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Big Creek Wildlife Area is hidden in plain sight

  • 8/9/2023 7:30:00 AM
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Often overlooked for its similarly named state park or mistaken for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sprawling Saylorville Wildlife Area, Big Creek Wildlife Area is roughly 3,100-acre, one stop outdoor shop just 10 minutes from Ankeny.

It features remnant and reconstructed prairie, mature hardwood forest, small sediment basins for remote, hike-in fishing, and huge blocks of contiguous forest with no roads or lanes to break it up.

And it has an 815-acre lake that is part of one of the busiest state parks in Iowa.

“Everybody thinks of it as the state park, but the majority of the area is part of the wildlife area, including the lake,” said Josh Gansen, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Saylorville Wildlife Unit.

Although part of the most populated county in Iowa, a network of gravel roads in and around Big Creek Wildlife Area give the feeling of being far away from urban life. 

The gravel roads lead to out-of-the-way parking lots where anglers can hike in to the sediment ponds to fish for bluegills and bass, or visitors can enjoy rolling prairies and mature timber. The sediment ponds are part of a water quality project completed a few years ago that added two ponds on the area and renovated a third pond.

Today, overlooking one of the prairies, framed by the lake in the background, false indigo, pale purple coneflower, Indian grass, little and big bluestem and compass plant are all showing. To maintain the prairies, wildlife staff use different methods to prevent tree and brush encroachment, including mechanical tree removal where needed, and prescribed fire.

The management plan includes rotating fire among the different prairies so that each prairie and grassland is burned every five years or so, which supports grassland birds and upland hunting.

Following the gravel roads west, the landscape changes to timber. The largest section of Big Creek consists of huge blocks of contiguous forest connecting Big Creek to the Saylorville Wildlife Area and to the Des Moines River. The mature hardwood forests support quality deer and turkey hunting.

Gansen said Big Creek Wildlife Area’s proximity to Des Moines creates the misperception that the public area is overrun with people, but that’s not the case.

“People may shy away from it because of how close it is to the metro but there is a lot of opportunity here,” he said. “You could come here on the pheasant opener and the competition is nothing like there is on the big grasslands.”

As if on cue, a rooster pheasant ran across the gravel road ahead of Gansen’s truck.

“It’s not a specialized area – you can hunt all species here,” he said.

The upper end of Big Creek Lake offers duck and goose hunting. There are a handful of fields managed specifically to provide dove hunting, including a 10-acre sunflower field. Other fields have rye or winter wheat that will be mowed to scatter the seeds, then burned to remove the cover. Doves prefer bare ground.

The state park is a wildlife refuge where hunting is not permitted.

And there is always top-notch fishing in Big Creek Lake, but that’s another story.


  • For paddlers, there is a fairly well protected canoe launch in the far north arm that feeds into the main lake.
  • A training area for bird dogs is available near the park.
  • There is an 11-mile marked snowmobile trail that winds through the park as well as groomed cross-country ski trails.
  • Just off NW Madrid Drive is the Olofson shooting range, offering rifle, handgun, trap and skeet, and hunter safety classes.