BOURBON COUNTY — Joe Bisogno bounced down a rugged path in his ATV until he reached a scenic vista of the paradise he has built in southeast Kansas.
“If I would blindfold you and bring you here, you would never guess you were in Kansas,” said Bisogno, 54, who has carved a unique hunting and fishing operation out of land that once was owned by a cattle company. “This was my dream — to have a unique place to hunt and fish close to the city.”
Thick timber, rugged hills, unique wildlife, a lake full of big bass and crappies, secluded ponds around the property, waterfowl marshes — that’s Bisogno’s world. That’s Timber Hills Lake Ranch, an operation that provides both trophy hunting and fishing.
“When my kids were growing up, I had a hard time finding quality places to take them hunting or fishing,” Bisogno said. “I didn’t feel comfortable knocking on doors and asking for permission.
“And a lot of the public land was crowded and hit pretty hard. I remember vowing to build a place when I got older that would be special. A place like this.”
On any given day, a visitor might run into herds of bison, elk or trophy whitetails while touring the 1,600 acres rimmed by a high fence. There also might be an encounter with a trophy bass or crappie.
And then there’s the history of the land, which was homesteaded in the 1800s. Bisogno can show you the remnants of a trading post, a stone bridge and ruts in the ground where wagon trains crossed the property.
As he toured his land in the ATV, he pulled up next to an old rock wall and warned, “Keep your hands and feet in the vehicle here. Rattlesnakes live here.”
In the fall, hunters can pay to pursue big game within the fenced land or free-ranging deer, turkeys, waterfowl or doves on other land that is not fenced. Even in the fenced portion, there are no guarantees, Bisogno said.
“This isn’t your typical 150- to 200-acre high-fence operation,” Bisogno said. “With all of the land these animals have to roam, this is as close to wild hunting as you will find.”
But in the spring, thoughts turn to fishing. Fishermen flock to a 40-acre lake that Bisogno designed. He included rock and brush piles, drop-offs, flooded timber, and weeds — ideal fish habitat. And it shows. Almost every week, someone comes in with the photo of a big fish they eventually released.
A 91/2-pound bass was caught and released this year. And an 18-inch crappie also has been reeled in.
Of course, those fish don’t come along every day. But they provide an incentive for Bisogno and his many customers before they make their first casts of the day.
Bisogno and his friend Gary Regan were dreaming of catching one of those trophy fish when they stepped into a small pontoon boat and headed out. So were Brian Wright and a reporter headed for the flooded timber in another boat.
Wright found success. Using a green finesse worm, he caught and released many bass in the 2- to 3-pound range. Another of about five pounds was brought aboard.
Meanwhile, Bisogno and Regan started off catching 10- to 12-inch crappies along a brush bank. Then they turned to bass fishing and found success there, too.
All of the fish went back in the water, Bisogno’s way of protecting the resource so that others can enjoy it another day.
“This place is one of the best-kept secrets in Kansas,” Bisogno said.
And accessible to the public. The fishing comes at a bargain. When visitors rent one of the cabins, they get free days of fishing. Day users also can access the lake and ponds on the property for $50 a day.
Hunters pay varying fees to hunt the exotic wildlife in the high-fence area and to pursue the free-ranging wildlife on other parts of the operation. Timber Hills also offers hunting for pen-raised gamebirds such as pheasants, trap shooting, hiking and nature tours.
For Bisogno, this is the culmination of a dream. He grew up in New Jersey (“The part where horses and cattle live,” he said.) and fished and hunted several days a week.
He didn’t receive a college education because he was too busy making money at a young age. He had a passion for business and started companies before many people his age had even graduated.
He went on to teach at McDonald’s Hamburger U, and later founded the Mr. Goodcents chain of sandwich shops. Today, he calls himself “a serial entrepreneur,” with many companies under his direction.
One of his favorites, Timber Hills, is making the least money.
“At first, we were going to make this private,” Bisogno said. “But then I thought, ‘People need to be able to use a place like this, especially families.’
“We need to get more people involved in the outdoors.”