Sometimes, it seems when the stars are aligned, big things can happen. In this case, repeated flood events on the Iowa River in the early 2000s culminating with the flood of 2008 was the thing that allowed farmers who were tired of battling wet farmland to unload that headache and create a 2,800-acre public area.
Wapello Bottoms Wildlife Area is a relatively new area growing from the wet soils of the Iowa River floodplain, in Louisa County. It’s the result of a partnership between the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the wet farmland weary landowners.
Twisting and turning along the Iowa River starting from just northeast of the town of Wapello, Wapello Bottoms stretches downstream, nearly reaching Horseshoe Bend National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a mixture of sloughs, prairie, floodplain timber and the Iowa River.
“This is one area that you could hunt or fish for almost anything,” said Andy Robbins, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR. “And the further you’re willing to walk, the more solitary experience you’ll find.”
Often overlooked for deer, the area does offer excellent deer hunting and is frequented by nonresident pheasant hunters coming from the east who stop to hunt the prairie before heading to their final destination.
“It’s made a really nice recreation area for people to enjoy,” he said, while watching a kayaker explore the slough at a relaxed pace on this mid-August morning.
Just south of the boat ramp on the west side of the gravel road is a sunflower field that has been frequented by the local deer herd. A maintained levy is visible and following it north, it winds along with the Iowa River. All the road noise and machinery sounds disappear. There are no powerlines in sight.
“You’re away from everything back here,” he said. The levy offers a nice place to hike, view a dark sky, fish the large oxbow, or chase a leery late-season rooster. The oxbow water ripples as turtles nervously abandon their basking logs and retreat into the safety of the water.
Wapello Bottoms, with its southeast Iowa location and river floodplain habitat, has been the location of regular turtle surveys since 2010.
Chad Dolan, fisheries biologist at the DNR’s Lake Darling office, has been setting nets here to catch and study turtles about four times each year. What he’s found is, that Wapello Bottoms is dominated by red-eared sliders, a turtle species more associated with the south. He’s also found painted turtles, snapping turtles and several species of map turtles, including the less common ouachita map turtle.
“Wapello Bottoms is a turtle rich area,” Dolan said.
Since regulations were placed on the commercial turtle harvest in 2017, Dolan has seen less fluctuation in the numbers in the survey, but has seen a reduction in the number of snapping turtles and softshell turtles over time.
East of the large oxbow, the former pasture ground is now a prairie and along its old fence line, partridge pea’s delicate little yellow flowers are in bloom. Cord grass, cup plant, sideoats grama, big bluestem and golden rod are all visible. The prairie changes colors during the year and right now the yellow flowers are expressing. The asters will be next. This prairie is home to various grassland birds, pheasants and deer.
The drought has lowered the water levels in the sloughs exposing shorelines where button bush is sprouting and other moist soil vegetation is taking hold. “Fluctuation in water level is a good thing,” Robbins said. A pair of wood ducks retreat a short distance into the safety of a small finger off the main slough. Roughly 40 percent of Wapello Bottoms is water which makes it attractive to wetland birds.
This locally known, low-key area is starting to be noticed by people outside the region.
“This place wouldn’t exist without the NRCS and their relationship with the previous landowners, along with the opportunities presented by the USDA wetland reserve program. Without that, it wouldn’t have happened,” Robbins said. “The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation has also been integral in piecing it together. And what we have is just a really diverse area where you can find just about any species we have in Iowa.”
“The number of morel mushroom hunters down here is amazing – almost like it’s opening day of a hunting season,” Robbins said. “There are times when there’s more use when the morels are in season that during hunting season.”