It all began in 1993 when I wanted to start my 8-year-old son, Joseph, with some shotgun shooting. Like most young boys whose dad is a hunting enthusiast, he wanted to do all things, including shooting, just like his dad and was sure he already knew how. Such self-assurance is a good thing, but I knew this particular know-how required our intervention to ensure everyone's safety. So with the help of a San Antonio shooting instructor and the participation of a few other families with young sons, I organized a three-day weekend of shotgun shooting instruction for eight boys at Joshua Creek Ranch. At the end of the weekend, as we drove home, I asked my son to tell me something he'd learned from his shooting instructor. His response: “Never point a gun at anything you don't want to kill.”
That was all it took for me to know that the instructions of that weekend had made an invaluable impression on my young son and that he now had a serious respect for the responsibility that goes with shooting guns. I also knew this kind of youth program could be a great new venue for off-season use of the facilities we were developing for hunters at Joshua Creek Ranch. What better non-hunting activity than fostering future hunters? So for the next several years we hosted three-day Kids’ Camps for shotgun shooting, adding water sports and rifle shooting to the activities.
I actually think it was parents who lobbied for the program to be extended to a full week. Whether their kids wanted more time at our ranch or the parents wanted more time without their kids, I’m not sure, but we certainly had plenty of things to keep the youth busy and entertained. In addition to shotgun shooting, rifle shooting and water sports, fly-fishing, archery, hunter education certification and field trips to exotic game ranches and taxidermy studios became part of the program. Participants could hunt Axis deer as an additional option. And oh, did they ever eat good. The same gourmet chef that fed our hunters during the hunting season also cooked for these kids.
It's been 18 years now that we've had the pleasure of getting to see several hundred future hunters go through our program for the development of shooters and outdoorsmen. I'll never forget one of the priceless conversations I overheard among some of these youngsters:
Boy A: “I want to be a hunting guide when I'm grown so I can live and work on a ranch like this, hunting and fishing every day.”
Boy B: “Not me. I want to own a ranch like this so I can hunt and fish on it whenever I want to.”
Boy C: “I wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Kercheville would consider adopting me? I'm pretty smart and I'd work really hard for them so they might let me live here forever.”
That these youth feel such an affinity for their experience at Joshua Creek Ranch is really flattering because we’re not easy on them. First of all, we take away all their electronic toys when they arrive, i.e., cell phones, iPads, iPods, laptops, etc. No sodas, candy or TV either while they're here. We require their undivided attention at all times because SAFETY is our number one concern. And before it’s over, it’s theirs, too. What they learn above all is that without the safe and ethical conduct of hunters and shooters, the fun is over. So while safety is the primary focus of the program, fun is the main event and they must be having plenty of it because 90+% of them come back until they're too old to come anymore. And then some of them continue to come back as counselors, first for the younger age bracket of 8 to 12 year old YOAP participants, and then later for the 13 to 15 year olds. The greatest reward for us has been seeing our energetic early campers grow into young adults who are enthusiastic and skillful outdoorsmen and women. Yes, girls come to the program too and often clean up on the awards for the best performance in all the different activities.
A week from now our Joshua Creek Ranch staff and the counselors from YOAP-years-past will welcome a new group of 8 to 12 year old boys and girls for a week of fun-filled outdoor sporting activities at the ranch. Many of these youngsters will shoot for the first time ever, many will improve on the skills they learned last year. On the last afternoon of each session of every week of the program, the kids get to choose their favorite activity to practice one last time before they go home. Invariably, the number one first choice is the event that started it all...shotgun shooting.
Ann Kercheville is President of Joshua Creek Ranch. Located in the renowned Texas Hill Country just 45 minutes northwest of San Antonio and 90 minutes southwest of Austin, Joshua Creek Ranch occupies a uniquely diverse terrain including miles of Joshua Creek and Guadalupe River bottomland planted in fields of grain crops for prime upland and deer hunting habitats. You can visit their web site at http://www.joshuacreek.com.