Where the bass and the buffalo play

Fishing at the Timber Hills Lake Ranch

The more-than-20 lakes and ponds at Timber Hills Lake Ranch offer variety. (Michael Pearce)
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The more-than-20 lakes and ponds at Timber Hills Lake Ranch offer variety. (Michael Pearce)

Near the Missouri border, Joe Bisogno’s Timber Hills Lake Ranch seems more like the Ozarks than most of Kansas. The land’s rugged ridges, sided with towering hardwoods and carpeted in thick briars, are a perfect place for his big-game hunting operation.

Guests pay big money, sometimes well into five figures, to shoot propagated whitetail bucks, bull elk and buffalo within a 1,500-acre, high-fence area in the ranch’s gnarliest region.

The ranch is in one of the wettest parts of Kansas, where rain combines with springs to create impoundments at the base of must valleys.

“I’d say we have at least 20 fishing spots, ranging from one-acre ponds to the 40-acre lake,” Bisogno said. “Basically if you rent a cabin, you can fish all of the waters for free.”

It’s the same for hiking, mountain biking or kayaking the same waters.

The more-than-20 lakes and ponds at Timber Hills Lake Ranch offer variety. (Michael Pearce)

Waters big and small

Bisogno spent much of Monday and Tuesday giving two guests a tour of some of the waters on his ranch. The best known are only a few long casts away from the main lodge. All are under special management.

“We stock trout every fall in some of these ponds. I think all of our ponds are spring-fed,” Bisogno said, “so the water’s cold enough to support trout. We think some may be cold enough for the trout to live year-round. I know they’re still catching a lot of trout from the pond beside the cabins, especially people who use things like special trout baits.”

While nobody was using bait, several at the gathering of Kansas outdoors writers caught rainbows on sinking flies from the pond.

Other close-by waters also have wipers and red-eared sunfish, as well as the normal mix of largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, green sunfish and channel catfish. Some ponds are best known for quality, and others quantity, of fish.

Bosogno started his tour taking two writers to a small pond of about an acre that sits within the special fenced area where they do breeding and biological research on deer and elk. A bass of about 14 inches hit the first cast. A few yards away the other guest, Bruce Janssen, started catching similar bass and green sunfish on a spinner. On the other side of the pond, a hungry bed of spawning crappie were found, though none topped 11 inches. Bluegill were caught, too.

After about 90 minutes, an estimated 70 fish had been caught and released.

“If you can’t catch a fish in this pond, you’re just not meant to catch fish,” said Bisogno. “Can you imagine a better place to take a kid fishing?”

Bisogno took the two anglers on a tour of several ponds deep in the woodlands. Most were rimmed in oak and hickory trees, and full from recent rains. Still, the water was amazingly clear, and the fish were biting. Most were around one pound, or so, though Janssen had one of about three pounds. That same day another guest caught a lean 24-inch bass that weighed a tad more than five pounds.

Much of the serious fishing takes place at the large lake in front of the lodge. Monday afternoon, Bisogno and two guests spent an hour on small pontoon boats with electric motors. Fishing was even slower than at the ponds, though some small fish were caught. Later, just before dark, two Timber Hills staff members went out on the lake and did well on 16- to 18-inch largemouths.

The next morning Bisogno’s son, Joey, and a guest went to a lake off-site and caught several bass up to about 3 1/2 pounds. Bisogno and a guest caught quite a few small panfish and bass, mostly on a fly rod, but blanked on decent bass the same morning. On tough angling days, Bisogno said he’s glad the ranch has other options for guests.

“There’s really an incredible amount of history on this ranch people can see,” he said, pointing out the stacked rock remains of a Civil War-era trading post. “We’re on the old county road and north of here was considered a normal part of Kansas. South of here was one of the most violent (just before and during the Civil War) places around. History says it took them several years to get things calmed down.”

As he drove the rocky roads through the ranch, Bisogno passed long abandoned homesteads, talked of a poorly marked cemetery and of the many miles of hand-laid stone fences, some of which he said pre-date the Civil War. He slowed the vehicle where one such old fence passed through a low spot.

It was the sight of a long-used den of timber rattlesnakes. Sure enough, a decent-sized rattler was coiled in a hole amid the rocks. Bisogno said some days a dozen or more rattlers can be seen amid the rocks. Far from the lodge and any ponds, the snakes haven’t caused problems. Guests aren’t allowed outside the vehicle if a staff member takes them to see the den.

Bisogno had no estimate for how many miles of maintained trails were available for hiking or mountain biking. He said some families like walking shallow stream beds, from where they ooze from the ground to where they meet a lake or pond. Some stretches have produced arrowheads and other artifacts. Some sizable lengths go through the vast fenced area where buffalo and elk roam.

“We let people use the fenced area but educate them on how to be careful around the buffalo,” said Bosogno. “If some old buffalo starts getting ornery, we have a lot of camp meat pretty quickly. We don’t take any chances.”

What it costs

Unlike some of the big-game hunts within the high fence, and free-range whitetails in areas outside the enclosure, Bisogno said he tries to keep prices affordable for spring and summer guests.

The nicest cabins run $125 per night. There are no kitchens in those units. Simple meals can be requested in the main lodge. A line of cabins overlooking the big lake have electricity but not running water. They go for $75 per night.

“You know, if I can get this place to break even, I’m thrilled,” said Bisogno, who owns several companies. “I mainly like sharing this place I really enjoy. You know, we have kids come out and catch their first fish and everybody is so thrilled. Yesterday we had (a woman) come out and catch her first five-pound bass. She’s still smiling. When things are normal out here, those kind of things can happen every day. How can you put a price tag on getting to see people do that?”

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