Last of the Bootheel Swamps
| 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.
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.
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.”
the overlook above Monopoly Marsh vistors can see where the “swampeast” lowlands
meet the Ozark Plateau.
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.
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,
manager. “Now Mingo has about 15,000 acres in a contiguous
tract and that’s
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
in one of the refuge’s “moist soil units,” areas
of land that are drained and flooded to produce food plots for
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.
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.”
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
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
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