The gate was new but once behind it, I felt like I was home again. Green live oaks sped by, but not too quickly! The blacktop to the old Headquarters is Animal Alley. You better take it easy, and that’s part of the fun. It was still hot on a June afternoon, too early for the axis deer to be out, but I quickly saw blackbuck, sika deer, some whitetail does and a whole bunch of Texas longhorns! Spring rains had clearly been good; the animals were sleek and fat, the vegetation was lush and the browse line was low. I hadn’t been here for several years, and the place looked great!
So did Y.O. Ranch Headquarters proper, with its tall flagpoles opposite the cabins and office. I suppose for all of us there are very special places, and for me the famed Y.O. has long been one of them. I was first there clear back in 1978 with the late gunwriter Hal Swiggett who, as editor of the long-gone Guns and Hunting magazine, bought the first story I ever sold. I’ve been there many times over the years, never consistently but steadily. Perhaps because I’m from mostly-flat Kansas I’ve always liked the rocky oak ridges of the Texas Hill Country and for sure I’ve always enjoyed the variety! It doesn’t really matter whether you’re actually hunting or just looking around; it’s a lot like Africa in that you never know exactly what you might see next!
What you will see now is a whole new operation maintaining the feel and traditions of a famous old place. A little while back, the western pastures of the ranch including virtually all the infrastructure, passed from the Schreiner family to Byron and Sandra Sadler and Lacy and Dorothy Harber. Both couples are extremely experienced hunters and long-time supporters of SCI—their names should be familiar. The Sadlers have operated and hunted their neighboring Two-Dot Ranch for many years, with operations now expanded into Y.O. Ranch Headquarters.
After many months of frantic construction and renovation, much looks the same, at least from the outside. The Chuck Wagon is still in the same place, likewise the cabins, but much has been added including additional lodging, expanded skinning facilities and shooting ranges. It’s not a place you have to be a hunter to enjoy. They do wildlife tours, horseback rides, weddings, parties, shooting events — you name it — but (surprise!) I am a hunter and part of the beauty of this corner of the Hill Country is that it offers good hunting opportunities throughout the year.
The ranch was originally established by Texas Ranger Captain Charles Schreiner in 1880. His primary goal was to raise cattle. The brand isn’t random; when Captain Schreiner arrived a lot of the cattle roaming the brush already carried a brand established by Youngs O. Coleman — “Y.O.”
Captain Schreiner acquired the brand, and so it has remained. For decades, beef cattle were the primary product, but in another generation, Charles Schreiner III (we knew him as “Charlie III”) deserves much credit for bringing back the Texas longhorn breed, once nearly gone. Cattle with colorful coats and amazing horns are part of the scenery at Y.O. Headquarters today.
Clear back in 1943, the Schreiner family took on their first hunting lease, starting a commercial hunting operation that would become increasingly important. Back then, fall hunting for whitetails was the main event and remains important, but there was much more to come. Introduction of non-native species into the Hill Country began in the 1930s, with axis deer probably first. Aoudad, blackbuck, fallow deer, mouflon, sika deer and many more species followed; the old Y.O. was a pioneer in both breeding and hunting non-native species. Today, this is a major industry in Texas, but it started at what is now Y.O. Headquarters.
The species diversity allows literally year-‘round hunting. Antlered game are cyclic, of course, but sika deer come into hard antler earlier than whitetails, and at least some axis bucks are in hard antler at any time of the year. The sheep, goats and antelopes can be hunted at any time of the year. Perhaps oddly, I’ve never hunted whitetails there, but I’ve been there for spring turkey season. That’s where Dad and I shot our first Rio Grande turkeys many years ago. But mostly I’ve considered this area an off-season retreat. I took my best axis deer there—the mount still hangs in the Chuck Wagon. Another time, with the long-forgotten Austrian Voere caseless cartridge system, I took a fine blackbuck. And when I wanted an addax to go with my oryx this is where I came.
Several times the late Gus Schreiner and I prowled the hills culling aoudad. Big rams are hard to come by in the thick cover. Come to think of it, all aoudad are hard to come by — always — but this hardy species breeds up quickly and we had a lot of fun trying to keep them in check. Going back 40 years now, those rolling hills hold a lot of memories!
In the soft month of June, when I recently visited Y.O. Headquarters, turkey season was closed and most of the deer were just starting to grow their antlers. But June is actually an awesome hunting month in the Hill Country. Days are warm, but mornings and evenings are still cool and, most importantly, the majority of axis bucks are in hard antler and their rut is coming into full swing. At night you’ll hear the stags grunting, and you can count on good morning and evening movement.
This spotted deer with its heavy, barrel-shaped, three-tined antlers is probably the most beautiful deer in the world, and a signature species in the Hill Country and at Y.O. Headquarters. June is prime-time, and several other hunters were in camp hunting axis deer. However, I wasn’t there to hunt axis deer. I was happy to watch them and listen to them calling—and pass along sightings of big bucks—but I didn’t really need to shoot another one.
