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Barnes City, Iowa - The change going on at Hawthorn Wildlife Area has been nothing short of extraordinary. Gone are hundreds of acres of non-native invasive brush and in its place is reconstructed prairie using local native prairie grass and wildflowers.
What was once an intimidating tangle of bush honeysuckle, Osage orange, cherry and sedge, with some bur oaks and bitternut hickories mixed in, has become a highly productive mix of native prairie, oak savanna and an improved timber stand focusing on encouraging the existing oaks and hickories. Once a final 30-acre parcel is added later this fall, Hawthorn Wildlife Area will cover more than 1,800 aces which includes a 160-acre fishing lake.
“It’s a high-quality area that’s underutilized,” said Steve Woodruff, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Part of that could be that it’s not close to high population center, but that could also be one of its benefits.”
The changing face at Hawthorn has caught the eye of certain groups, including the Iowa Prairie Network and a science class from a nearby high school who make annual treks here to study and learn more about the emerging prairie and what lies beneath. Hawthorn is also part of a monarch study by Cornell College, in Cedar Rapids.
Hawthorn’s prairie features several forbs common to Iowa, including rattlesnake master, purple coneflower, butterfly milkweed, and partridge pea as well as some that are not, like ladies tresses, brown stemmed fox glove, bush sedge, ear leaf fox glove and hills thistle. Some sections of Hawthorn have never been plowed and part of the work removing trees and using prescribed fire is intended to encourage the native plants to return.
Its improving habitat attracted a small quail population two years ago, on top of the existing squirrel, rabbit, pheasant, deer, turkey, otter, bobcat and more that call Hawthorn home. It also hosts less common species like northern long-eared bat, smooth green snake, Coopers hawk, prairie skinks and Henslowe’s sparrows. “It would be a good place to come for bird watching,” he said, as a nervous indigo bunting darted into the safety of the dense shrubs.
The changes on the landscape started a decade ago as part of a project to fix the lake.
The lake restoration project looked into the watershed to fix issues associated with runoff and installed six silt collection ponds and changed the habitat to grasses in targeted areas to prevent erosion and improve the water quality.
It addressed shoreline erosion by installing about 1-1/2 miles rap-rap. Parts of the shoreline was deepened and the material removed was used to create mounds and reefs to attract fish. Finally, the fish population was re-set to eliminate carp and gizzard shad, and the lake was restocked with largemouth bass, bluegills, crappies and channel catfish.
Today, Hawthorn boasts a high-quality largemouth bass and crappie population, including some crappies caught this spring that measured over 14 inches.
It is also one of Iowa’s musky lakes. These fish of a lifetime will occasionally surprise an unsuspecting bass angler with a follow or a strike.
“The quality of muskies here are outstanding,” said Mark Flammang, fisheries biologist with the Iowa DNR. “There are plenty of 40-plus inch fish in the system.”
Hawthorn has a number of fishing jetties near each of the two boat ramps, providing angler access to deeper water and habitat designed to draw fish near. The DNR works with a local cooperator from nearby New Sharon to mow the fishing jetties and accesses, on top of planting the food plots and maintaining the hayfields.
“Having him so close helps us to be efficient with our time and budget,” Woodruff said.
Outside of watching wildlife and catching fish, Hawthorn offers hiking through the prairie and open timber, and kayaking on the lake. During early May? “This place is nuts with mushroom hunters,” Woodruff said.
While the progress has been impressive, it is not finished. Woodruff said they will continue removing brush this fall and winter, and battle the Reeds canary grass this spring, and more of Hawthorn will return to Iowa prairie.
Visitors who work up an appetite after a day at Hawthorn can stop by the Longhorn Saloon in Barnes City for a burger or plowboy.