Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
Mingo:
Last of the Bootheel Swamps

by Jim McCarty

John Stanard paddles his canoe up Mingo River. The former newspaper editor frequently visits the swamp to fish for grinnel.

With a well-practiced flip of his wrist John Stanard launches his lure in a lazy arc that lands with a soft plop at the swollen base of a cypress tree. The lure disappears into water the color of strong red tea. From the murky depths a fish takes the offering. A quick battle ensues which ends with a small but healthy looking chain pickerel thrashing from the hook.

The catch proved to be the only one of the day for this angler. Yet he positively beams in the early morning light of an unseasonably cool August day. Great blue heron keep pace with the canoe. Barred owls call their greeting from the tree tops. Fat water snakes slide into the water as he passes inches away. The occasional bellow of a bullfrog adds to the symphony of the swamp.

For Stanard, catching fish is secondary to the glory of spending time at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, 21,676 acres that include most of the state’s remaining bottomland hardwood swamp.

From his home in Poplar Bluff, Stanard is within striking distance of Current, Black and St. Francis rivers. Nearby Clearwater and Wappapello lakes probably offer better fishing odds. Yet on any given day you can find him paddling a battered aluminum canoe up the Mingo River.

“I absolutely love this place,” he says. “The swamps aren’t creepy to me. They are the most diverse environment we have. We are extremely fortunate to have Mingo in our backyard in southeast Missouri.”

From the overlook above Monopoly Marsh vistors can see where the “swampeast” lowlands meet the Ozark Plateau.

As a teenager Stanard, now 64, was fascinated by stories his grandfather and great uncle told of camping trips to the Mingo area, located near Puxico in Stoddard County.

Stanard recalls when roughly one-third of the area was bottomland hardwoods where the rivers overflowed to form swamps. Today that landscape is all gone, the trees logged off and the swamps drained to create valuable farmland. Where once cypress, black gum and giant oaks spread their canopies, corn, soybeans, milo and, increasingly, rice grows.

Mingo is the last of the great Bootheel swamps, the largest piece of swampland that remains in Missouri. “Once there was about 2.5 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest in the Bootheel,” says Kathy Burchett, Mingo’s refuge manager. “Now Mingo has about 15,000 acres in a contiguous tract and that’s it.”

Giant cypress trees attracted lumber companies that turned the area into the state’s most productive timber region.

Managing the complex web of life at Mingo falls on the shoulders of Refuge Manager Kathy Burchett. Her priorities include restoring the fish habitat on the refuge ditches and rebuilding the boardwalk, shown here in the background.

When the great trees were gone drainage districts formed to turn the area into farmland. The Mingo Drainage District spent more than $1 million to clear the area. But nature had different ideas. Mingo refused to drain, despite seven north-south ditches dug to channel water away. During the Depression the Mingo Drainage District went bankrupt.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought 21,676 acres of Mingo Swamp in 1945, the land was in terrible shape. Clear cutting, wildfires, overgrazing and the half-hearted efforts to drain the swamp had left it a burned and eroded wasteland.

Through careful management, much of the natural flora and fauna has been restored. After the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, residents of the area lobbied hard to get part of Mingo set aside as a wilderness. “Even though Mingo was protected in the form of a refuge it wasn’t managed from a preservationist standpoint,” says Stanard.

“They still harvested timber and there was pretty heavy ag use from leases. A small group of us saw an opportunity to further protect the true swamp area.”

It’s a rare trip to Mingo that doesn’t stir up dozens of the resident deer population. Deer, as well as turkey and quail, benefit from food plots planted by the Friends of Mingo Swamp.

Their efforts resulted in nearly 8,000 acres being set aside. Here no new roads can be built, no timber will be harvested and the area will return to a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” in the words of the Wilderness Act.

A trip through the refuge today reveals little of the past abuses, although the area will never be quite the same, thanks to a huge diversion channel that keeps the Castor River from overflowing into the swamp.

Fat deer stare back at visitors. Muskrat and otters play in the water. Wild turkey graze the food plots planted by the Friends of Mingo Swamp, a group formed to help the nine-member refuge staff. Thousands of birds — waterfowl like teal and ducks, snowy egrets, prehistoric looking great blue herons and even bald eagles — call the refuge home.

Mingo is one of the few places where swamp rabbits and alligator snapping turtles remain. Most prolific seem to be the snakes, some water moccasins but mostly fat water snakes that rest on fallen logs in the river.

Mingo is also home to thousands of unusual and even rare plants. The flora includes trees like cherry bark oak, flowering plants like spider lily and mallow, not to mention the countless cypress and tupelo trees. Three state record trees — Carolina buckthorn, devil’s walking stick and water locust — grow here.

Egrets frolic in one of the refuge’s “moist soil units,” areas of land that are drained and flooded to produce food plots for migratory birds.

About 18,000 years ago this land was underneath the Mississippi River. The river carved bluffs that today are the eastern edge of the Ozarks. When the river broke through Crowley’s Ridge south of Cape Girardeau it abandoned the old channel.

“You can literally have one foot in the swamp and the other one on the edge of the Ozark escarpment,” says Stanard. “Just in the matter of a hundred yards you can go from a cypress-tupelo swamp to an Ozark upland habitat with oak-hickory forest on it.”

Three distinct ecosystems come together at Mingo, and the result is an incredible diversity of plants and animals. “We call it a hidden gem,” Burchett says of the refuge. “I think the neat thing about Mingo is it’s not easy to find but when you find it you will never forget it. The lack of development has allowed it to remain a special and unique place.”

She says the refuge, served by Ozark Border Electric Co-op, gets 133,000 visitors a year. That’s from people. The numbers of waterfowl and other migratory species that find Mingo far outnumber human visitors. The migrants peak from late November to mid-December, depending on how cold it is in the north. By the time the snowbirds leave, it’s time for the spring migrants to return.

In the fall the snakes stage their own migration, moving from the swamps into the hills for hibernation. Some parts of the refuge are open to hunting, with a special muzzleloader and archery hunt for deer.

A boardwalk, recently rebuilt to be more handicap-accessible, takes visitors into the swamp to see firsthand what makes it so special. Several scenic overlooks equipped with spotting scopes let visitors bird watch.

Fishing is always popular, with Monopoly Marsh, the Mingo River and several small lakes available to anglers. More opportunities are coming thanks to the Friends of Mingo Swamp, which has already raised $22,000 to fund projects like butterfly gardens, benches, food plots and interpretive signs.

The exposed roots of a Cyprus tree emerging from the water is an unusual site usually found only in swamps like those at the Mingo refuge.

The manager has made cleaning out the ditches a priority, which should restore the massive crappie and bluegill locals remember taking from the refuge ditches. Another project will be the reintroduction of alligator gar, a rough fish that used to grow as long as 9 feet. Mingo will serve as a hatchery for the gar, which will then be released into the rivers.

While the refuge’s purpose has always been to provide habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds, opportunities abound for any outdoor enthusiast able to get past their fear of snakes.

“Mingo is special, it’s beautiful, it’s esthetically pleasing,” says Burchett. “Maybe out here you recognize how little we are. Man is part of the landscape and always will be but sometimes we need to go back to where we naturally fit.”

For more information call (573) 222-3589 or visit the refuge Web site at http://midwest.fws.gov/Mingo/index.html.

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