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Big Hartford Marsh has been hosting duck hunters from across central and southern Iowa for 40 years because of the ability to pump water onto its 400 acres, even during years of drought.
The marsh, bordered by the Des Moines River to the north and by the South River to the east, in northeast Warren County, is fed water from the Des Moines River using a diesel pump to flood food and provide cover for migration ducks.
“This is a great option to have during drought years, like this year, when we’re not able to raise the water levels on our stream fed marshes,” said Todd Gosselink, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Red Rock Unit.
Pumping began in mid-September with a goal of flooding the habitat for waterfowl and for waterfowl hunters. The pump intake is about 20 feet from shore and the Iowa DNR is allowed to pump water as long as the Des Moines River flow is a minimum of 300 cubic feet per second (CFS). On this mid-October morning, the river flow was 323 CFS.
Given the drought conditions, the marsh is holding enough water to flood smartweed and wild millet. A flock of about 50 green wing teal flushed at the approach of the noisy mud motor powered boat. Winding through the clearing, another three flocks of larger ducks took flight, circling the marsh, waiting until the coast was clear.
Big Hartford Marsh provides options for hunters with small boats, canoes, kayaks or who hunt from waders.
Because the marsh is shallow, staff will mow certain areas before pumping begins to create open water as a visual que to attract migrating ducks, and navigation lanes for the boats. The navigation lanes will have around 24 inches of water, with the rest of the marsh around half that.
“It’s hugely popular with duck hunters, especially if the refuge is functioning,” said Gosselink.
A 1,000-acre waterfowl refuge is just across the South River, a half-mile east of marsh. The refuge has its own pumping system flooding 250-300 acres providing ducks a place to rest and refuel during the fall migration. Ducks will move back and forth between the marsh and the refuge.
The marsh and refuge are along the Des Moines River flight corridor which is an important flyway for migrating ducks, geese and other birds. Sandhill cranes have been seen in the marsh and long billed curlews were found near the refuge.
The marsh parking lot also has a boat ramp on the Des Moines River that is popular with paddlers and anglers in the spring summer and fall.
“The explosion of kayaking has been a big change over the past 10-15 years, with even hunters using kayaks in shallow marshes such as Big Hartford Marsh to gain access to the entire marsh,” Gosselink said.