Joshua Hobbs stopped his truck and looked over as complete an outdoors playground as most Kansans could imagine.
While two boats pulled passengers on skis and knee boards, half a mile away an angler stood in the bow of a fishing boat and dropped lures into flooded timber for largemouth bass. Along shore, a family watched lines for catfish as they came and went from a camper a few steps from the water’s edge.
Across the lake, a hiking and biking trail climbed up and down steep rocky ridges.
Joshua Hobbs is proud of HorseThief Reservoir’s history, as well as all that it offers.
Well, actually its lack of history and its location.
Residents of four counties voted to increase a sales tax to build the 450-acre lake and surrounding 1,600-acre park. It’s near Jetmore, about 22 miles north of Dodge City in western Kansas, an area once referred to as the Great American Desert because of its lack of water.
“We’re the newest reservoir in Kansas. It finally filled in July of 2016,” said Hobbs, the area’s manager. “It’s also the first-of-its-kind partnership, the first special benefit district in the state. It’s pretty special, especially for western Kansas.”
The project officially started when representatives from Finney, Ford, Gray and Hodgeman counties got state legislation passed that allowed them to increase a sales tax to create a recreational area.
Mark Sexson is a past board member of that multicounty group. He was also the project’s liaison from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Though several invited counties elected not to participate in the planning, he said support was strong for the project in the four counties when it went to a ballot.
“I think we figured it was something like an additional nickel in tax when you bought a large pizza, but it added up,” Sexson said. “It is a great location, being so close to Dodge City and Garden City, which are pretty large population centers out here. It’s been pretty gratifying to see how it’s all worked out. It had its naysayers, but it’s full, and a lot of people are enjoying it.”
Users pay daily or annual fees for access and additional charges for camping.
The lake was built on Buckner Creek, one of a few western Kansas streams that flow most of the year, even during drought, Hobbs said. Work began in 2008. It was completed in 2009 at a cost of about $13 million. By 2010, the growing lake was open to fishing, then camping the following year.
Several years of drought kept the lake down to less than 200 acres. Several rainy months filled the lake last year. It’s easily staying full with current wet weather patterns.
The reservoir, and all it offers, has been popular.
“Put water in it in western Kansas, and they will come,” Hobbs said recently as two boats were being launched on the lake. He said once the lake filled, so did the campgrounds.
Most of the lake’s north shoreline is developed, which includes 50 campsites with utilities. There’s nearly unlimited space for primitive campers, who have access to toilets and shower houses.
Currently the reservoir has two cabins and two yurts. More yurts are probably coming.
The yurts, which rent for about $85 a night, have air-conditioning and heat, plus a place to park a boat along the shore.
“The yurts are way more popular than the cabins,” Hobbs said. “They’re really well-insulated and have a lot of room. I like them because they’re so much cheaper to build, and people do use them.”
The lake area also offers a lodge that can hold up to 175 guests, offers a commercial kitchen and is available to rent for reunions and weddings.
HorseThief is one of the few lakes in western Kansas open to water skiing and personal water craft.
“If it’s a legal water vessel, they can put it on the water here,” Hobbs said. “We do require boaters to travel counterclockwise to help keep everybody traveling in the same direction.”
Buoys mark the 180 acres of water that are open to any kind of boating. The remainder of the lake is considered a large no-wake zone. It’s a popular idea with those who want to run big motors and those who want calmer waters.
“The way they have it set up is perfect. You can tell it was all really thought out,” said Joey Yaeger, who likes to take his wife and three young children to HorseThief. “Everybody has his own area. Fishermen don’t have to worry about jet skis bothering them, and the power boater, running wide open, doesn’t have to worry as much about some fisherman way out on a point getting in their way.”
An avid bass fisherman, Yaeger said the majority of the best fishing area is on the no-wake side of the buoys. The lake still has flooded standing timber from when big cottonwoods grew along Buckner Creek.
The lake’s angling is improving, and it was stocked with largemouth bass, walleye, channel catfish and crappie. The lake’s best walleye catch so far was 27 inches, and the best bass catch weighed more than 6 pounds, according to Hobbs. Yaeger’s best bass have been around 5 pounds. He’s caught walleye the same size while fishing for bass.
He’s more appreciative of the lake’s little fish than the big ones.
“We like to tent camp, and we can go back up one of the creeks and my kids can catch bluegill all day and have a blast,” said the farmer from Cimarron. “It’s a neat place for me to take my family.” He also likes that his kids can swim in HorseThief.
Though the campgrounds are smaller than most federal reservoirs, Hobbs and Yaeger say it’s still possible for people to find some privacy. Currently, the entire south shoreline of the reservoir has pretty much been left in its natural prairie state.
For the public, the tall, rocky bluffs and rolling grasslands can be accessed only by hikers and mountain bikers. Hobbs currently maintains a trail of about 7 miles along that side of the reservoir.
In the fall and winter, most of the property is enrolled in Wildlife and Parks’ Walk-In Hunting Area program for shotgun and archery hunting. Some food plots are planted to attract upland birds, like pheasants. Sometimes the lake holds large numbers of geese.
Hobbs said plans call for more improvements and programs at Kansas’ newest public reservoir.
“It seems about everybody out here has some feeling of ownership and pride in the place,” said Hobbs. “There’s not much trash left out here. There are times when I’ll look out and somebody will just be walking around picking up trash at random. It’s not their job, they just want the place to look nice.”
Where: Access from K-156, about 5 miles west of Jetmore. The entrance, and a large sign, are on the south side of the highway.
Cost: There’s a self-pay station about halfway to the water. Daily fees are $5 per vehicle, $10 for camping and $10 for a campsite with utilities. State park permits are not valid at this county-owned and -managed facility.
Rules: All state regulations that pertain to boating and fishing apply at HorseThief. Glass containers, including beverage bottles, are not allowed.
Reservations: For campsite reservations or more information, call 620-253-8464, go to http://www.horsethiefres.com, or check the HorseThief Reservoir Facebook page for frequent updates.