While bumming around, we saw a couple of spectacular bucks and let the axis hunters know, but our sightings didn’t pan out. As with most deer species, during the rut the bucks are moving frantically, cruising for females, seen and gone. But there were plenty of axis deer, and I saw some really good bucks come into the skinning shed. Perhaps the coolest wasn’t the very biggest. The Stephenson family was there with a primary goal to get their daughter Natalee her first buck — a major event in any young hunter’s life. Dad Joseph had fixed her up with a light-recoiling AR in 7.62×39 with an EOTech red-dot sight. That’s an unusual choice for a kid, but after discussion with Joe and Natalee I think it’s pretty clever! Also, it worked like a charm: On her second morning, guided by Hunting Manager Kevin Abell, Natalee dumped a beautiful buck and we got some great photos.
Like I said, I’m a hunter, so I wasn’t there just to take pictures. One of the changes in this part of the country—as in much of Texas and the Southeast—is that wild hogs have increased dramatically. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your point of view, but it’s changed the hunting landscape! When I first hunted the Hill Country feral hogs were present, but numbers were low and sightings infrequent enough that you couldn’t really “go pig hunting.” Today there are lots of pigs, rooting up the hillsides and destroying fences. So many that aggressive shooting and trapping are required to (barely) keep them in check, and for sure you can “go pig hunting!”
My ice got broken right away, almost too easily. With his axis hunters not due until midday, Kevin Abell picked me up at the lodge on a cool, misty morning. We’d only gone a couple of miles when three good-sized hogs crossed the road in front of us. A quick shot with a Sauer .270, and my hunt was successful in the first half-hour!
Now I had time to play! Tourism Director Debbie Hagebusch, an old friend from previous visits, took me around to look at some of the rarities: Spectacular kudu bulls, dama gazelles, scimitar oryx, Pere David’s deer; and we fed cookies to a semi-tame giraffe. In the evenings, I got dropped off at stands where pigs were likely to wander by.
Sitting on stand at Y.O. Headquarters isn’t boring! My “spot” was an open treestand overlooking a long clearing, small pond to my left and a feeder off to the right. I knew pigs were unlikely much before last light, but there was plenty to see. Several longhorns came to drink, accompanied by zebras! Blackbucks wandered across the clearing, and several sika bucks came out to feed. Although still in heavy velvet, their antlers were already well-developed and a couple of them were going to be real dandies!
Just at sunset, almost on command, pigs started to drift out. I got excited—and ready—but they were all small. The same group, a dozen, came out the second evening as well. Even though “pig control” was a valid mission I couldn’t bring myself to shoot. Right up until the light was gone I kept thinking a big pig simply had to step out of the darkening woods. But pigs don’t get big by being dumb, and it didn’t happen. I thoroughly enjoyed both evenings and when it got too dark to shoot, I unloaded, climbed down and hiked out to the road.
Byron and Sandra Sadler were in residence while I was there, and Byron took the time to show me around a bit. Funny, we’ve been around each other for years and served on boards and committees together, but never spent any time together. His Two-Dot Ranch is a real showpiece, and their trophy room is amazing. Almost exclusively a bowhunter (as is his partner, Lacy Harber), Byron has animals in his trophy room that I didn’t know anyone had taken with a bow! While bumming around we saw a big herd of the ibex-goat cross long known as “Y.O. ibex.” That was actually the first animal I ever shot there, 40 years ago!
Well, my evenings on stand didn’t produce a big boar, although it might have happened—but by the second evening it no longer mattered. It was late morning and hot when Byron took me to a feeder in some really thick cedars, but he knows his ranch and his game. After things settled down, pigs started to drift out of the cedars. Several were pretty good-sized, but Byron spotted one dark boar showing the white gleam of good teeth. But now there were too many pigs to sort through, and that glint of tusks was gone into the press before I saw it. We waited, ticking them off again, left to right, right to left, back to front, front to back—and then there he was again, on the right side, almost clear. I got the red Aimpoint dot on him, waited until he took a step, and fired the .270. I was certain of a shoulder hit, and equally certain he ran to the right, but instantly there were a lot of pigs moving.
I figured we’d find him down just a few yards away, but there wasn’t much blood—not uncommon with hogs—and I went through a few bad moments. I was hoping I hadn’t messed up in front of Byron Sadler! Slowly we pieced it together, drop by drop. The boar had run right, but had quickly circled and gone the other way, probably re-crossing the clearing while pigs were running everywhere. There wasn’t enough blood to properly follow, so we made a cast on the other side of the clearing and found him quickly, down and dead. He wasn’t a particularly large-bodied boar—pigs can get huge in the Hill Country—but the tusks were spectacular, among the best I’ve ever taken.–Craig Boddington