
"The major reason we started with the JAKES field day was because we feel we have to reach out to young people to get them interested in outdoor activities," Sechler says.
While youth are a primary priority, the club also offers opportunities for every demographic to enjoy the outdoors. Each year, it raises 500-600 pheasants for release on area farms where the landowners have agreed to keep their land open to hunting. In June it hosts the region's only NWTF Women in the Outdoors program, a major event designed to introduce women to a variety of outdoor activities.
Although there are more than 4,000 members at Ontelaunee, the heart and soul of the organization is its volunteers, who assist with everything from raising the trout for fishing contests to keeping the rifle backstops in good repair. Sechler says these dedicated individuals are vital to the club.
"The most important group, I would say, are the member maintenance group," she says. "It's a bunch of retired men who come out every Monday to keep the weeds down and all the buildings in repair and the painting done. They work year-round."
While the community and activities at Ontelaunee are thriving, the club continually strives to improve its facilities and opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors. Last year, it placed new roofs over the rifle range shooting areas, purchased new equipment for the junior rifle team and performed several upgrades to the club's property. Sechler says it also hopes to add facilities for skeet shooting in the future. The constant upgrades and additions are designed to keep members involved with the club and continue attracting new audiences to the outdoors. As Sechler points out, "Anything they want, we have here."