BOONVILLE, Mo. – After being gouged, carved, cut and shifted by glacial forces, the Missouri River flowed free and ran wild for millennia. The result was a surrounding bottomland nourished by the natural pulse of the river. Wildlife flourished in these bountiful surroundings.
Native Americans lived with the rhythms of the river for centuries, but things began to change after Europeans arrived. Commercial travel proved treacherous. In the century following Lewis and Clark, more than 300 steamboats sank in the Missouri, victims of the river’s countless snags, shoals and ever-shifting sands.
Eventually, the upper and middle Missouri were dammed; the lower river, including the winding 367-mile stretch that connects Kansas City and St. Louis, was channelized, the banks stabilized and the river made navigable.
Timber was felled and croplands appeared. The rich, lush bottomlands, no longer benefiting from the river’s natural ebb and flow, became less favorable to wildlife.
Then came the Great Flood of 1993 and its unequalled havoc. For months, the floodwaters raged. When the waters finally abated, the landscape had changed, as had the lives of many people who lived and worked near the river. Thousands of acres of productive farmland, for example, had been blasted by the torrent and scarred by the sands it had left behind. Many areas were marked with scour holes. The price tag for repairing the damage soared into the billions.
The year following the flood, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The refuge wouldn’t prevent another flood but it would make some areas better suited to handle one.
“There had been talk of establishing a refuge for a long time,” said Anna Weyers, a refuge specialist for the Big Muddy property. “They had talked about the importance of having a refuge that would protect the flood plain.”
The historic flood helped push the refuge off the planning board and into reality.
No property was (or will be) confiscated for the refuge. Property is purchased only from sellers, several of which stepped forward following the crushing effects of the flood.
“We had a lot of damaged flood-plain lands and a lot of willing sellers,” said Big Muddy park ranger Tim Haller.
Much of that property had been in crop cultivation. But what had been soybean and corn fields are, today, hardly recognizable thanks to reforestation, which has occurred at a stunning rate.
“We have a mosaic out there,” said Haller, who has seen much of the forest return during his 17 years at Big Muddy. “We have some open lands and some that are pretty heavily forested, mostly cottonwoods and willows. It’s amazing how quickly the forest has developed.”
The refuge was officially established Sept. 9, 1994, although the first property wasn’t purchased until the following year.
Today Big Muddy includes about 21,000 acres in 17 units from just east of Kansas City to north St. Louis County, not far from the Missouri’s confluence with the Mississippi River. Most of the refuge property hugs the river corridor, although there are a few small outlying tracts.
The Big Muddy (the name comes from the Missouri River’s historic nickname, inspired by the heavy sediments the powerful river carries) is unique among the more than 500 properties in the federal national wildlife refuge system, according to Weyers.
“Big Muddy is different because a lot of the refuges are protecting a specific species or several species. Or a migration,” she said. “At Big Muddy it’s to protect the flood plain. The flood plain and its species.”
A lot of critters live here. Numerous fish species, of course. Deer and turkey, small game, snakes, turtles and birds, including migrating waterfowl. A few eagles.
Visitors are welcome and encouraged, although aside from the new and modern contact station (i.e., visitors center), which is located at the end of a gravel road off Highway 98 about 8 miles from Boonville, many visitors might be surprised to find the rules relatively lax and facilities practically non-existent.
The most popular pursuit, according to Weyers?
“Hunting for morel mushrooms is the No. 1 activity on the refuge,” she said. “But we allow fishing, hunting, berry picking, hiking, wildlife watching. We are very open for the public.”
Hunters are welcome. Most refuge hunting is managed under statewide regulations. The refuge is building a reputation as a deer destination.
“It can be pretty good deer hunting, but it can also be a bit of a challenge,” he said. “Some areas are pretty thick with new growth timber. But we have a lot of deer and for folks willing to work at it, it can be pretty good.”
Camping is not allowed on the refuge, although sandbars on the Missouri River are managed by the state and typically open to camping. Caution is advised when pitching a campsite on a sandbar, however. They can and do shift.
Horseback riding and trapping are also off-limits, as are all-terrain/off-road vehicles and mountain bikes.
Weyers added that kayaking is growing in popularity, particularly in some of the slower-moving and protected side channels of the Missouri. Kayaking and canoeing the relatively recently formed scour holes is also popular.
“Some of the scour holes are good fishing spots, too,” Weyers added.
Three scour holes are located on the Overton Bottom North Unit, which is also home to the refuge headquarters. The 38-acre I-70 hole, 11-acre Cottonwood hole and the 8-acre Diana hole are accessible by road. Small boats/kayaks/canoes/float tubes can be launched from shore.
If you go
The Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge is open year-round. Some areas are subject to flooding. Special regulations apply to some areas. There is no admission fee.
The refuge currently includes 17 units, including 13 along the river corridor. From west to east these include: Jackass Bend (950 acres), Baltimore Bottom (1,749 acres), Cranberry Bend (1,062 acres), Cambridge Bend (538 acres), Lisbon Bottom and Jameson Island (3,885 combined acres), Overton Bottoms North (2,550 acres), Overton Bottoms South (3,886 acres), Providence (570 acres), St. Aubert Island (1,124 acres), Berger Bend (440 acres), Boone’s Crossing (572 acres) and Cora Island (1,265 acres).
Most refuge lands and waters are open to hunting and fishing. State license requirements and bags limits generally apply. Deer hunting is limited to archery-only in some areas. A 100-acre block surrounding the visitors center is closed to hunting. There are several hiking trails on the property.