This article is featured in the Winter 2021 issue of Texas LAND magazine. Click here to find out more.
When it comes to recruiting young people into the ranks of educated, safe and responsible hunters who value private land stewardship, the Texas Youth Hunting Program (TYHP) is the nation’s gold standard—and has been for 25 years.
“Our goal was to create a program that gets kids involved in hunting while emphasizing wildlife management and land stewardship,” said Dr. Wallace Klussmann, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, who has been dubbed “the founder” of TYHP. “Obviously, engaging young people in the outdoors is important because they are the leaders of tomorrow.”
By all objective measures, the founding visionaries and successive generations of volunteer leadership have hit their initial targets. Since its creation in 1996 through October of this year, the program has impacted more than 76,000 hunters, parents and volunteers through the 3,518 hunts it has hosted. During that time, 27,250 young hunters have been introduced to safe, ethical hunting and come to understand the value of private land stewardship as more than 700 ranches have opened their gates and shared their wildlife resources. Many ranches hold youth hunts year after year.
“Texas has distinct advantages—lengthy seasons, liberal bag limits and passionate volunteers and landowners,” TYHP Executive Director Chris Mitchell said. “Even though most of the land is privately owned, generous landowners let strangers come hunt on their farms and ranches because they care about the future of wildlife and hunting.”
A typical hunt begins Friday evening when the youth hunters and their significant adults arrive. (Each hunter is accompanied by one family member or guardian.) In short order, the participants undergo a safety and hunt orientation, a game laws, wildlife management and wildlife identification review, and firearm/ammo inspection. The landowner also shares ranch rules and ranch history before the participants are dismissed to the shooting range where leaders ensure everyone can handle firearms proficiently and safely. While there, the leaders deliver some hands-on hunter education and wildlife activities.
The youth, their significant adult and a volunteer hunting guide take to the field Saturday morning and evening and again Sunday morning. Youth who successfully harvest game learn how to properly process the meat. On Saturday night, stories and experiences are swapped around a campfire, further initiating the novices into the hunting community. After Sunday morning’s hunt, the participants clean up all evidence of their stay, pack their bags and take their meat and memories home.
“Our success is built on our large volunteer base and the support of the hunting community,” said Mitchell, noting no upstart program can hope to operate on TYHP’s scale just relying on paid agency or organization staff from a single organization. “Hunters are keen to pass along the knowledge they’ve acquired about the species they like to pursue and bring new people into the tradition to share their passion.”
While the majority of TYHP hunts center on whitetails, landowners across the state have made it possible for the young hunters to pursue a wide variety of wildlife in a wide variety of styles ranging from archery and spot-and-stalk to hunting from stationary blinds. In addition to “everyday” species such as waterfowl, dove, feral hogs and turkeys, TYHP participants can claim coveted spots for “exclusive” species such as javelinas, alligators and pronghorns.
One of Mitchell’s favorite TYHP stories centers on the first pronghorn hunt in the Panhandle. Unlike most hunts such as those for whitetails where all of the hunters have the opportunity to bag their game on a single ranch, the first pronghorn hunt required 10 landowners to donate a permit to take one pronghorn per ranch. As conceived, TYHP hunters would be granted a doe permit, but at the organizational meeting conversations took an unexpected turn.
“As we were discussing logistics, one landowner said, ‘Ah heck, let the kid shoot a buck’,” Mitchell recalled. “Before it was over, we had nine buck permits and one doe permit. On the hunt, we converted on nine of 10 permits—and would have been 100 percent but one hunter passed on a buck.”
He continued, “Our landowners are exceptionally generous. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have
Over time, TYHP’s reach has extended beyond the Lone Star State as program leaders have shared the TYHP model with interested agencies and organizations in other states. To date, TYHP has inspired similar education and recruitment programs in Oklahoma, Florida and most recently Tennessee. Initial conversations have also taken place with leaders in Mexico.
“When we started TYHP, we knew it was an idea that’s time had come,” Klussmann said.
In the Beginning
TYHP was a natural outgrowth of the Texas Wildlife Association’s (TWA) interest in all things hunting; the association, which now serves as an advocate for not only hunting and wildlife but natural resources such as water and open space as well as landowner rights and conservation education, was founded to defend deer management and hunting.
“TYHP arose out of our campfire discussions about getting people involved in the things TWA was interested in,” said David K. Langford, TWA Executive Vice President Emeritus. “I don’t ever recall a time when the notion of recruitment wasn’t part of the discussion; it quickly turned to youth recruitment.”
TWA leaders wanted to help bolster declining hunting license sales. License sales, along with taxes on sporting goods, pay for the lion’s share of conservation at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the state agency charged with managing Texas’ fish, fowl and game resources. When TWA pioneers began investigating existing youth hunting programs, they were surprised.
“We couldn’t find anything that fit the education-and-mentor centric model that we had in mind,” Langford said.
