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Goose Lake, Iowa - Sitting on the west edge of the town of Goose Lake is a 1,300-acre public area that started as a soggy marsh that no one could tame but has become one of the more popular spots in the region, attracting visitors from Clinton, the Quad Cities and out of state.
Goose Lake Wildlife Area, in northeast Clinton County, has been hosting birders, hikers, hunters and paddlers since the 1940s. The large, natural, high-quality marsh is pretty unique for eastern Iowa. It’s even more rare that one wildlife area feeds two watersheds – the portion to the north of Hwy 136 flows to the Maquoketa River; the portion to the south flows to the Wapsipinicon River.
On this Chamber of Commerce day at the end of June, Goose Lake is a buzz of wildlife activity.
“This is a great birding area,” said Curt Kemmerer, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources as he drove slowly through the south marsh. As if on cue, 21 sandhill cranes could be seen loafing where the tall vegetation meets the short vegetation in the soon to be underwater marsh.
“Goose Lake is a permanent nesting site for sandhills and for trumpeter swans, two iconic restoration species,” Kemmerer said. “They’re here, and their growing in numbers.”
He said the state endangered king rail and northern harrier is also here, as is the yellow-headed blackbird, that is becoming less common in Iowa. “It’s a great spot for amphibians and reptiles, and wildlife likes it, but I’d like to make it better,” he said.
To that end, his staff at the Maquoketa Wildlife Unit have been working to reduce the influence of cattails in the marsh and create a variety of wetland plants by aerial spraying the dense stand, and, in the north marsh, it appears to be working.
While the marsh habitat is the main focus, the grassland habitat surrounding it is a close second and his staff has been busy battling unwanted invasive species and reestablishing diverse prairie.
Piles of honeysuckle are stacked near the south sunflower field and ready to burn before next cropping season. Kemmerer said they are looking at a late fall spraying of the harder to get at honeysuckle that has been successful at other locations. They’re also battling phragmites on the south portion, and autumn olive.
A local farmer is partnering to provide some of the vegetation management, and is currently farming certain areas that will help to get rid of the history of the invasive species in the soil before being converted into hay or natives. “The goal is for the farmed area to become a high-quality nesting site,” Kemmerer said. The partner also provides custom mowing, if needed.
Approaching an 80-acre section where they had conducted a prescribed fire this spring, Kemmerer was pointing out all the native prairie plants that were starting to show – rattlesnake master, spiderwort, cup plant, pale purple coneflower, goldenrod, oxeyes, gray headed coneflower, compass plant and more. Bushes that had crept into the prairie were top killed which will help to keep them at bay.
“It’s a fairly nice reconstructed prairie that will offer a reliable nesting place for upland birds,” Kemmerer said.
High quality hunting, trapping
Kemmerer gets calls from hunters looking for insider tips on duck, deer, dove and pheasant hunting, he said, as a young buck darted across the dike to the south.
“It’s a popular duck hunting spot and a sleeper area for turkeys,” he said. “It’s one of the best pheasant areas in my unit. Even in our poor population years in Eastern Iowa, Goose Lake had pheasants because it has quality habitat. For someone willing to walk the cattails or the south end, what a great resource. You could hunt all day and not cover the whole area.”
Dove hunting is also a big draw, he said, and Goose Lake’s two dove fields are easy to find and easy to access.
“It’s a decent place to trap, especially for muskrats,” Kemmerer said. “The lack of trapping here is more of a reflection on the low fur prices than on the opportunity.”
After a day spent on the area, Hoffy’s Bar and Grill, on the east side of Goose Lake, offers a nice place to relax and get a good meal.
Diversifying the timber
The timber component of Goose Lake is primarily walnut and cherry and Kemmerer looked for opportunities to diversify the tree species. In 2017, they planted 11 acres of high-quality oaks and hickories in two places, thanks, in part, to a grant from the Hardwood Forestry Fund.
“One day, this will be a solid block of hardwood timber which is something that it’s lacking today,” Kemmerer said.