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It’s been nearly eight years since the Derecho blew through Benton County, but the impact of that storm on Dudgeon Lake Wildlife Area is still easily visible off Hwy. 150. The popular 1,800-acre public area on the north edge of Vinton was in the path of the powerful storm packing 110-130 mile per hour winds, knocking down buildings, powerlines and trees on July 11, 2011.
“It probably knocked down a couple thousand trees in this area,” said Mark Vitosh, district forester for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Vitosh and wildlife biologist Steve Woodruff have been working to restore trees to the damaged areas of Dudgeon Lake and to improve the overall quality of the forest. The duo presented their forest stewardship plan at a public meeting in August 2018. The plan is available online at https://www.iowadnr.gov/Hunting/Places-to-Hunt-Shoot/Wildlife-Management-Areas/Forest-Stewardship-Plans
Dudgeon Lake Wildlife Area is heavily influenced by the Cedar River. The wildlife area is a mix of forest areas, a river oxbow, and a network of slough and upland habitats. Most of the land in the wildlife area is in the Cedar River floodplain and the majority of tree species on the area are tolerant of west soils – silver maple, cottonwood, boxelder, and green ash, with some spots of black walnut, bur oak, and Kentucky coffeetree.
The storm was particularly devastating to these mature timber stands. Vitosh said they are working to replace those damaged trees by creating open conditions that encourage natural regeneration and through targeted tree planting.
On the lowlands adjacent to the Cedar River, the increasing frequency of flooding has slowed the recovery. A few silver maple and Kentucky coffeetrees are returning on their own. While the progress is slow, if nothing was being done, this area would fill in with non-native invasive white mulberry, he said.
“It’s taking a little longer than I would like but that comes with life in a floodplain,” Vitosh said.
The story is a little different about a half mile to the north.
A number of islands rise a few feet above the floodplain and vary in size from one-half acre to 30-40 acres. These areas of higher elevation are just out of reach of the frequent floods and are more hospitable to red oaks, bitternut hickories, black walnuts, basswood and Kentucky coffeetrees – species not commonly found in floodplains. Having mast producing trees in a floodplain forest provides diversity and an important food source for wildlife.
Many of these mast producing trees are young and encouraging the success of these young hardwoods is also part of the forest stewardship plan.
As Vitosh mapped the timber stands he identified priority trees and marked adjacent competing trees for girdling, a technique where a tree receives two cuts about five inches apart around the trunk deep enough to kill it, but not deep enough to fell it. By eliminating the competition, the priority tree will receive additional sunlight from above, which promotes more growth and potentially future mast production.
The girdled trees are allowed to die standing which provides habitat for wildlife species such as woodpeckers. Most of the girdling was done in 2017 and the results are promising. More trees will be marked for girdling, and the battle will continue to eliminate invasive species such as white mulberry.
After hiking in for about a third of a mile, two surprised hen turkeys abandoned their search for food and hurriedly ran for cover. The road noise of Hwy. 150 had disappeared. Wood ducks sound off at the sight of an intruder. The number of deer trails and beaver slides is impressive.
Dudgeon Lake Wildlife Area, on the road to recovery from a devastating storm, is still one of the wildest places in Iowa.
“Our goal here is to create favorable conditions to allow bottomland tree species to return, where wildlife and mushroom hunters can access the grounds, birders can walk through and enjoy, and we’re heading in the right direction,” Vitosh said.