NORTH IOWA OUTDOORS: Remote and Quiet, Willow Slough is a Mills County Treasure

Willow Slough Wildlife Area is the solution to the problem of what to do with land too wet to farm.

The popular marsh in northeast Mills County has been drawing duck and goose hunters from southwest Iowa and eastern Nebraska, and deer hunters from the surrounding communities since it was acquired in 1959.

But after the seasons close, it gets pretty quiet.

Like most state managed wildlife areas, 600-acre Willow Slough is open for recreation all year long. Pulling onto its west access lane, the miles of corn and beans give way to towering cottonwood trees, nervous deer bound away and mourning doves are quick to take wing.

Walking down the concrete boat ramp to the 150-acre marsh, the water begins to jump with frogs escaping to the safety of the water. Its west edge is covered with broad-leafed lotus in full bloom, hiding birds and bullfrogs looking to score an easy meal. There’s a real quietness here if you don’t count the chorus of bullfrogs croaking at full throttle.

The water surface is smooth as glass.

“I see a lot of potential here for kayaking, hiking and bird watching,” said Matt Dollison, wildlife management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

He said hikers could use the two-mile long dike or the access lane for a hill-free experience. Given its location near the Missouri River, Willow Slough attracts a large number of bird species and waterfowl during the spring and fall migration.

Finding the prairie

Dollison has been responsible for managing Willow Slough for the past five years and over that time he has seen the area evolve.

He partnered with the Mills/Fremont chapter of Pheasants Forever to clear 29 acres of invasive bush honeysuckle near the southwest access lane and what returned was native prairie plants, like prairie blazing star. He plans to expand the reclaimed prairie to the east by removing more bush honeysuckle and cottonwood trees.  

“Pheasants Forever has been a really good partner on this project,” he said.

This same reclaimed prairie was once home to a small, isolated population of western massasauga rattlesnakes, last found here in 2007 by a professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“There are a lot of rumors about snakes out here, most of which are not correct with regards to safety,” Dollison said. “The western massasauga is a really docile snake and we’re not even sure if it’s still here.”

An extensive search of a small section of Willow Slough after it was burned in 2016, found no evidence of the snake.

There’s a restriction of burning Willow Slough after April 1, to avoid killing the snake after it emerges from hibernation. Snakes are frequently found on areas post burn, because the dark background warms their body, and they’re easier to see. He would like to search again only on a larger scale.

Teeming with life

Marshes support all kinds of life from the smallest insects to the top of the food chain predator and Willow Slough is no exception.

A great blue heron shares a muskrat hut with the resident architect. The heron enjoys a mid-morning fish snack on one side, while the muskrat is chomping on a cattail on the other. It’s also home to wood ducks, cedar wax wings, green herons, bitterns, pileated woodpeckers, painted turtles, northern shrikes and more. A bald eagle is nesting here and peregrine falcon has been spotted here.  Dollison counted 125 muskrat huts last year.

The primary purpose of Willow Slough is for waterfowl, but it occasionally provides bluegill and bass fishing.

Hunting tip

The east side of the slough is full of cattails making it a magnet for pheasants wanting to escape a late season snow and for hunters looking for late season roosters.

Summer tip

Bug spray is strongly advised.