Cardinal Marsh Wildlife Area checks a lot of the outdoor recreation boxes in its nearly 1,200 acres. With its mix of hardwood timber, native prairie, network of marshes and a winding river, this public area on the west edge of Winneshiek County offers a high quality natural getaway away from the crowds.
Cardinal Marsh a favorite destination for the Decorah Audubon club and, along with nearby Hayden Prairie, has served as an outdoor classroom for local eighth grade classes. It was established in the 1950s and has been developed over time as different segments were acquired.
In more recent years, the infrastructure has been upgraded to include water control structures which gives management staff flexibility to manipulate water levels mimicking naturally occurring fluctuations and keeping the marsh in a high quality state.
“We manage the water levels in the marshes to create a dynamic environment to benefit waterfowl production in the spring, and then drop the water level to expose the mudflats which attracts shorebirds while in the summer encouraging vegetation growth for the fall migration,” said Terry Haindfield.
And based on the results, that schedule is working nicely.
“It’s great food source – bringing in dabblers and divers during the spring migration,” he said. When the mudflats are exposed, black crowned night herons, phalaropes and terns have shown up.
On this rainy June morning, a handful of broods of Canada geese leave the berm for the safety of water, evidence of Cardinal Marsh’s reputation as a strong goose production area. One large trumpeter swan stands firm on a mudflat. A pair of sandhill cranes works the vegetation edge of a pool with a colt following close by.
“I thought she had to have one (colt), just the way she was acting,” Haindfield said while watching the young crane through binoculars.
The success of the sandhill’s is welcome news, as is the news that trumpeter swans successfully hatched a nest here this spring for the first time ever.
Juvenile trumpeter swans had been released at Cardinal Marsh over the years with the hope that, as adults, they would return to nest. That commitment was finally rewarded in late June when an adult pair was spotted out for a swim with four young. “We’re really hoping that this was the year that the trumpeters would finally have success here,” he said. “This is absolutely great news.”
Getting around the marsh
Parking lots nearly ring the area providing a number access points. The main marsh features a newly installed concrete boat ramp on the northwest corner. At the smaller water control structures, access is by walk in, meaning paddlers and hunters will need to carry the crafts a few hundred yards.
That ease of access and unique walk in marsh hunting experience makes Cardinal Marsh a user friendly wildlife area.
“The lack of a large population center means fewer visitors, except, of course, on season opening weekends,” Haindfield said. “After that, if a guy comes out during the week he could be here all alone.”
Cardinal Marsh is building a reputation as a high quality dove hunting area due to the number of sunflower fields that doves want to use. It offers deer, turkey and pheasant hunting, is an excellent place to hunt waterfowl and is a productive trapping area.
Simply put, there’s a lot going on.
Diverse paddling experiences
At full pool, the main marsh is a nice place to kayak and view marsh wildlife. Just over the marsh berm to the north is the Turkey River that offers excellent paddling and fishing, especially for walleye. There is a canoe access upstream at a stream crossing.
The wildlife staff is working to enhance the prairies and is using different techniques to encourage the natives. A neighboring farmer is partnering on a habitat lease that includes planting and managing food plots in different locations. There’s an active forest wildlife stewardship plan in place for the timber and savanna areas.
Don’t skip on pheasants
“Cardinal Marsh is absolutely a good pheasant area that gets better as the winter goes on,” said Haindfield. “The cattails and willow batts offer good winter habitat and the corn food plots provide a food source.”
The legend of Cardinal Marsh
The call came in 15-20 years ago. A boyfriend and girlfriend were hunting raccoons in the forest section of Cardinal Marsh one night when they reported seeing a dark figure go by that was unmistakable - it was, they said, Bigfoot.
The sighting, however, has not been verified.