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By Joe Wilkinson, Iowa DNR
It’s a New Year. I don’t do resolutions. So, call this a New Year's Outdoor Checklist; places or events across Iowa for each month. Most are return trips for me; worth a second or seventieth visit. A couple, I haven’t taken the time yet to check out. Maybe it will remind you of a few special outdoor ports of call, in the months ahead.
January. With cold and snow finally here,eagle watching will improve. You can see one or two about anywhere, but Mississippi River locks and dams are cold weather hot spots. Keokuk often reports 700 or so. I counted 300 last year, within a half mile just above Clinton. Guttenberg and Bellevue have great viewing across the river from their riverfronts.
February. It’s off to Clear Lake to check out a couple ice palaces. Not your drag-behind plastic shells. These feature the comforts of home, plus holes in the floor for fishing. Will Price came through in this month’s Iowa Outdoors magazine with his look at these "ice shacks." Besides electricity, satellite TV, kitchens, paneling and carpeting, some even have bunks, hydraulic lifts and more. Just add fish.
Late March (and through April) it’s dawn and calm in Ringgold County. Settle in for the show. Soon, 200 yards away, there should be a dozen or more prairie chickens. “It’s Iowa’s only lek…and quite a display. The males stomp their feet. They are "booming, purring, cackling, fighting," describes DNR wildlife biologist Chad Paup. “Generally every morning, almost every evening, they are displaying for the females. They inflate those beautiful, bright orange air sacs and eye combs.” The viewing stand is two miles west of Kellerton, on 310th Avenue. Call 641-783-2166 for information on viewing or prospects for group tours at Prairie Chicken Days, usually held in early April.
April, for me, means the shrill, aggressive gobbles, as an early season tom turkey closes in on decoys, is the most exciting noise in Iowa’s outdoors. Maybe because I have hardly heard it for a few years; stumbling around on new hunting ground. Several times this fall, though, I nearly stepped on birds as I walked into a tree stand location with more acorn-bearing oaks--and the cornfield just yards away. Some timber stand improvement this winter—whacking down encroaching soft maple and ash growth--should open a couple of strut zones.
May. Definitely a return trip to my new morel hot spot. Not the Holy Grail of fungi finding, but it yielded dozens of fresh, yellow morels last spring. Where? Not telling. Hint? It’s on public ground! With a warm spring and normal precipitation, morels start popping in east central Iowa through the late days of April. Last year, I had my best luck from May 12 through May 25. It depends on location, soil moisture, location, temperature, and, oh, location.
June. This one’s too easy. Fishing for bluegills with my granddaughters. We fish Lake Macbride, but about any lake or pond will do. The squeals, the enthusiasm as another "monster" five-inch sunfish yanks their Spiderman poles are always worth the time. And after a half hour, my wife or I take whichever girl is bored on a nature hike. When she comes back, the pole is bending and she jumps right in. Most important? They see something new, each time.
July. Fishing the ponds in Shimek State Forest. The wooded areas in southeast Iowa are great for hunting, hiking, even camping. However, if you want to fish where hardly anyone else does, this is it. Well, until now, I guess.
August. They don’t get much attention. That’s why it’s a big deal that the nation’s first Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area is in Louisa County, south of Wapello. Dedicated in 2007, this ARCA is a combination of public and private land, where most of the reptiles and amphibians in Iowa — and the highest number of rare species — are found. Ornate box turtles, prairie king snakes, western hognose snakes, cricket frogs and more are here. For this trip, I might have to work; tagging along as DNR’s wildlife diversity crew updates a management or research project.
September. I’ll be paddling new water and looking up at the steep bluffs along the Boone or Upper Iowa rivers. Then, it’s off to one of the new passages at Charles City or, maybe, Manchester or Quasqueton. Late summer water levels are usually a little low and more manageable. If the leaves are just starting to turn, so much the better. Lowhead dam "rebuilds" are going to be major recreation draws in Iowa. Get in on it early.
October. This one has to be sitting in an early morning deer stand. For about a week, sunlight hitting the turning leaves creates a yellow glow in the woods. It’s also great time to pattern deer; and watch the other wildlife critters, unaware of the intruder. I’ll be back in November for the peak of the rut, but it is hard to beat the mid-October woods.
November. Dozens of choices. A good bet, though? Watching the southwest Iowa snow goose migration. Though hit or miss recently -- the migration seems to have shifted west -- you can still look for thousands of snows winging overheard, settling in or taking off around the refuge at Riverton or at Forney Lake. Besides just watching; it has become, perhaps, Iowa’s premier duck hunting locale.
December. A trip to Beemer’s Pond! An aerator keeps a corner open on this eight acre pond in Hamilton County; home to Iowa’s largest winter population of trumpeter swans. Get to within several yards of North America’s largest waterfowl. Extirpated from Iowa for 100 years, now you can see 100 swans or more and listen to their melodic "French horn" calls. It’s five miles west of Webster City on Highway 20. Turn south on R-21 for a mile. The pond is on the left.
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