Hunting and Fishing at Age 98
By Jim Sciascia, Chief, Office of Information and Education
As the Information and Education Chief for Fish and Wildlife, many of the constituent letters sent to the Division eventually find their way to my desk. Over the last 12 years I’ve enjoyed reading many letters recounting successful hunts or fishing trips with youngsters, felt fulfilled by the letters thanking us for a job well done and learned a lot about things we could do better from the poison pen letters. But last July, I received the first letter that truly made me say, “WOW!!!!”
That handwritten letter was from Frank Shepherd and it was about his uncle, Frank Harmis who was about to turn 98 years old. Living to that age is unusual in itself, but the WOW came after I learned that not only has Mr. Harmis hunted and fished in New Jersey all his life but at age 98 is still hunting and fishing. It was not too long after receiving the letter that a meeting was arranged with ‘Uncle Frank’ to talk about his nearly 100 years of hunting and fishing in New Jersey.
Small game, furbearers and waterfowl were certainly much more abundant in the early 1900s than they are today but the same was not true for white-tailed deer.
When we first met I was shocked by how physically and mentally fit he is at 98 years old. When I tell you he still drives everywhere he needs to go including hunting and fishing, lives by himself and still cooks perhaps it illustrates how exceptionally well he has aged. This man has been in the hospital once, and that was to have his gall bladder removed at age 97.
Frank Harmis was born near South River, New Jersey in 1913, just three years after the first resident hunting license was issued in the Garden State. He and his family weathered the Depression which struck when he was 16. Several years later he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and spent time working and hunting at CCC camps in Idaho and California. When he returned to New Jersey he went to technical school to land a millwright job at National Lead where he worked for 39 years. He built his own house and raised his family in East Brunswick where he still lives today.
Frank started fishing, hunting and trapping under the guidance of his older brother when he was about seven years old and began hunting and trapping by himself at the ripe old age of 10. His passion for the outdoors was ignited while growing up in Middlesex County which was rural and predominantly agricultural land and unspoiled marshes that supported abundant fish, waterfowl, wild pheasants and quail, rabbits and furbearers. He loved to trap especially for red fox, which were also plentiful as were the mink, raccoons and muskrats he caught on the banks of the Raritan River.
Small game, furbearers and waterfowl were certainly much more abundant in the early 1900s than they are today but the same was not true for white-tailed deer. The New Jersey deer population had been reduced to dangerously low levels by the time Frank Harmis was born and when he was two years old, the statewide deer harvest was a paltry 491 deer. He hunted for 20 years before he took his first deer from Stokes State Forest in 1941 at age 28. He told stories about a deer hunting camp in Bamber Lake in Ocean County where he hunted with about 15 friends and relatives for a decade beginning in the mid 1940s. They considered it a good year if one hunter in their party bagged a deer.
Over the years, Frank has taken 16 deer and we know the exact number by the notches on the bone-handled knife he brought to our meeting and the corresponding number of notches on the stock of the 12 gauge shotgun he used to take all his deer.
The deer camp and hunting party eventually moved to Washington Heights in Middlesex County and then to Chester in Morris County in the late 50s. In the 1960s deer hunting got a whole lot better for Uncle Frank when his nephew, Frank Shepherd, bought a small farm in Hunterdon County where they still hunt deer together today. Most of his deer have been taken during the last 20 years, after the age that most hunters have either passed on or are physically unable to hunt. Over the years, Harmis has taken 16 deer and we know the exact number by the notches on the bone-handled knife he brought to our meeting and the corresponding number of notches on the stock of the 12 gauge shotgun he used to take all his deer.
Frank Harmis and I only spoke for several hours but it was long enough to know his passion for the outdoors and his love of the hunting and fishing lifestyle. In preparing to write this article I thought often and long about hunting and fishing not just as a hobby but as a lifestyle that defines who we are and what we hold dear. Imagine living that lifestyle for nearly 100 years. Frank was fortunate to have a wife who understood his passion and encouraged him even as he aged to keep hunting and fishing as long as he could. She even said to him, “Maybe someday someone will write a magazine article about you.” His wife of 69 years passed on in 2010 but hopefully Mrs. Harmis will somehow know her thought came true.
When we parted last summer I told Uncle Frank I was really pulling for him to get another deer during the upcoming season because we were eager to have a recent photo for the article. As you can see, above, he came through with a beautiful doe from his nephew’s farm and put his 17th notch on the knife and shotgun. We all wish you many more notches, my friend.
Regulations in red are new this year.
Purple text indicates an important note.