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Boone Forks Wildlife Area offers rugged outdoor experience in north central Iowa

  • 9/27/2022 2:16:00 PM
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The confluence of the Des Moines and Boone rivers has been attracting visitors since before Iowa was a state. Today, its home to the 4,600-acre Boone Forks Wildlife Area – a popular spot for hunting, hiking, paddling, fishing and birding in Webster and Hamilton counties.

Don’t be fooled by its location. It’s not pancake flat like the rest of north central Iowa – in fact, plan to shut off the cell phone because service here is spotty, at best.

“The typography takes a lot of people off guard,” said Josh Gansen, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Saylorville Unit. “If you hike the area, you know you’ve done something and by the time you’re done, you’re done.”

The two rivers are a major attraction to Boone Forks, drawing paddlers and anglers alike, and once they enter the boundary of the wildlife area, camping is allowed on the riverbanks and sand bars of both rivers. It was designated as one of five protected water areas in Iowa, and one of the goals from REAP in 1985 was to maintain the natural and scenic qualities of the Boone River Valley.

If remote camping is too rustic, Hamilton County’s Bells Mill campground is on the Boone, just upstream from the confluence.

There is excellent fishing for channel catfish, flathead catfish, walleye and smallmouth bass, and improved access thanks to a new boat ramp on the Boone, near the confluence. Three state record fish in the sucker family were caught near here and with the removal of the two dams in Fort Dodge, fish can now move freely up and down stream.

There is good river access from the gravel road for about a mile starting near Hwy. 175, and running north, which coincides with the river channel moving towards the western bank.

Away from the river, Boone Forks is primarily rolling hills covered in timber with pockets of prairie scattered about. Visitors take note – it’s not once giant connected piece of land, but rather multiple areas of varying sizes – some adjoining, some not, that collectively is Boone Forks. Those unfamiliar with the area should bring a map to avoid wandering on to private land. It was developed over time in partnership with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Pheasants Forever, the Wild Turkey Federation and others.

Gansen said their management plan is to convert certain open fields that are surrounded by timber into trees over the next five years. These fields are scattered around the area and vary in sizes from five acres up to 20. The locations are not ideal for prairie because it would be a constant battle with tree encroachment.

The fields will be planted with a mix of black, red, white and burr oaks acorns, walnut and hickory nuts from the State Forest Nursery in Ames. The seed mix would depend on the site – high and dry versus flood-prone. These plantings will receive three years of maintenance, be treated with herbicide to reduce competition from vegetation, then left to grow.

“It’s open fields with full sunlight where we can grow highly desirable, mast producing trees,” said Gansen. “Oaks need sunlight to grow and we’re starting with bare ground on these small fields. It’s a good management tool here.”

Considered home to one of the richest woodland bird species areas in the state, the Boone Forks Wildlife Area is part of the Boone Forks Woodland Bird Conservation Area (BCA), supporting crucial habitat for birds during migration, providing both feeding and roosting areas and helping to sustain migrants as they move between winter and summer habitats.

With nesting evidence for more than 130 bird species and at least 115 additional bird species during migration, the Boone Forks Woodland BCA is an area of especially high bird diversity.

Located an easy drive from Ames, Iowa State University sends students studying natural resources here for field experience looking at forest management and monitoring the beetle released to battle purple loosestrife.

The area is important to other wildlife species as well.

The Multiple Species Inventory and Monitoring team surveyed the Boone Forks Wildlife Area in 2010 and confirmed the presence of a number of species of concern or in conservation need, including the gray fox, southern flying squirrel, wood thrush, yellow-billed cuckoo, spiny softshell turtle, copes gray treefrog, red-shouldered hawk, Harris’s sparrow, Carmine shiner, the slenderhead darter and more.

It is also home to a good population of deer and wild turkey. Gansen receives a number of calls from non-residents inquiring about the deer herd. It’s in zone 2, which, for nonresidents, is easier to draw an any-deer tag, than, say, in zone 4, 5 or 6.

History at every turn

An old ski lodge was near Skillet Creek before being dismantled eight years ago. The lodge still had skis and an old chair lift. On the Boone River, Bells Mill and Tunnel Mill, just upstream from Boone Forks, were mills for grain and considered big landmarks in the 1800s.

Vegors Cemetery was established a few years after Iowa became a state. It contains a large white monument to Mrs. Jno H. Lott, the first white settler in Webster County, who died in 1849. The cemetery also has Indian mounds and graves of settlers dating back to the middle 19th century. It is a private inholding in the public area.

Cemeteries area often home to remnant prairie which is the case with the Vegors Cemetery. Stiff goldenrod and side oats gramma are growing near the scattered headstones. A hatching bald eagle can be heard calling to its parents.