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The reputation of Three Mile Lake and Twelve Mile Lake as a fishing destination is well known around the Midwest – and beyond. These two lakes, separated by two miles, are panfish and walleye heavyweights that draw anglers from Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Missouri and Nebraska eager for a chance to fill their bag limits.
“It’s pretty crazy to have two high quality lakes like this, this close together,” said Chad Paup, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
But opportunities include more than fishing and extend beyond the water’s edge.
Three Mile Lake Wildlife Area has roughly 2,700 acres of public land surrounding the 880-acre lake, that is home to two campgrounds - one with cabin rentals, an enclosed fishing cleaning station, playground and shower house, the other is a more primitive campground with camping pads, electricity and new pit latrines. Three Mile Lake also has a swimming beach, picnic shelters, and a fishing cleaning station near the main boat ramp.
That’s an enviable list for any natural resources based public area and while fishing nets the headlines; Three Mile Lake Wildlife Area is a destination for other activities, too.
In early to mid-November, the area attracts bird watchers to the lodge on the hill overlooking the main basin to see thousands of waterfowl arriving from the north. The migration also attracts the attention of duck hunters.
“They’re all here – from divers to puddle ducks. People travel here from all over to hunt ducks on Three Mile,” Paup said. “The whole lake is a pretty popular duck hunting spot.” Three Mile Lake, however, is closed to Canada goose hunting.
Hunting is also available at Twelve Mile Lake, but it doesn’t have the same ease of access as Three Mile Lake.
The water board and City of Creston own Twelve Mile Lake, which, at 1,484 acres including a 635-acre lake, is smaller in size than Three Mile with less public land. Access to parts of the area is either by boat or securing permission from the private landowner.
On Three Mile Lake Wildlife Area, hikers, birders, mushroom hunters and regular hunters use the mowed fire breaks and maintenance lanes as a way to access the timbered areas. “The whole area is accessible on foot, either on the fire breaks or maintenance lanes,” Paup said.
The Three Mile Lake Wildlife Area has been a survey site for the Multi Species Inventory Monitoring program that documents what animals are on the area – from birds to butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and more. It also is included in surveys looking for specific wildlife species, like bobwhite quail, bobolinks and Henslow’s sparrows. Henslow’s sparrows are considered a species of greatest conservation need and are listed as threatened in Iowa.
Twelve Mile Lake Avenue gravel road divides the two lakes. A network gravel roads connects anglers and hunters, hikers and kayakers and wildlife watchers to out-of-the-way boat ramps, parking lots and fishing jetties.
These are both great places to go kayaking, Paup said. Both lakes have a lot of coves off the main lake where kayakers can explore on calm water.
At a stop sign on a gravel road heading north off Twelve Mile Lake, two bobwhite quail walk lazily along the edge where the gravel meets the grass. Once our presence was detected, it took only to a count of two and they were airborne. Other quail were nearby whistling from a field edge.
“That’s really good to hear. I haven’t heard that a lot this spring,” Paup said.
The Three Mile Lake Wildlife Area has different habitat types that support different wildlife species. Hunters come to Three Mile Lake to pursue wild turkeys, deer, pheasant, quail, ducks, doves and more.
The area has been frequented by rabbit hunters from Michigan, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. Interested in hunting squirrels? Those are here too. The area is also popular with furharvesters.
The Union County Conservation Board has partnered with the High Lakes Alliance to develop a shooting range on the north side of Three Mile Lake Wildlife Area that can accommodate rifles shooting 50 yards to 650 yards as well as a special pistol zone and trap and skeet. It is a host site for competitive rifle shooting.
There is a field managed for doves that is near the shooting range clubhouse that hosts a mentored youth dove hunt on opening day.
Managing the land
Paup and his team at the Grand River Wildlife Unit have been working to reclaim grasslands from red cedars that have steadily been encroaching on the area. The combination of cutting trees and using fire has helped to knock back the unwanted cedars and regenerate and encourage the native plants. “We’ve really done a lot to enhance and improve the grassland here and we’ve improved thousands of acres across the unit using these same techniques,” he said.
Both lakes had fields of unproductive brome grasses that have been converted back to much more highly productive native prairie.
Local water supplies
Both lakes were developed as water supplies for communities in and around Union County. The lakes rotate as the primary drinking water supplier during different times of the year.
Just down the road…
The small town of Afton sits on U.S. Hwy. 34, just a few miles southeast of Three Mile Lake Wildlife Area. It has a number of restaurants, from BBQ to Mexican to sandwiches or a bar and grill, plus a convenience store and bait shop.