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Change is coming to the west end of the Rathbun Wildlife Area, along the south fork of the Chariton River that has long been sought out by deer and turkey hunters for excellent habitat along the river corridor.
Looking at the 150-acre section from the parking lot above, the transition to upland habitat is easy to visualize. In a few years, this area in eastern Wayne County may be the new “secret” hotspot for pheasant and quail hunters.
“The area has a lot of potential for really good upland hunting and after a few years of doing some extensive upland habitat management, we hope to see that potential become reality,” said Heath Van Waus, wildlife technician for the Rathbun Wildlife Unit.
The transformation began last year.
A combination of disking and mowing was used along a draw that divides the south fork area from north to south to create soil disturbance to eliminate cool season grasses and encourage the growth of beneficial annual plants. Unwanted cottonwood and elm trees were dropped onto the disturbed area over the winter to reduce predator use and to create shrubby cover for quail, nesting areas for turkeys, and as a fawning spot for deer. There’s a lot of quail in the area, Van Waus said, and they will be gearing management of the area to increase the quail population.
Fire will be used across the grassland when needed to keep encroaching brush at bay. Van Waus will be watching how the prairie responds to the fire.
“There’s definitely a lot of prairie plants out here. Obviously the spiderwort is doing well,” he said.
The emerging grassland surrounds a 30-acre wetland basin. Van Waus said they partnered with a local farmer last year to cut and hay Reed canary grass off the basin that allowed crews to spray the invasive plant, knocking it back and allowing plants preferred by ducks, to return.
Canary grass is an invasive plant that grows in wet soils creating dense habitat that offers little benefit to wildlife.
“It’s a constant fight with canary grass and we know this isn’t a permanent fix but if we can use a farmer to help us hay it, we can spray and/or disk it. By compiling these few management tools, it’ll give us at least three years of beneficial habitat,” he said.
This spring, a four acre sunflower field was planted just south of a soybean food plot. Turnips and radishes will go in next.
“This section is only about 150 acres but it has about everything a hunter could want,” he said. “It would be a great place for a youth turkey season hunt. There’s not much for competition.”
Managing sunflower fields takes precise timing to get the seed planted and the fields sprayed to keep the ground bare between the rows.
“You get a certain date that you have to get the fields in so you can mow them at the right time so the birds will use them. If you mow sunflowers when the heads are milky, they’ll rot on the ground and the doves won’t use them,” he said.
The four acre field on the west end along the south fork will host 10-15 dove hunters come Sept. 1. The field is only about a third of a mile walk from the parking lot down the maintenance lane. The dead trees to the north of the field will likely perch spots for doves.
“Dove hunting popularity is growing so fast. The demand on these sunflower fields is only increasing,” Van Waus said.
Chronic wasting disease
The west end of the south fork section of the wildlife area will be part of the expanded Corydon Deer Management Zone. The expanded zone will increase the amount of public land available to hunters looking to extend their hunting later into January and provide the DNR with additional deer tissue samples to survey for the always fatal disease.
Battling illegal activity
It’s a constant battle to keep off-road vehicles from illegally riding on the wildlife areas around Lake Rathbun. “They cut cable gates, and tear out tube gates, ripping the areas up,” he said.
Access areas and parking lots are also used to unload unwanted trash, like the pile of landscaping debris left at the north fork parking lot.
Need a place to go fishing? The south fork of the Chariton River is popular cat fishing destination with the water is high.