BOONE – The confluence of the Des Moines and Boone rivers has drawn visitors since before Iowa was a state. Today, it is home to the 4,600-acre Boone Forks Wildlife Area, a popular hunting, hiking, paddling, fishing, and birding spot in Webster and Hamilton counties.
Don’t be fooled by its location. It’s not a flat pancake like the rest of North Central Iowa; in fact, plan to turn off your cell phone because service here is spotty at best.
“Typeface takes a lot of people by surprise,” said Josh Gansen, a wildlife biologist with the Saylorville Unit of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “If you walk through the area, you know you’ve done something and when you’re done, you’re done.”
The two rivers are a major draw to Boone Forks, drawing paddlers and fishermen alike, and once they enter the boundary of the wildlife area, camping is permitted on the banks and sandbars of both rivers. It was designated as one of five protected water areas in Iowa, and one of REAP’s goals 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 in Boone, upriver from the confluence.
There is excellent fishing for channel catfish, flathead catfish, walleye and bass, and better 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 at Fort Dodge, the fish are now able to move freely upstream and downstream.
There is good access to the river from the gravel road for about a mile starting near the highway. 175, and in a northerly direction, which coincides with the riverbed advancing towards the western bank.
Away from the river, Boone Forks is mostly wood-covered rolling hills with scattered pockets of prairie. Visitors take note: It’s not one giant connected piece of land, but rather multiple areas of varying sizes, some adjoining, some not, that collectively are Boone Forks. Those unfamiliar with the area should bring a map to avoid wandering onto private land. It was developed over time in collaboration with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Pheasants Forever, the Wild Turkey Federation, and others.
Gansen said his management plan is to convert certain open fields that are surrounded by wood to trees over the next five years. These fields are scattered throughout the area and range in size from five acres to 20. The locations are not ideal for prairie because it would be a constant battle with encroaching trees.
The fields will be planted with a mix of black, red, white and burr oak acorns, walnuts and pecans from the State Forest Nursery in Ames. The seed mix would depend on the site: high and dry versus prone to flooding. These plantations will receive three years of maintenance, will be treated with herbicide to reduce competition from vegetation, and then allowed to grow.
“These are open fields with full sunlight where we can grow very desirable trees that produce masts,” Gansen said. “Oak trees need sunlight to grow and we are starting with bare ground in these small fields. It is a good management tool here.”
Considered home to one of the richest wooded bird species in the state, the Boone Forks Wildlife Area is part of the Boone Forks Wooded Bird Conservation Area (BCA), providing crucial habitat for birds during migration, provides feeding and resting areas and assistance. to support migrants as they move between winter and summer habitats.
With evidence of nesting 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 just a short drive from Ames, Iowa State University sends students studying natural resources here to gain field experience managing forestry and monitoring the beetle released to fight purple loosestrife.
The area is also important for other species of wildlife.
The Multi-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 need of conservation, including gray fox, southern flying squirrel, song thrush , yellow-billed cuckoo, spiny softshell turtle, gray bonnet tree frog, red-shouldered hawk, Harris’s sparrow, carmine, skinny-headed darter and more.
It is also home to a good population of deer and wild turkey. Gansen receives a series of calls from non-residents asking about the deer herd. It’s in zone 2, which, for non-residents, is easier to get a tag out for any deer than, say, zone 4, 5, or 6.
A former ski lodge stood near Skillet Creek before it was dismantled eight years ago. The lodge still had skis and an old ski lift. On the Boone River, Bells Mill and Tunnel Mill, upstream from Boone Forks, were grain mills and considered great landmarks in the 19th century.
Vegors Cemetery was established a few years after Iowa became a state. It contains a large white memorial to Mrs. Jno H. Lott, Webster County’s first white settler, who died in 1849. The cemetery also has Indian burial mounds and settler graves dating to the mid-19th century. It is a private property in public space.
The area of the cemeteries is often home to remnant grasslands, as is the case with the Vegors Cemetery. Near the scattered tombstones grow stiff goldenrod gramma and lateral oats. A bald eagle hatching out can be heard calling for its parents.