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The parking lot at the northwest corner of the Big Mill Creek Wildlife Area provides a good spot to people watch, or more precisely, vehicle watch. Cars and trucks and SUVs coming and going, up and down the access lane to Mill Creek, where drivers try their luck with the local trout population.
“The big draw for the area is the trout stream – it brings the most people here,” said Nick McClimon, wildlife technician for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Maquoketa Wildlife Unit at nearby Green Island.
Big Mill Creek Wildlife Area’s 700 acres in northeast Jackson County, five miles from Bellevue, are mostly timbered, with reconstructed prairie, wetlands and nearly a mile of trout stream.
The stream supports a wild population of naturally reproducing brown trout and is stocked from April through October with catchable sized rainbow trout. It has been the focus of a nearly decade long restoration project to fix the cut banks, connect the stream with its natural floodplain and restore prairie to the streambank all of which improves access for the angling community.
The project began in 2014, when around 1,000 feet of streambank was restored, then it resumed in 2019 when another 1,200 feet was restored. About 2,500 feet of floodplain restoration remain for Big Mill Creek on the WMA as funding becomes available over upcoming years. Meanwhile there is another 1,000 feet of stream restoration work planned in the WMA on South Fork Mill Creek – with that work likely to occur during 2024.
After the restoration is complete, McClimon said prescribed fire will be used occasionally to maintain the prairie and keep woody vegetation under control.
The project has improved access to the stream, which has had positive feedback from visitors.
“It’s a popular stream, partially because it’s the first stream encountered from the southeast so we see a lot of anglers from Illinois and the Quad Cities,” said Dan Kirby, fisheries biologist with the DNR’s Manchester trout hatchery. “It’s a high-quality stream popular with all types of fishing, from spinning reels and live bait to fly fishing.”
Kirby said the nearby South Fork of Mill Creek also has wild brown trout as well as Slimy Sculpin, another unique, cold water fish species, that is only found in the northeast part of Iowa in cold spring-fed streams.
Trout fishing is also available in nearby Little Mill Wildlife Area and in Mill Creek in section flowing through Felderman Park, in Bellevue.
“To me, that’s appealing – to have a number of trout streams nearby, to move around and check out other spots,” Kirby said.
Visitors wanting to explore Big Mill Creek Wildlife Area can hike along the access lane used by the trout stocking truck and along the fire breaks through the timber. Once the parking lot is out of sight, Big Mill becomes a hardwood forest with steep hills, cool, deep valleys and boulder outcroppings.
“This topography is unique to northeast Iowa. People may not realize we have terrain like this in Jackson County,” McClimon said. “You could spend a lot of time here and never have the same experience twice.”
The rolling hills are home to a quality deer and turkey population, and other species, like yellow and black billed cuckoos, five lined skink and prairie ring-neck snakes.
Big Mill is 75 percent timber, which is the focus of the habitat management.
Ash trees, victims of the emerald ash borer, stand leafless against the green canopy. A forest stewardship plan has identified 14 acres for a section harvest that will be replanted with oaks and other hardwoods as part the timber stand improvement.
“We are managing for what was historically here – hardwoods, mast producers,” McClimon said.
The southern portion will be managed as an oak savanna, removing non-target trees and using fire to expose the ground to sunlight.
Some of the flatter land found on the ridgetops is being converted from old ag fields into prairie to benefit pollinators and provide nesting cover. A neighbor that is part of the beginning farmer program is contracted to mow the prairie a few times a year to prevent the weeds from getting too tall until the prairie can take over.
“This will look completely different in two years,” he said.