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Van Meter, Iowa - A steady stream of people found their way to Badger Creek a few years ago, not for the quality fishing or to hunt pheasants or ducks, but for the food plot planted and managed for the mourning dove season. They were here for the sunflowers.
Engagement photos, senior pictures, family portraits and a flood of selfies – taken, shared and posted to social media – all originated from Badger Creek. The acres of sunflowers brought them here, many, if not most, for the first time.
“Badger Creek became an internet sensation and we had all kinds of people here to get their pictures with the sunflowers,” said Chad Paup, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Sitting just 20 minutes from Des Moines in northeast Madison County, the 1,100-acre Badger Creek Wildlife Area, State Recreation Area and lake is popular with anglers, hunters and casual wildlife viewers. “It’s a very popular lake for fishing, ice fishing, kayaking and ducking hunting, particularly for teal in October on the shallow water west of the bridge,” Paup said.
The Iowa DNR has been working in the Badger Creek watershed for more than a decade transforming the area around the lake into a diverse, quality prairie that reduces erosion and increases benefits to grassland birds. But getting here took a lot of time, effort and money.
Through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Nonpoint Source Program, the Badger Creek watershed project coordinator engaged neighboring landowners willing to incorporate conservation practices, like cover crops, grassed waterways and the conservation reserve program, to reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment from entering the lake.
Within the wildlife area itself, they targeted invasive honeysuckle, cedars, mulberry, elm, ash and hedge for removal. “We put a lot of money into removing honeysuckle, to control the erosion coming from the wildlife area itself,” Paup said. “If a person hadn’t been to Badger Creek in a few years, they might not recognize the place.”
While tree removal has been a significant part of the transformation, there are two oak stands, one to the north and the other to the south, that will remain and be the focus of a timber stand improvement project to encourage oak regeneration.
He said the Badger Creek project broke new ground, literally and figuratively, when it came to watershed projects. It was the first project in the state to include creek signs along Iowa’s roads to make people aware that this particular creek drains to Badger Creek Lake, and, in partnership with Iowa State University, it included the innovative practice of placing prairie strips in between the corn and soybean food plots demonstrating the new erosion control practice to landowners.
Gone are the invasive and non-target trees and in its place is a diverse mix of native Iowa prairie grasses and wildflowers, and while it takes time for a young prairie to express itself, the grassland birds have already found it.
“We wanted to address the tree issue first, which we did, and now we have a plethora of grassland bird species out here in the developing prairie,” Paup said.
The battle to keep the prairie free from unwanted invaders is constant, he said, and fire will be used to manage the prairie and kill off any young trees.
“Upland birds avoid nesting near standing trees because of avian predators, so once we cut the stand by the creek on the southwest side, the area will have the potential for more nesting opportunities,” Paup said.
Sitting in the parking lot at the west boat ramp, the sounds of pheasants crowing and male bobwhites whistling stand out from the chorus. In the middle of the week in the middle of May, the lake has a dozen or so people fishing in between the raindrops. Two bald eagles left their nearby nest looking for an easy fish dinner. Two warblers nervously flitted from brush pile to brush pile. This place looks nothing like it did five years ago and the best is yet to come.
Fishing the lake
Andy Jansen has rarely been to Badger Creek and not seen someone there.
“The lake gets tons of use from what we see,” said Jansen, fisheries biologist for the Iowa DNR.
And for good reason. Badger Creek has good numbers of 6 to 8-inch bluegills and a huge class 7 to 8-inch crappies. “There are some crappies in there up to 16 inches,” he said. “There’s a good largemouth bass population up to 18 inches with a few fish over 20. The lake hosts a bass fishing tournament every Monday night.”
There are also good numbers of 16 to 24-inch channel catfish and a small but mighty population of hybrid striped bass up to 20 inches.
“It has some of the biggest redear sunfish – 10-plus inches - they’re just giants,” Jansen said.
In 2018, the DNR began putting walleye fry into the sediment retention structure on the east side and allowed these newly hatched fish to grow to two inches before being released into the lake. Those fish are now 14 to 16 inches and are showing up in angler’s catch.
Jansen’s crew has been working to improve the fish structure by placing brush piles along the roadbed and near the fishing jetties. Looking forward once the watershed work is complete, Badger Creek Lake would be in line for an in-lake project to deepen and armor the shoreline.
Badger Creek Wildlife Area has two boat ramps with courtesy docks, fishing jetties and a modern vault latrine.