Once they realized that there was not a model worthy of replication, Klussmann along with other volunteers, including Steve Lewis of San Antonio, cast a wider net and looked at successful youth programs in different disciplines. They identified many key elements, such as hands-on education and motivated adult volunteers, that became cornerstones of the TYHP model within the programs of 4-H.
“When we talked with county agents, they overwhelmingly supported the idea of youth hunting, but made it clear that their hands were full with existing programs,” Klussmann said. “We knew we needed to create a standalone program that was education based and diverse but didn’t take a lot of time from a single group of people.”
One piece at a time, TYHP began taking shape. It was designed as a partnership between TWA and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Like many programs, TYHP suffered some growing pains in the beginning. Several TYHP executive directors came and went. TWA leadership was in the midst of a talent search when Langford got a scratchy phone call in which a disembodied voice introduced himself as Jerry Warden, a retiring Army Colonel, who was returning to San Antonio. He was en route to Fort Sam Houston from Hawaii and wanted to interview for the job while he was in Texas.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Langford said. “Jerry took it and ran with it, creating the education and mentoring framework, volunteer base, the training materials and everything else that became the foundation of the program.”
The proverbial they also say, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” especially holds true as a team is learning as it goes. Brothers Louis Schreiner and Walter Schreiner were early supporters and hosted one of the first TYHP hunts on the famed YO Ranch near Kerrville. By the brothers’ estimate, they could accommodate 30 young people, and agreed to provide all the food, lodging, guides and other necessities. (This was before an adult was required to attend with their youth.)
When the Greyhound bus rolled into the ranch around 11 P.M., a blue norther had dropped Hill Country temperatures to 9° F. The students, who were from balmy Houston, got off the bus wearing shorts and t-shirts. There was not a coat or a pair of long pants in the bunch.
Charly McTee, legendary Texas outdoor writer who served as TWA General Manager at the time, called Ray Murski, a stalwart TWA supporter from Dallas, and woke him up. Between 11 P.M. and midnight, Murski acquired 30 sets of insulated boots, coveralls, gloves, as well as hats and sleeping bags—and had them delivered late the next morning, thereby saving the weekend.
“This story just shows how much we didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” said Langford, laughing. “We just knew what we didn’t want to be. . . . We wanted to do something that embraced TWA’s philosophy. . . something that left kids, and later adults, better for the experience.”
Early on, the TWA team realized that the parents and guardians were as inexperienced and ill-informed about hunting and the outdoors as the young people were. They quickly made it a requirement that an adult must accompany each young hunter, thus doubling the program’s educational impact.
“We wanted to create a safe, educational, mentored outdoor education program that kids could ‘oh by the way’ bring their guns and significant adults to,” Langford said.
Over time, the TYHP team of staffers and volunteers worked out the kinks. When Warden retired in 2014 and handed the reins to Mitchell, who had been serving as the Operations Coordinator in preparation for taking on the Executive Director role, the model was strong and functional; Mitchell and his team have continued to tweak it so that it is more efficient.
Gone are days of registering over the phone. Paper spreadsheets have been replaced by websites, online forms and digital paperwork. While still hands-on, Huntmaster Training no longer requires an entire weekend of travel for volunteers. Manuals that used to take days and big dollars to prepare have been streamlined and digitized.
Recently, TYHP has expanded its offerings to include adult mentored hunting. These hunts are targeted to people who, unlike youth, are at a stage in life where they can immediately join the ranks of the hunting community.
“Youth have so much more competing for their time these days, so we have to be there when they find us,” Mitchell said. “If they miss us when they’re 9–17, we need to be there when they get interested and are able to go independently.”
While TYHP has touched lives and changed perspectives for 25 years, it is still as vital today as it was back in 1998. Hunting license sales are still creeping downward. Groups still actively seek to stop hunting. Thanks to technology and urbanization, people continue to be more removed from the natural world.
“If we don’t get young people engaged in conservation, wildlife will have no stewards and no defenders,” Klussmann said. “TYHP is going to be important forever if we want to have wildlife on the land forever.
The Texas Youth Hunting Program was established to increase the number of youths participating in wildlife and hunting activities and to promote the hunting heritage in Texas.
• To preserve the hunting heritage in Texas for present and future generations
• To promote the highest ethical standards in hunting
• To give our youth an initial, positive, safe, educational, mentored hunting experience
• To teach the basic skills, values, techniques and responsibilities of hunting
• To instill in youth a basic understanding of practical conservation measures
• To encourage wildlife habitat access, enhancement and management
• To develop a closer bond between the youth and “their” adult
For more information about participating in a TYHP hunt or hosting one, see TYHP.org, or e-mail TYHP@Texas-Wildlife.org, or call (210) 930-2177 or (800) 460-5494.
For more information about TWA, its programs and its membership, go to Texas-Wildlife.org.